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ITIL 3: executive validation for KM

This article appears in the issue February 2008 [Volume 17, Issue 2]
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Information technology is the nervous system of every enterprise. Supporting IT has matured from costly annoyance to major strategic component of corporate governance. There are objectively "right" and "wrong" ways to run IT. The broadly accepted right ways are called best practices.

For the last 17 years, the gold standard for best practice in IT service management (ITSM) has been a framework developed under the sponsorship of the Office of Government Commerce, an arm of the British government. The framework, called the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), consists of a set of scholarly books laying out the best practices. A substantial, worldwide cottage industry has arisen for consultancies and training organizations teaching ITIL, certifying its practitioners and helping thousands of organizations to adopt the ITIL processes.

In March 2007, ITIL saw the launch of the framework’s third major release. ITIL 3 significantly changes the scope of the framework. One important change directly affects those in IT with a stake in the knowledge management discipline.

KM frequently has established its first beachhead in organizations within IT and IT support. The concept is simple: Analysts at an IT help desk have access to one another’s trouble-shooting smarts through an interactive knowledgebase tied into the incident management or call management system they share. Thus, each analyst can handle a wider variety of issues competently, and all analysts will tend to resolve issues and restore users’ services faster, more accurately and at a lower total cost.

KM arguably has the potential to offer significant productivity gains beyond the service desk. Knowledge sharing enables more informed decision-making, and the people who provide and manage IT services make critical decisions constantly, about changes to the infrastructure, organization of projects and teams, adoption of new technologies, protection of IT assets from disaster or hacking, and other relatively strategic issues remote from routine, tactical PC support.

Success at this more strategic form of KM is riskier than it is in the more prosaic application in help desk trouble-shooting. It is easy to quantify the impact of better problem resolution on productivity over a period of time. Outside the service desk setting, productivity gains may be real, but will be harder to recognize as they happen.

ITIL 3 finally puts knowledge management on the IT executive’s map. It establishes a context for the management of institutional knowledge—transcending the everyday business of managing incidents, rooting out errors in the infrastructure and resolving recurring problems.

That is good for proponents of broad application of KM—especially process consultants. It is unclear what its impact will be on the current vendors of KM software tools, most of which are narrowly focused on problem resolution. Visionary vendors will find ways to build collaboration and community-building tools onto the ITSM platforms of their clients, and some of what works for problem resolution will have a place in the larger ITIL 3 context. Best positioned are the vendors of the ITSM platforms themselves, the largest of which already provide their own KM solutions.

ITIL 3 raises the profile of KM among executives who provide the sponsorship and funding for IT. For the first time, recognition of the strategic value of institutional knowledge is elevated to a fundamental best practice—at any rate, this is a first for KM within a framework that is widely adopted globally.

KM adoption is a significant undertaking. Its ultimate sponsor is likely to be someone remote from the actual processes in which it is going to be applied, and who may have little personal involvement in its implementation. The manager seeking that sponsorship must convince the executive that funding the KM project will provide a benefit to the business and reflect well on the sponsor. The existence of a widely adopted best practice supporting KM helps to make the case that there is a proven and documented "right way" to do KM, and that the proposed project has a high probability of success because best practice will be adopted.

ITIL refreshed

Earlier versions of ITIL described IT service management as a set of discrete processes. There are management processes for the support of the current IT infrastructure—"service support processes"—and processes for evolving the infrastructure as it grows in scale and complexity, and financing that evolution.

The framework describes the way information and responsibility flow from the service desk up through the various levels of specialized "owners" of the processes by which the IT infrastructure is built and nurtured.

Any interruption in service is an incident. The service desk is charged with resolving incidents and restoring service as quickly and completely as possible. Recurring incidents frequently stem from underlying problems—root causes that ITIL views as errors in the infrastructure. Problem management is a process (typically owned by someone outside the service desk) for diagnosing and permanently resolving problems (i.e., correcting errors in the infrastructure).

One of ITIL’s most ambitious prescriptions is that the IT assets of the enterprise assets be represented in a massive configuration management database (CMDB). Configuration items in the CMDB include the assets themselves (hardware, software, networks, etc.), as well as more conceptual objects such as services, documentation and the users who have rights to the assets. Many of the aforementioned errors in the infrastructure will be configuration errors; the CMDB makes those errors explicit.

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