IT service management (ITSM)
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What is IT service management (ITSM)?

ITSM is how an organization ensures its IT services work the way users and the business need them to work.

IT service management (ITSM) is a set of policies and practices for implementing, delivering and managing IT services for end users in a way that meets the stated needs of end users and the stated goals of the business.

For this definition, end users can include employees, customers or business partners. IT services can include any hardware, software or computing resource the organization supplies for a user—everything from a company notebook, software asset or Web application to a mobile app, cloud storage solution or virtual server for development or other services.

ITSM is a complicated discipline—after all, its intended goal is to enable and maintain optimal deployment, operation and management of every single IT resource for every user in the extended enterprise. This article is written to provide a basic understanding of the topic. 

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What is ITIL?

The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) is the most widely adopted best-practices guidance framework for implementing and documenting ITSM. It is an actual library; the latest version, ITIL 4, includes five volumes that cover 34 ITSM practices (up from 26 in ITIL 3). The ITIL framework is described in the volumes listed below:

  1. Service Strategy, which focuses on the full ITSM processes lifecycle—designing, developing, implementing and managing a portfolio of IT services, plus determining the cost and budget for these services and forecasting future demand for services.
  2. Service Design, which covers designing services and processes with respect to business requirements for availability, security, service level agreements (SLAs) with users, continuity (including backup and disaster recovery services) and much more.
  3. Service Transition, which describes best practices for moving to a new or changed service with minimal impact on service quality and performance.
  4. Service Operation, which outlines the everyday, nuts-and-bolts management of deployed services, including fulfilling service requests (from users or departments), responding to problems and incidents and controlling access to services.
  5. Continual Service Improvement, which covers the steps for revising or expanding services as business needs change.

ITIL is exhaustive, but an organization’s ITSM program does not need to implement it exhaustively—the organization can pick and choose only the ITIL processes and practices they need.

Other best-practice ITSM frameworks exist; some are closely related to ITIL, and many are used in concert with ITIL. These include the following:

  • BiSL (Business Information Services Library), which is focused on ITSM from the perspective of users (this is often called the "demand" perspective).
  • COBIT (Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies), which focuses on controls and governance.
  • ISO/IEC 20000, the first international standard for service management.
  • MOF (Microsoft Operations Framework), an alternative to ITIL.
  • Six Sigma, a set of tools for governing IT organizations, manufacturing and other processes, with the goal of achieving statistically high product quality levels.
ITSM key practices and concepts

We can’t review all 34 ITSM practices in a single article, but we can cover the core practices that organizations adopt most often:

  • Incident management: In ITSM-speak, an incident is an unplanned outage or interruption in service. Incident management defines the process of responding to an incident with the goal of restoring the service with minimal impact to users and the business.
  • Problem management: This is the process of not just identifying and addressing the root cause of an incident, but also the factors leading to the root cause and determining the best way to eliminate it.
  • Change management: In IT, change is constant. Change management, also known as change enablement, is the establishment of processes and practices that minimize IT service disruptions, compliance issues and other risks that might result from changes made to critical systems.
  • Asset and configuration management: This defines processes for authorizing, monitoring and documenting the configuration of software and hardware assets (physical and virtual servers, operating systems, notebooks, mobile devices) used to deliver services. A key asset and configuration management tool is the configuration management database (CMDB), which serves as a central repository of all IT assets and the relationships between them.
  • Service request management: This is concerned with processes for handling requests for new services from individual users or areas of the business. This could include anything from employee requests for new notebooks to partner requests for portal access or a departmental request for several new "seats" on a software-as-a-service (SaaS) application. The greater the automation of the ticketing workflow and "self-service" capability in service request management, the greater the potential benefit to the organization.
  • Service catalog: A menu or portal that allows users to help themselves to IT services.
  • Knowledge management: The practice of generating and sharing IT service–related knowledge across the organization and/or the extended enterprise (including customers and partners). A searchable, continually updated self-service knowledge base is usually the core tool of this practice.
  • Service level management: The practice of agreeing upon required or desired levels of service for different groups of users and then meeting those levels, or "compensating" users when the levels aren’t met. Typically, the agreed-upon service levels are documented in a service level agreement (SLA), which essentially functions as a contract between IT and the users or the business.
  • IT Service Desk: In ITSM, the IT Service Desk is a superset of the standard help desk—it serves as the single point of contact (SPOC) for fielding and managing all incidents, problems and requests. It’s also a foundation of ITSM, where all incident reports, problem reports and service requests begin, and where users can track their progress. The Service Desk handles software licensing, service providers and third-party contracts related to ITSM. In many cases, the Service Desk operates and maintains ITSM-related self-service portals and knowledge bases.
ITSM benefits

The goal of ITSM is to ensure that IT services perform in a way that meets the needs of the users and the business. It’s no surprise, then, that a rigorous ITSM approach often results in some significant business benefits:

  • ITSM makes it easier for IT teams to provide a fast, agile, trauma-free response to unexpected events, new opportunities and competitive threats.
  • By enabling better system performance, greater availability and fewer service interruptions, ITSM helps users do more work and the business do more business.
  • By systematically speeding incident resolution, reducing incidents and problems and even automatically preventing or resolving issues, ITSM helps the business get more productivity from IT infrastructure at less cost.
  • ITSM helps the organization set and meet realistic expectations for service, leading to greater transparency and improved user satisfaction.
  • By embedding compliance into IT service design, delivery and management, ITSM can improve compliance and reduce risk.

For IT departments, ITSM enables a continually more productive, effective and cost-effective service organization that’s aligned with business strategy—an IT department that increasingly becomes a critical part of the organization’s success (and less and less the source of the organization’s problems).

ITSM tools and software

There are over 150 ITSM software tools on the market at this writing, designed to help organizations implement and even automate ITSM within the best-practices framework or frameworks of their choice.

The following is a very short list of criteria for choosing a tool:

  • Make sure it supports a robust IT service desk because the service desk will serve as the interface between your IT staff and users/business units.
  • Choose a tool with capabilities that map to every framework practice area you use or will use, including IT asset management, change management, knowledge management, integration of the service catalog, incident management and problem management.
  • Choose a tool that integrates with the other tools in your IT environments, such as project tracking software, collaboration tools and ERP systems.
  • Look for easy-to-implement tools with graphical dashboards and configurable metrics and reports to help monitor service delivery and quality in real time, based on key performance indicators (KPIs) like ticket volume trends, incident response and resolution times, and service level compliance statistics.

Most importantly, any tool you choose should be able to handle rapidly changing environments. In other words, if your tools were built to handle environments that change once daily, they aren’t modern enough. Modern tools should be able to identify, analyze, fix and verify problems in near real time.

ITSM and artificial intelligence (AIOps)

Artificial intelligence (AI) is fast becoming part of many business processes, and ITSM is no exception. A recent Gartner survey (link resides outside of notes that the number of enterprises implementing AI has grown 270 percent in the past four years; more than half of these companies are also considering or applying some form of AI for ITSM.

Over time, Gartner expects more ITSM tools to incorporate what it calls AI for IT Operations, or AIOps, which it defines as the application of machine learning across the entire operational environment. This includes monitoring and ITSM. By applying AI to data from multiple sources, AIOps is expected to help better predict outages, prioritize events and improve root cause analysis.

Find out more about AIOps solutions from IBM.

ITSM case studies

The following are three cases in which ITSM solutions delivered value for companies:

  • By automating knowledge management, Cognizant’s Applications Value Center reduced help desk ticket volumes by up to 80 percent and cut the mean time to resolve incident tickets by nearly 40 percent.
  • Serima Consulting GmbH helped develop a smart power grid management solution as part of Germany’s politically supervised shift from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Serima’s ITSM solution enables a single- service management point of view across the entire grid infrastructure and serves as a "lighthouse" project that will guide similar smart grid projects throughout Germany.
  • St Vincent's Health (01:27) in Sydney, Australia, implemented an ITSM solution that allows medical staff to initiate incidents on their mobile devices and enables the hospital to resolve more than 50 percent of its tickets on the first call.
The future of ITSM

ITSM solutions continue to change as the needs and technologies of the organizations that use them evolve. In the next few years, you’re likely to see the following:

  • Support for the Internet of Things (IoT): IoT-connected devices are becoming more popular and varied—hardware and network infrastructure, electrical fixtures and even delivery vehicles are all being connected. These devices continually collect valuable data, including operating status, location and movements. ITSM solutions will have to start monitoring and using that data to improve problem-solving and business decisions. By incorporating the information you receive from your internet-connected sensors, you can gain even greater insight into your business.
  • Social media integration: ITSM tools are beginning to adapt communication channels to the user, rather than the user to the tool. This means adopting social media channels like Twitter, Facebook, Slack, Instagram and SMS messages as ways to log tickets and track support. With social media integration, your company will be better able to gauge customer sentiment.
ITSM and IBM Cloud

IBM can help prepare you for the future of ITSM with automation tools to support every aspect—implementation, delivery and management.

Any moves toward business-wide and IT-wide automation should start with small, measurably successful projects, which you can then scale and optimize for other processes and in other parts of your organization.

Working with IBM, you’ll have access to AI-powered automation capabilities, including prebuilt workflows, to make every IT services process more intelligent, freeing up teams to focus on the most important IT issues and accelerate innovation.

Take the next step:

Get started with an IBM Cloud account today. 

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