IT entropy in reverse: ITSM and integrated software

Why am I an IT professional? Here’s one major compelling reason: you simply can’t rest on your laurels. You can’t stop learning and growing and examining and improving, in all aspects, or you stagnate and die. The best IT professionals, I’m convinced, work energetically and on an ongoing basis, actively striving to push the scales from their own eyes at every juncture. It’s part of the job.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend what was my first industry conference in almost 8 years, Knowledge12, put on by ServiceNow, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider of IT service management (ITSM) software. (See my post explaining why I’ve tended to avoid industry conferences in recent years). And to my surprise and delight, I discovered that it was well worth the time. Let me share my thoughts on why.

It won’t be a shocker to point out that our industry moves fast. ServiceNow has been on the horizon only since about 2005 (when it signed its first paying customer), and has achieved major traction really only in the last several years. Roughly 2,000 people attended Knowledge12, up more than double the attendance of the previous year.

Most IT professionals have some notion of the term ITSM (Information Technology Service Management), but as with so many abstract notions, it means different things to different people. For me, I had been interested in and experienced in the practice of most core aspects of ITSM for many years now, but had never fully considered the benefits of using an integrated approach to it (i.e., a generalized ITSM software tool). In part, that’s because affordable, viable such solutions really weren’t out there until relatively recently.

In fact, my newfound awareness of ServiceNow as an ITSM platform is a great example of how the CIO today absolutely has to stay on top of new industry developments. What worked 5 years ago may still work fine, but also may no longer be the best, most cost-effective, most leverageable choice. As one CEO I worked for was fond of saying, “The solutions of yesterday are the problems of today.”

Back in the late 90s, for example, I worked with a company that had a crackerjack programmer, barely out of high school, who had whipped up an incredible IT trouble ticketing system, completely on his own. It sent email notifications, incorporated workflow and escalations, kept everyone on the ticket informed, and even accumulated metrics. The programmer, as well as everyone else in the IT department, was justifiably proud of this system. I pinged my contacts at that company last week, wondering if the system were still in use, and sure enough: it lives on. Is that a good idea? Maybe, but maybe not. Fortunately for that company, the original (brilliant) programmer is still on staff. Many companies that have invested heavily in a homegrown system aren’t so lucky.

That’s just one example. Companies quite often use these kinds of homegrown or individual fragmented products for most of their disparate IT needs. Why, then, should they consider moving to an integrated approach with respect to their IT management tools? As Charles T. Betz pointed out in his coverage of last year’s conference, “ServiceNow’s integrated architecture provides a necessary precondition for starting to solve such problems. Projects, incidents, service requests, and other forms of work are all managed in one system, and the project and portfolio management session demonstrated the potential for a ‘universal queue’ bringing all demand together.”

There are a number of (now, to me) fairly obvious advantages of this kind of integrated architecture:

  • It’s enabling IT to move up the value chain, towards a higher level of abstraction
  • It’s leveraging best practices and achieving synergies among them
  • It’s moving towards standards and away from a fragmented reinvention of the wheel
  • It’s providing the advantage of “one throat to choke” by reducing vendors and complexity
  • It’s dispensing with (or combining) administrivial aspects of IT to let you focus on functional needs
  • It’s ERP for IT. What’s that mean? integration, standardization, workflow, traceability.

At heart, then, it’s doing a lot of the things that a savvy modern-day CIO needs to be doing, in other words. If you’re like the IT department at many of the companies I work with (large and small), chances are you’re still bolting your trouble ticketing system onto a separate PPM system, or painstakingly pulling information out of your bug tracking system to do release management, or running separate wiki and documentation systems and perhaps a knowledge base or an asset management package. Maybe you’re doing all of those. And maybe you have a crackerjack team that makes it all seem easy and work seamlessly. But WHY? Meanwhile, you’re doubtlessly reading the countless articles in the industry press that are telling you to shift your spending away from the ongoing maintenance effort and towards innovation. See the problem here?

Classic arguments can be trotted out, to be sure, about the advantages of a best-of-breed approach vs. use of an integrated package, and there are of course some very valid concerns about a different form of vendor exposure that can come from overly embracing a “one throat to choke” mentality. But realize that for the most part, these various IT activities are critical yet commodity activities: doing each one at 80-90% effectiveness probably will suffice, especially if you have the additional benefit of built-in, smooth integration among them. Meanwhile, lacking such integration, you’re sinking valuable time and resources, often without fully realizing how much, into overly complex but still commodity efforts, and you’re probably getting mixed results anyway.

Why would anyone want to cling to the hodgepodge of separate and clunky and burdensome systems that many companies tend to use to manage their IT? The main reason really seems to be inertia, the easy path, the path that often “feels” like it’s the least costly. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” comes to mind as the likely implicit or explicit rationale: one of the most dangerous ruts for an IT department to fall into. Use of fragmented systems provides an illusion of greater control and flexibility, often without sufficient understanding of cost and risk.

The tagline for this blog is “intensely practical tips for IT management”: there is very little that is more practical than consolidation of systems overall in general, and elimination of costly, burdensome home-grown systems in particular. This applies even (or especially) when there’s a vested interest, a “sunk cost” notion that causes people to cling to the solutions of the past.

The ITSM software space is worth watching closely for any IT professional; chances are high that I’ll be at Knowledge13 next year. But the larger lesson: I’ll be even more careful in the future to avoid thinking that even long-standing and significant experience in an area means that I automatically understand the range of choices that might be available to me today.

Lagniappe:

Trackbacks

  1. […] a recent post on his blog, Kretzman argues gently in favor of IT service management (ITSM) and an integrated approach. He describes the eye-opening education he experienced recently […]

Speak Your Mind

*