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January 8, 2018

Even if everything is up in the air – or the cloud – the business of managing information systems doesn’t change: Routine maintenance and major upgrades must be handled in a disciplined and comprehensive fashion and metrics must be employed to evaluate system performance and customer satisfaction.

The discipline of IT Service management (ITSM) applies no less when an organization outsources its information technology than when it manages them on its own. ITSM helps managers better understand user requirements for security, capacity and system availability and to build solutions to satisfy those needs.

The U.S. Air Force is a convert

Even as it prepares for a major shift to outsource as much of its IT services as possible, the Air Force is rolling forward with a major push to inculcate ITSM across the enterprise. Col. Paul Young, chief of the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Information Environment Integration, said the Air Force’s transition to an IT service model will provide two big benefits:

  • “One is it really opens the aperture on who we can use to provide these services,” Young said. “We don’t have to do it internally. We can explain it in a way that everybody understands and we can broaden their horizons in terms of who you can go to for service provisioning.”
  • The second “is that we get standard service delivery no matter who provides the service.” By establishing metrics and requirements up front, the Air Force can establish its own standard model and make those standards a requirement of any contract.

For the Air Force, the cloud and outsourcing co-exist with ITSM, which in various forms has become a standard for many commercial organizations. One common ITSM approach is the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a registered Axelos trademark, which was developed in the United Kingdom as an outgrowth of government ITSM implementations. Other ITSM frameworks include ISO20000,  FitSMCOBIT and the Microsoft Operations Framework.

ITIL is a framework of processes, approaches and capabilities used by many contractors as standard operating procedures, Young said. Because ITIL allows users to choose which elements to use in their own organizations in a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, way, it helps ensure the Air Force and its service suppliers are speaking the same language.

Standard metrics also help, ensuring provider and customer are on the same page when evaluating service performance.

The Air Force is less than a year into its enterprise-wide rollout of ITSM, with five internal groups substantially involved or touched by the implementation: SAF/CIO A6, Air Force Space Command, Air Force Network Integration Center, Air Force Life Cycle Management enter and the 24th Air Force. Officials said a sixth organization, the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center, established only a year ago, will also be involved.

The plan is to apply the ITSM framework to new initiatives first, then as the concepts are proven, incorporate them into legacy system management, as well, Young said. As with many challenges today, the implementation is more of a cultural change than a technical one, because it represents a new way to do things.

The approach boils down to splitting responsibility along clear lines: “We want to make the decision about which services are most important and how do they underpin the Air Force’s core mission,” Young said. “Let the provider make the technical decisions about how to meet our service requirement.”

Going to School

Ohio State University adopted ITSM and ITIL years ago for a system-wide approach to supporting its 120,000 students, faculty and staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The university’s experience was outlined recently in an Axelos case study.

Bob Gribben, director of service operations, said Ohio State does not require vendors to be ITIL certified, as some government agencies might do, but the university does like to see experience with ITSM frameworks.

Certification in any ITSM approach  helps ensure vendors employ recognized best practices and standards, Gribben noted.

“Knowing that this consultant works on the basis of the customer is first and I need to do things efficiently and effectively and economically – the three E’s – is kind of appealing, versus somebody who doesn’t have that,” he said.

Just knowing a vendor has invested in a framework instills confidence, Gribben added. “I think there is something to say about somebody who’s taken the time to get the certification to understand what ITSM involves – it doesn’t have to be ITIL, it could be any of them.”

That is the case whether the service in question is provided locally or in the cloud. Ohio State uses many cloud services, such as Box for storage and Office365 for productivity. The cloud solutions cut costs, he said.

Using ITSM helps define customer requirements and identify appropriate solutions, and as technology evolves, helps ensure that service provision can evolve with it. An email or streaming service can quickly shift from cutting edge a short time ago to outdated and expensive, lacking in capabilities and performance characteristics that are common in newer offerings.

With a service model, solutions can be continually refreshed and kept up-to-date.

Lessons learned

In Ohio State’s implementation, Gribben said his staff wanted a self-service portal to help solve user support challenges. The more those could be solved by individual users, the more time help desk specialists would have for more serious concerns.

“The Service Desk had for years been a part of the organization that customers did not want to work with,” Gribben told the case study authors. “We started with our immediate pain point, the Service Desk function and the Incident Management process. From there, we were able to see the benefits of adding Request and Change Management.”

They settled on developing a one-stop shop that could differentiate between user types. So users with Administrative Web Interface (AWI) accounts would see options designed for their level of access, while others — students, staff, online account managers, and so on – would see options tailored for them.

Then, using a combination of in-house and commercial tools, Ohio State built, tested and fielded the system. In nine months, user traffic topped 1 million visits, the system has never failed and feedback is consistently positive. It’s working, Gribben said, “pretty darn well!”

ITSM experience has taught Gribben the importance of ensuring the right people are on each team and that teams are properly sized for each project. In one case at Ohio State, having too large a team slowed down development time; a single tool took six months to develop because there were too many cooks in the kitchen, Gribben said.

But too few people can also be a problem, Gribben said: “Usually, if you get too small a team, the person sitting next to you has the same idea you do.”

A second critical lesson is ITIL’s service-centered mentality. The customer always comes first. IT supports the mission, and needs to flex to mission needs, not the other way around. For some organizations, that may require a cultural shift, Gribben said.

Similarly, ITSM may also require a whole new way to approach a project, says John Gilmore, director, IT services and solutions and ITSM subject matter expert at General Dynamics Information Technology. It’s important to begin with the end goal, such as the service one needs and the way to measure its effectiveness, rather than the conventional starting point, which often focuses on available infrastructure or tools.

By starting with desired outcomes and working backwards, teams can determine how to reach mission objectives based on the current state, Gilmore said. After that, deciding the way forward becomes easier.

The Marine Corps specified ITSM when launching its Marine Corps Enterprise Information Technology Services (MCEITS) environment. The program involves bringing hundreds of applications and processes in house, and developing a new organization and culture to manage it. General Dynamics Information Technology successfully managed the transition.

“MCEITS represents a transition from a contractor owned/contractor operated environment to a government owned/contractor supported environment and, ultimately, to a government owned/government operated environment,” Gilmore said.

“The Marines quickly realized that a critical element of transition success relies on ITSM best practices through the integration and maturation of processes, tools, and personnel,” he said. That, in turn, gave birth to the Enterprise IT Service Management (EITSM) efforts to establish a foundation for global IT management.

“Communications with all the stakeholders is extremely important,” he said. “We first performed a global current-state assessment that involved reviewing strategic plans and end-state objectives to develop an ITSM implementation roadmap.  Our approach also included daily communications with key stakeholders, weekly and monthly status reports and a comprehensive communications and training program in support of customized processes and supporting tools.”

Keeping focused on the end-goals, reviewing progress, making necessary adjustments and communicating progress are all critical to ITSM implementation. Also critical: making sure end users – and not just system owners and managers – are informed along the way.

Users are focused on the the end product, not the process used to make it, said the Air Force’s Young. They may not care whether a drill, saw or some other tool is used to cut a hole in a piece of wood.

What’s important is the outcome, Young said, extending the woodworking analogy.  “Always remember that what the customer cares about is getting a hole that’s a half inch across.”