Rethinking Service Management from the Ground Up

Real-World Service Management by Ivor Macfarlane

Is abstract value always the best starting point for an SM revision?

Service Management in Action

It’s become commonplace that service management is best implemented from the top down – beginning with a broad focus on value, and how best that value might be created or improved – and then gradually proceeding to the specifics of the implementation (the lowest level of details).

But although this is generally speaking a very good idea, there are times when it’s not a practical idea – at least, not without some flexibility.

How to explain? In the time-honoured tradition of someone with a complex idea to deliver, let me start with a story:

Imagine that the Great Wall of China is being built; thousands are toiling in the hot sun to create it. As always in such projects, some grand senior dignitary comes along to formally inspect the work, encouraging the ordinary workers by putting in a public appearance. (You can conceive of this guy as the ancient Chinese equivalent of Prince Charles.)

The first thing he sees is many men carrying bricks. All look identical; all are carrying the same quantity of bricks on identical brick carriers. Our dignitary stops one and asks “And what exactly do you do here?” Immediately the answer comes back: “Carrying bricks, sir.” This earns a friendly “Splendid fellow! Carry on.”

The next brick carrier passing by gets the same opening question, but this time the reply has a bigger perspective: “I’m helping to build the Wall, sir.” This earns a bigger smile and a grander phrase of encouragement: “Marvellous fellow! Do carry on.”

Encouraged, the dignitary stops yet another man laden with bricks and again opens with “And what exactly do you do here?” This time he gets a genuinely strategic answer: “I’m defending my country.” And the great one is almost apoplectic in his admiration, spluttering out how “Utterly wonderful!”

Stories of this sort condition us with a belief that seeing the big picture is the thing that really matters.

And this is certainly the way the service management frameworks are taking us – ITIL laid claim to Service Strategy in 2007 and told us we should all have our eyes on the horizon. Quite rightly, we recognise, like our royal Chinese friend, that seeing what we do in context is likely to make us do things more effectively.

This has now all but reached the status of motherhood and apple pie; no one is seriously going to argue against it as a principle.

The alternative would seem to be regressing to traditional IT: to wit, that lots of really good, skilled people are working their socks off to get better and better at delivering the wrong things. So the Great Wall of China is finished, and a splendid job has been done, but it turns out that in fact China needed... a Great House or maybe a wall but with gates in!

Even “best” practices can only be as good as your ability to implement them

Allow me to shock my readership by questioning this easy orthodoxy.

"Sometimes we also need a more pragmatic approach based on the faith that improving how we do things will also deliver business value... even if it is not easily, directly, or quickly demonstrable in quantitative business terms."

While it’s true that a value-centric, top-down, big-picture perspective is both useful and wise, it’s not always pragmatic. In some cases, circumstances can make it nearly impossible. You’ll also need, sometimes quite early, to consider specifics of some sort – not because that’s the best way to go about enhancing service management, but because, in such a case, it’s the only way.

I was reminded of this during a great discussion with a customer late last year.

As often happens, I had been wheeled in as the exotic1 expert (albeit neither Chinese nor a dignitary), there to encourage and extol.

So as usual, I talked about the need for a strategic perspective on services, the need to understand the customers’ requirements and environment, and, of course, the need to ensure delivery of real value!

And, again as usual, that took us into some key questions:

Who is your customer?
Do they know what they want? If they did would they tell you?
And even if you manage all that, how on earth do you measure it?

Typically, these are (relatively) easy questions to answer, especially in the manufacturing sector. If your organisation makes cars or some other essential, then it shouldn’t be too hard to articulate the goals: make good cars, as inexpensively as possible. It’s also not hard to see the role of IT and other supporting services in doing that, and even to measure it. Certainly it isn’t too hard to measure the damage caused when IT fails, and that is a great starting point in improving service management in such a case.

But this customer was very much public sector. Now, that happens to be my background and I have known for a long time that questions such as you see listed above are far harder to answer in the public sector.

Imagine, for instance, trying to articulate the goals of an army division in tidy, measurable business terms.

In extremis, the army is there to apply the most dramatic kind of force. If you are in a frontline war situation you can fairly easily establish and measure the direct IT contribution – modern warfare depends on information and communication, and the weapons are computer controlled nowadays.

Yet we all know armed forces serve other roles as well, such as acting as a deterrent for military combat. So we must also consider IT services that support those roles, such as the supply-chain management to fulfil the inventory needs of military bases in dozens of peaceful nations worldwide. This complicates our view of service management considerably.

Linking all IT services back to “business objectives,” for a public-sector area such as the military, is a very complex game. How much “value” is X service creating, compared to Y service? What is the profit/loss statement for an area like the military, in which profit and loss themselves have little conventional meaning? You can see that improving service management in such cases might demand a rather less orthodox perspective, and a similarly unorthodox implementation.

Sometimes we also need a more pragmatic approach based on the faith that improving how we do things will also deliver business value... even if it is not easily, directly, or quickly demonstrable in quantitative business terms.

If improving from the top down proves too hard, try improving from the bottom up as well

In the case of my public sector customer, we talked through the need for the bigger picture, and how to best engineer a mind-shift in staff attitude and staff culture. We talked about workshops and SM simulations and linking SM team objectives to business ones. These are all top-down approaches.

But we still had the question on the table: “What can we actually do now?”
At many organisations, answering that means relaxing a little on the big picture – and being willing to consider specific details and realities in mind, such as:

So, despite what they (well, OK, me too) might teach you in the ITIL foundation course, it is not just about high-level perspectives leading down to operational requirements. It is also about the reality of what you can do now.

Don’t forget the human angle of service management

Beyond business or IT terms, you can also consider this idea in human terms.

Let’s go back to those Chinese wall builders, and our assumption that the last one – the “defending my country” man – was essentially right, and that since he was the most praiseworthy, we want all wall builders to think like that.

This seems intuitively sound.

But what successful wall building (and many other tasks) requires is people who are happy to carry bricks, who see that as a valuable job. So managers who forget that, and try to turn all their staff into themselves, actually run the risk of reducing workforce effectiveness. Sometimes it is best to empower wall builders to do just that – build walls – by giving them suitable tools, and helping them deliver bricks to the right place.

In service management terms, that might be expressed as deploying software that improves incident management and change and configuration management.

I’ve spent years talking about the importance of seeing ITSM in its larger context – the context of the organisation as a whole and its services and mission statement. So you might imagine that, to me, it can feel depressing to find myself instead talking about better ways of handling incidents.

But actually we need to maintain both perspectives: high-level direction and low-level operational improvement. Perhaps sometimes that improvement needs to be readjusted after a strategic consideration, but that does not mean we shouldn’t do it.

Getting to the bright spot on the horizon is rarely as simple as creating and executing the perfect top-down strategy; bottom-up details will inevitably play a part and will demand time from you as well. If you’ve been tasked with draining a swamp, you will never succeed unless you come up with a way – for now, at least – of dealing with the hidden crocodiles.

¹Whatever you might think, regrettably this word really just means “foreign.”

About Ivor

After 23 years working for the UK government, moving from forestry to IT Service Management via prisons, stores and training, Ivor now works for IBM’s Tivoli organization helping customers understand and improve their Service Management. Ivor was an ITIL author (versions 1, 2 and 3), part of the panel that wrote BS15000 (fast-tracked to ISO/IEC 20000), an ITIL trainer and examiner since 1991 and active in itSMF since 1995, having spoken for them in 34 countries.

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