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American ITIL

The British blockbuster finally finds an American audience.

Deep in the heartland of America an experiment is under way. The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a set of best practices for IT service management, has begun to take root in the United States. Popularized in Britain more than 10 years ago, ITIL is only now getting noticed in the United States. Widespread implementation is a ways off, but if what is happening in Oklahoma City and other test beds flourishes, ITIL may well become the standard by which all IT operates.

When looking for a standardized technology framework, Oklahoma City IT director Mark Meier found that ITIL principles best matched the city's needs.

"I took over IT about three and a half years ago, and there was virtually no governance," recalls Meier. "I think we were typical of most organizations -- our performance was pretty abject. We had more than 200 hours of enterprise downtime a year. So we looked at ITIL because it adopted a lot of the philosophies we had engendered into our department."

Meier found that not only was ITIL an interpretive set of best practices, but that successful implementation also demands ITIL be interpreted based on the organization.

"I will tell you that for ITIL to be effective, you have to interpret it," said Meier. "I hear people say they are going to do it literally and I think that is a mistake. I think everybody's organizational needs are completely different."

Like most government organizations, Oklahoma City recently faced some tough times. IT lost 26 percent of its staff, while city leaders were demanding a rapid increase in performance. Meier said implementing and interpreting ITIL is playing a significant role in meeting the city's needs.

"The combination of ITIL, executive support and a good understanding of technology have really reversed our situation. Our output has gone up at least 300 percent, and our downtime has gone from 200 hours per year to 7.42 hours. I would not attribute all these things to ITIL, but it was certainly part of the overall effort."

Meier and his staff are some of America's early ITIL fans. So where, exactly, did this compilation of IT management techniques come from?

What Is It and Why Is It Here?
The 1980s were a time of radical change throughout the world. People throwing off the shackles of oppression will be forever immortalized by the now dismantled Berlin Wall. As communism gave way and freedom began to rise in Eastern Europe, another kind of revolution was under way in the United Kingdom.

Under the direction of the Thatcher administration, a Cabinet-level organization known as the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) began addressing the costly IT failings Britain seemed wont to suffer. As the iron curtain began to fall, the CCTA was aware that IT was about to rise and become a more critical element than it had ever been before.

At the outset, the CCTA's goal was to create a framework to help improve IT service delivery. CCTA examined the concepts and methods of leading IT agencies in both the commercial and government sectors. The project soon evolved from merely a service delivery framework to an entire set of IT best practices.

In the late 1980s, with their collective information gleaned from sources around the world, the CCTA published a set of books and called it the IT Information Library, or ITIL. There were 10 books total, each with its own discipline. The concepts of service delivery and service support, however, were the overarching themes throughout the books.

In the early 1990s, the UK and the Netherlands developed the IT Service Management Forum (itSMF) with the goal of spreading the good news of ITIL. Through locally managed meetings, itSMF helped ITIL make headway in much of Europe. In fact, it began to gain such popularity that the UK and the Netherlands each created their own ITIL certification program.

By the year 2000, the CCTA had been replaced by the UK Office of Government Commerce (OGC), a new version of ITIL was nearing completion, and virtually everyone in western business and government were rapidly implementing ITIL. Everyone, that is, except the United States.

Coming to America
While the rest of the world began to term ITIL the de facto standard for IT service management, most people in the United States had never even heard of it. In general, American IT was still the golden goose that could do no wrong, despite oftentimes failing to produce any measurable results.

Rob Roy is an ITIL consultant and one of only a handful of Americans certified an ITIL "master." Until very recently, he said, companies and the government were extremely reluctant to force IT to produce.

"The IT department saved the world with Y2K," Roy said. "They did such a good job, people thought the whole thing was smoke and mirrors. Then in 2001, we had an economic downturn and business was looking for places to cut. For years IT had been the fat cow. Well, people started asking, 'What have you produced? What is a cost-benefit analysis?' IT couldn't answer -- so they started to get cut. So IT had to find ways of doing with less but producing more -- the same thing every other department has had to worry about."

Doing more with less -- the age-old paradox that is foisted upon business and government in times of famine. ITIL offers IT organizations a way to manage that paradox. In fact, ITIL can help IT departments do substantially more than most would believe, which is why, over the last three or four years, ITIL has started to catch on in the United States. However, the United States has a long way to go to catch up.

"I've been working with ITIL for about six years, which is about five and a half years longer than most folks," said Roy. "I took my foundation class in Quebec, and I was the only American in the class."

Roy said he thinks some good old-fashioned American pride played a part in ITIL's slow acceptance in the United States.

"I think it has taken so long to catch on here because we didn't invent it. It's been going full-guns in England for 10 years as in the Netherlands. Most of Europe, too. We're about the last holdout."

Others have provided more analytical reasons as to why ITIL and America are really just now meeting one another. Ken Hamilton, past president of itSMF USA and director of IT Service Management Global Education at HP, said that cultural differences might be to blame.

"Europe tends to be a qualitative environment," he explained. "Process improvement in terms of the quality of service delivered, these sorts of metrics were more popular in Europe -- whereas in the United States, cost savings, return on investment, hard-dollar savings were the primary drivers. In the United States, we needed to have large, visible organizations go through at least one iteration of a life cycle of ITIL process deployment to show it could be done successfully and there were quantitative returns on investments."

A number of companies, such as HP, IBM, Procter & Gamble and DHL are investing heavily in ITIL. At the same time, a number of government agencies are beginning their own ITIL experiments. From Oklahoma City at the local level to Virginia and Wisconsin at the state level, American government is finally starting to notice this surprisingly simple solution.

Reinventing the Wheel
Along with a timely conflux of circumstances, ITIL is helping American IT realize that for 40 years, there has never been any kind of functional set of best practices for IT. To think about it in those terms is staggering. There are best practices for food service, mechanics, retail, writers, lawyers, doctors -- almost every industry has an agreed-upon set of best practices -- every industry, that is, except the very industry that keeps all others functioning.

Randy Steinberg is an ITIL master determined to get the message out. He is currently authoring a book about ITIL and is amazed by the fact that IT has no best practice standard.

"When you look at the IT industry, when it comes to the science of managing technology, there are extremely little amounts of knowledge out there on a formal basis," he said. "If you walk into bookstores -- and I've done this worldwide -- the best I've found is Charing Cross Road in London ... there are maybe five books on the shelf that deal with infrastructure management. Here in the United States, you might find one or two at Borders or Barnes & Noble."

Steinberg said that the present IT education system needs serious improvement.

"You can't really find courses on IT management in colleges, yet it is so critical. Gartner [research and analysis group] came out with a statistic that said six in 10 IT projects fail because people underestimate or fail to build correct infrastructures to support the projects."

The great irony of ITIL is that many of its principles already are being implemented by IT shops. The set of best practices that make up ITIL are not some unknown, revolutionary ideas. Instead, ITIL is merely a framework that organizes numerous best practices into a sensible, functional order.

"ITIL was organized by the British government," Roy said. "They stole ideas left and right to make it. In fact, large parts of ITIL were originally developed in this country. The CCTA sat down and looked worldwide at IT to see who is doing well and what they are doing -- and they just took all these ideas and put them together."

That account may seem like an oversimplification, but it isn't. The fact is most IT shops consistently use large portions of ITIL without even realizing it. The trouble has been that, prior to ITIL, no one connected the dots. What ITIL does is connect the dots and apply them to the concept of service management for IT.

Service management is the idea that IT departments should work to support the overall goals of an organization. Instead of existing as a problem solving entity, service management teaches IT shops how they can help advance an organization's mission by focusing primarily on two subconcepts -- service support and service delivery -- with metrics included to measure all areas of performance.

Today, most government agencies struggle to improve constituent service while maintaining a healthy bottom line. As it happens, ITIL just might be the too-good-to-be-true solution that delivers.

Gaining Ground in Government
Across the country, ITIL is quickly becoming the topic du jour in government IT. More people are learning of the benefits ITIL offers, and some are already crafting models that may very well lead the rest of the country into an ITIL revolution.

Among the American ITIL pioneers, Virginia and Wisconsin are blazing a trail at the state level. ITIL is vastly interpretive and entirely scalable, both of which are great attributes. Because of those attributes, the principles of ITIL can work equally well in Nome, Alaska, and for the whole federal government.

In Virginia, the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA) is implementing ITIL with tremendous success. Director of customer support services Chris Saneda said ITIL is an excellent addition to VITA.

"We are applying ITIL as a component of a larger program we call Operation Excellence," he said. "ITIL really brings a common set of languages, structures and guidelines. We are using those as a starting point and adapting them to meet our needs. It allows us to ensure that all of our practices and procedures are in line with best practices from an infrastructure standpoint."

Created in 2003 by the General Assembly, VITA has taken the IT shops of 90 executive-branch agencies and collapsed them into a single IT organization. Now, with all these disparate agencies operating under one umbrella, VITA was looking for a way to standardize.

"What really drew us to ITIL was that it is an existing set of best practices," said Saneda. "ITIL makes things visible to us in terms of incident management. We have a single point of contact, which is a best practice of ITIL. That point of contact follows up with every call they receive to ensure that the problem has been resolved to the customer's satisfaction. I'm not sure it's unique, but it is a best practice we've implemented here. And it's taken over our help desk and improved it tremendously. I think customers see a tremendous turnaround in our practices."

Saneda and others are finding that ITIL is renewing the focus on serving customers needs. The consolidation movement sweeping the nation would be utterly pointless if it didn't improve the functions of an organization. And in government, the primary function is serving the public.

"These processes should be bringing value to the customer," said Saneda. "That is the big focus of ITIL. Becoming customer-centric is something that ITIL can help you achieve."

Matt Miszewski agrees. As CIO for Wisconsin, Miszewski is all too aware that the help desk, or as ITIL recommends, "service desk" is often at the front lines when it comes to government interaction with customers.

"The service desk is the place where the rubber meets the road," said Miszewski. "As you start to build up your knowledge base of problems and incidents, service becomes better, then users become happier."

As part of the state's Shared Information Services Initiative, Miszewski said ITIL merges very well with the goal of consolidating IT infrastructure and the overall goal of better customer service.

"We made a promise to our business owners that this consolidation would not just mean lower prices but better service," said Miszewski. "ITIL gives us a way to deliver on that promise. And instead of being a radical change, ITIL is much more of a nod to the things we were doing right and understanding we can always improve those things. We found that we were doing about 70 percent of the management best practices in ITIL, but we just weren't doing them in a cohesive way."

Miszewski believes the current drive toward open source interoperability is facilitating the sudden interest in ITIL, and that ITIL implementation will propel the movement.

"From an end-user perspective, the speed to incident resolution has got to be one of the key reasons why ITIL is starting to catch on," said Miszewski. "ITIL makes sense. It doesn't cost anything [other than the books] and increases customer service, which is great for everyone. We're leading the charge. If it starts in IT and works well, we could save a lot of money."

Coming Soon
As Virginia, Wisconsin, Oklahoma City and others are proving, ITIL is here to stay. In fact, it may soon be doing much more than that. It has been the de facto world standard for service management and may soon be given an official title.

"ITIL is being promoted as the international standard," said Hamilton, who forecasted that itSMF will soon succeed in designating ITIL as the international standard. "It is currently being fast-tracked. It is projected to be ratified, if things go well, sometime in 2006. In addition, we're working on ITIL 3.0, doing an update to the library for the 2006 time frame."

While still in its infancy in the United States, ITIL is heralded by its champions as the only way for IT to survive. With fewer than 1,000 Americans certified ITIL masters, it has a long way to go before it becomes widely accepted.

ITIL is almost certain to become the method for operating IT in the future. Aside from the books, ITIL is free, it's scalable, it saves money and it's interpretive. For those reasons, every organization -- both public and private -- should be clamoring to understand the best practices of ITIL.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for ITIL is the simplest. As Roy said, "ITIL is the most uncommon thing in IT: It is common sense."
Chad Vander Veen is a former contributing editor for Emergency Management magazine, and previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.