Commercializing ITIL Weakens IT Service Management

Like most good things, the development of IT service management (ITSM) processes was born out of necessity. Back in the early 1960s the computer started moving out of the lab and into the heart of mainstream business. Back then only the largest and wealthiest firms could justify having a computer due to the immense costs associated with purchasing, maintaining and operating these behemoths.

These early computers were as finicky as they were expensive. The hardware, operating systems and programs of the time were still in their infancy and “uptime” was measured in hours. The business, which was footing the bill for these systems, was becoming ever more dependent upon these machines and started demanding a better return on their investment (and they haven’t stopped since).

The shear volume of outages demanded that a methodology be developed for managing incidents, getting to the root cause of problems and for mitigating the impact of making changes to the system. And thus an entire industry was born. Enterprise Systems Management or as it is now known, IT Service Management evolved to meet this challenge. This multi-billion dollar industry launched a whole suite of jobs, processes and tools all designed to improve the reliability, availability and serviceability of the computing environment.

And it worked! The people, process and technology helped nurture computing from its infancy to a mature adult where data centers became fully automated “lights out” environments with “uptime” measured at 99.999%.Most of this happened before ITIL was even conceived.

As most of the readers know ITIL was first published in 1989 by UK government’s Central Computer & Telecommunication Agency (CCTA). Like all good work it stood on the shoulders of those who came before―it didn’t actually invent the processes―but it collected the best practices already in place and documented them into a framework all could freely access.

Access to these best practices was becoming increasingly important due to another development in the IT industry, the introduction of distributed computing. By the early 1990s the mainframe environment could be described as the mature, reliable and boring “grown-up” of the IT industry. The mainframe got the job done but with it was a degree of bureaucracy that the business had to accept. Things changed radically when distributed computing burst onto the scene.

Distributed Computing

Distributed computing was everything the mainframe wasn’t. It was fast, bold, exciting and promised lower costs and faster implementation times. Distributed computing was a young rebel; and a rallying cry against the stodginess and bureaucracy of the mainframe. It was the latest celebrity. Well, celebrity has a way of fading. We quickly learned that while distributed computing had a lot of promise it was still very immature. There were very few tools to manage the environment and the support processes developed in the mainframe era were viewed as old fashioned and as roadblocks to getting the job done.

George Santayana once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Well, the IT industry not only forgot its past, but it went out of its way to ignore it. Support costs for distributed computing skyrocketed. Without the right tools and processes, the people costs went through the roof as duplicate IT departments were formed to manage this new environment.

Once again, out of necessity, the IT industry responded. New support tools were developed, organizational structures were rationalized and once again process was in vogue. Except now, we were able to leverage the documented frameworks such as IBM’s IT Process Model, HP’s ITSM model, Microsoft’s MOF and, of course, ITIL.

ITIL’s role in communicating the value of process to a new generation of IT professionals cannot be ignored. The fact that we now speak a common service management language has helped the industry pull together in a common direction. The fact that vendors have developed tools that can support and automate the processes has helped improve efficiency while reducing support costs. Now that senior management are aware of ITIL, well, this is both good and bad, but more on that later.

ITIL Backlash

So, how can I say that ITIL’s success may result in a backlash against ITSM? Because I believe that ITIL is turning its back on the past. This public domain collection of best practices built by dedicated volunteers is now on the fast track to becoming an overly commercialized, complex, bureaucratic and expensive endeavor.

This may sound hypocritical coming from someone who is an ITSM advocate and a partner in a consulting and training company that leverages ITIL best practices. But it’s my very passion for service management that is at the root of my argument. I have learned over my 30 years in IT that it’s fairly easy to design a process or buy a tool. If you want success in ITSM you have to do the hard work.

It’s not enough to design an incident management process and install a tool to support it. You need the dedication and governance to make sure people understand why they have to enter an incident; that they enter the right information into the incident record; and that someone uses the information for continual improvement. The same could be said for any of the ITIL processes.