Finding the Missing Link between IT and the Enterprise

Given the current economic environment, IT professionals need to look beyond the historical boundaries of what their responsibilities are and be more oriented to what is truly of interest to their customers. If the current thinking in your organization has applications, infrastructure, storage and other technology components as key elements for interacting with your customers, consider this a wake-up call.

Okay, you say, given that this is what most IT organizations have been doing for many years, why is a “wake-up call” required? If the current thinking above describes your organization, it’s almost guaranteed that your activities don’t directly translate into tangible customer value. This a key point, because it’s what drives funding and support from the organizations and end user customers that are being served.

It’s time to get interested in those things that help us understand how we can translate customers needs and wants into tangible opportunities to provide value. One of the key tools we can use to accomplish this is the (often misunderstood and under-appreciated) vital mission activity (VMA). With all of the discussions about cloud computing, IT professionals need to be watching and preparing for major changes in consumption and provisioning models. Why? The changes that drive cloud computing conversations will be built around your customer’s perception of value. Smart IT organizations can use this to their advantage, but not without a little up front work.

VMA defined

In the Universal Service Management Body of Knowledge (USMBOK), a VMA is defined as “[A]n activity performed by an end user using services to achieve the desired results of the organization they work on behalf of.” VMAs are part of the performance management framework (PMF), shown in Fig. 1 .

The PMF ensures that measures are aligned from the highest level of customer goals and objectives all the way down into the lowest layer of technology that enables IT organizations to effectively function as a provider of services. If you have proper measures defined and employed, you should be able to start at any level in the framework and walk either direction to understand what that measure is related to and its importance. The dashed line to the right of the individual measures shows which sets of measures are customer visible and provider visible. This gives us our first indication as to the importance of the VMA.

Historically, many IT organizations split this framework into two parts: the things the organization finds important and the things that IT finds important. The general thinking is to manage the interaction between these two halves through the creation and enforcement of service level agreements (SLA), but in practice this tends to break down rapidly. Why? Let’s have a look.

Linkages to the service provider – More often than not, when crafting SLAs, IT organizations tend to focus on a subset of the elements that need to be considered. The areas of emphasis tend to be aspects of the underlying technology/delivery infrastructure being used to support a specific application. This can manifest itself in many different ways, for example:

  • Providing different levels of service (Gold, Silver, Bronze, etc.) that are primarily distinguished by technical criteria (tier/type of storage, bandwidth, processor utilization, memory usage, etc.);
  • Determining service uptime based upon infrastructure availability metrics;
  • Trying to establish performance assurance objectives based upon individual page or transaction times.

In a very real sense, what we often end up with this type of SLA is little more than a service metric or service configuration agreement. It’s not that a service provider shouldn’t pay attention to these metrics, but it’s not where one should start either. Unto themselves, these metrics are practically meaningless to a customer because they are not technology experts and they don’t have the context needed (nor do they care). As a result, they end up with a pseudo-answer; an answer which, from a technology perspective, is technically correct, but provides little or no value.

After all, that’s part of why the IT organization exists in the first place — to help translate the customer’s needs and wants into requirements that can drive the delivery of services needed to fulfill their VMAs.

All activities are not created equal – In fact, even for a small organization, it’s likely that the raw number of activities can number in the thousands! Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that all of those thousands of activities are VMAs. Indeed, part of the actions that the IT organization needs to take is to gain a better understanding of what the user of the service is actually doing and which identify which of those activities are VMAs. Often times, many of the other activities are either supporting or related activities, capable of being organized and cascaded, just as the other measures in the PMF.

Linkages to the customer – At the top of the PMF sit three measures: Key Result Area (KRA); Key Performance Indicator (KPI); and Key Performance Target (KPT).

These metrics provide us with the contextual foundation to properly understand the importance of VMAs because, by definition, a VMA has a direct relationship with a key performance target. If a customer is unable to execute a VMA, the associated cascade up is in jeopardy. Until we can establish this connectivity, we have little guidance on exactly how important a given VMA is to a user or what the impact is if they are no longer able to execute it. As a result, having good visibility into these higher level measures is critical for establishing the foundation to properly evaluate a customer’s needs and wants and translate these into meaningful requirements for a service.

Connecting the customer and provider views – By conducting a rigorous examination of the customer-oriented measures, IT will be in a better position to understand the factors that drive their customer’s behavior. Such understanding directly translates into which activities that customers execute are vital to the organization and which are not. This understanding will help the IT organization synchronize the customer and service provider views and help the IT organization provide better guidance and service delivery options to their customer.

Those organizations that do this work will find themselves better able to craft Service Level Agreements that are both fitting and responsive to a customer’s needs for a given VMA. Not only will the customer be more satisfied, but it will also help the provider find new options and more cost effective ways of targeting the right mix of service capacity, quality and performance that fit with those VMAs.

While many providers may not think that “it’s my job” to understand these customer metrics, any organization that hopes to be successful in the coming years, will make it their job and aggressively pursue a customer-centric orientation. Engaging your customers to discover their VMAs can be both a valuable and fun place to start.

In his current role as a managing partner at Engaged Consulting, Mr. Gonzalez is accountable for a wide range of activities that include such critical areas as internal business operations, business and partner development, new service definition and development, to actual customer-facing service delivery and engagement management. In addition to his primary job, Mr. Gonzalez also currently serves as VP of the not-for-profit Service Management Society, Inc. (SM-S). Prior to his current role, Mr. Gonzalez most recently served as Product Team Leader for Data Center Solutions at Symantec.