Dr. Mauricio Corona
For more than twenty years, the technical service and support industry has been trying to arrive at a common understanding of IT/business alignment. But why is this subject so important? Well, IT/business alignment has long been seen as one of the keys to synching IT’s goals with the business’s goals, and recent studies have found that there’s a positive correlation between IT/business alignment and competitive advantage. Thus, it’s imperative that organizations pursue and achieve a high level of maturity with regard to IT/business alignment.
Directly or indirectly, all business process are enabled by technology. While this is a tremendous responsibility, it’s not just about enabling business processes. What really matters is providing quality services that can be measured and tracked. Support organizations must be able to prove that a given process is effectively and reliably supporting a specific business process or outcome. Without this hard data, organizations can’t substantiate claims about the value their services provide.
In the pursuit of IT/business alignment, organizations have turned to ITIL. In this article, I will share the results of a study I conducted on IT/business alignment, service level management, incident management, and the service desk.
Purpose and Premise
The purpose of my study was to find out if there was any kind of correlation between the maturity of certain ITIL processes and the maturity of specific alignment variables. Forty-one organizations from six industries (finance, higher education, oil/gas/energy, outsourcing, government, and telecommunications) participated in the assessment, taking a series of surveys that provided a snapshot of each organization’s maturity at the time of the study (not to be confused with the Capability Maturity Model). These surveys—twelve, in total—were based on the ITIL framework and Jerry Luftman’s strategic alignment model. The main dimensions/variables, adapted from Luftman’s model, were communication, business value, governance, business relationship management, IT architecture, and staff skills.
Communications: Are people communicating (i.e., exchanging ideas) in a way that provides a clear understanding of what it takes to successfully develop and achieve a strategy?
Business value: What is the relationship between the needs and expectations of shareholders and stakeholders, including C-level executives?
Governance: Are the frameworks, principles and policies, structures, processes and practices, information, skills, culture, ethics, and behaviors that set direction and monitor compliance and performance aligned with the business’s overall purpose and objectives?
Business relationship management: What is the nature of the relationship between the business and the IT organization? BRM is the organization’s primary source of information about customers’ business activities. It also establishes strategic and tactical links between service providers and their customers.
IT architecture: To what extent is the IT organization able to go from the back office to the front office? Support a flexible infrastructure that is transparent to all business partners and customers? Evaluate and apply emerging technologies effectively? Enable or drive business processes and strategies as true standards? Provide customized solutions?
Staff skills: What are the relevant HR considerations (e.g., hiring and firing, motivating, training and educating, building a culture)?
While my study addressed many of the major ITIL processes—financial management, availability management, service continuity management, capacity management, problem management, change management, release and deployment management, service asset and configuration management, incident management, service level management, and the service desk function—in this article, we’re only going to focus on the last three.
Service level management: This process is responsible for defining and agreeing on, in a consistent manner, the service level requirements for new or changed services, as well as monitoring, measuring, and producing reports. It ensures that the delivery of all current and planned IT services meets agreed-upon, achievable targets.
Incident management: This process is responsible for restoring degraded or disrupted services as quickly as possible in order to minimize any adverse impact on the business, as well as maintaining agreed-upon levels of service quality.
Service desk: Unlike service level management and incident management, the service desk isn’t a process. It’s a team or group of people and the tools or resources they use to carry out support activities. The service desk is the single point of contact for employees and/or customers, and it both handles/escalates incidents and executes the activities related to the restoration of service or fulfillment of requests.
Service Level Management
When all the survey results were tabulated and analyzed (using several statistical methods), service level management correlated with the following alignment variables: business value, government, business relationship management, and communication. Since this process is responsible for maintaining and improving the quality of IT services, it makes sense that questions about agreements, monitoring, reporting, customer interaction, and the activities required to provide quality service are the best tools for gauging the maturity of service level management.
Cost justification, in the context of the definition, monitoring, and improvement of services, is directly correlated with business value. If the business isn’t getting what it needs out of a service, quickly and cost efficiently, it won’t see the value. In terms of governance, as long as the service level manager understands the business’s control and performance needs, governance will help the business fulfill its obligations to its shareholders and external parties. Finally, service level management, communication, and business relationship management are interconnected in the sense that all three variables help create and maintain a good relationship between the support organization and its customers and the company and its stakeholders.
Service level management is the variable with the greatest influence on IT/business alignment dimensions. However, it doesn’t cover all of the alignment dimensions. Organizations that are focusing their efforts on implementing and adapting only operational processes related to service level management may be wasting time and resources.
The results for incident management were somewhat surprising, as incident management is often seen as a purely operational process that, on its own, has little to no effect on IT/business alignment. However, the data showed a consistently correlation between incident management and both communication and business value.
It’s clear from the data that incident management isn’t just an operational process; the activities related to the restoration of service are more tactical and strategic than we previously thought. And when you think about it, that makes sense. Minimizing the adverse impact of a service disruption is part of maintaining the quality and availability of a service, and it contributes to the business’s perception of a service’s value and, by extension, the support organization’s value. In terms of communication, failure to communicate the steps in an incident’s resolution compounds a customer’s anger or dissatisfaction with service degradation or disruption. Even when things have gone wrong, IT organizations can still show their value by properly executing incident management activities, and support organizations that show higher maturity in incident management are typically better aligned with their businesses.
The service desk, by definition, is the group responsible for incident management. It should come as no surprise, then, that the service desk shares most of the same correlations with incident management, with the addition of business relationship management. However, while the maturity of a support organization’s incident management process is a fair indicator of the overall maturity of the service desk, the service desk’s maturity also depends on the maturity of its people and technology resources and the quality of its internal processes and procedures, including those that govern the consistent execution of the incident management process.
The correlations for the service desk essentially confirm what most organizations assume to be a central tenet of technical service and support: If you want to have a good relationship with your customers, both internal and external, you must have a great service desk team, one that has the right skills, the right resources, and the right capabilities.
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Based on my research, there are four things support organizations need to stop doing if they want to achieve true IT/business alignment. First, they need to stop thinking that everyone feels the same way about the role of service level management; service level management showed four positive correlations, giving it the strongest overall effect on alignment. Second, they need to stop seeing incident management as an operational process that doesn’t promote alignment. Third, they need to stop seeing the service desk as a less experienced function than other lines of support. Fourth, and most importantly, they need to stop seeing the ITIL framework, in its entirety, as the Holy Grail of IT/business alignment. Focus the service desk’s efforts on incident and service level management—these two processes pack the biggest punch!
Dr. Mauricio Corona is an experienced IT and ITSM professional. He is currently the associate director of BP Gurus, which operates in Mexico and Latin America. Mauricio has delivered training courses around the world, and he teaches graduate-level courses in ITSM, risk management, and project management at several universities in Mexico. He received his PhD in business administration from La Salle University, where his research focused on the adoption of ITIL processes and their effect on strategic IT/business alignment. In addition to his PhD, Mauricio holds nineteen ITIL certifications as well as certifications in different levels of ISO 20000, ISO 27000, COBIT, PRINCE2, and MCP.