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Published: 10 April 2024
Contributor: Camilo Quiroz-Vázquez

What is problem management?

Problem management is the process of identifying, managing and finding solutions for the root causes of incidents on an IT service. Problem management is a critical aspect of IT service management (ITSM).

The problem management process is both proactive and reactive and improves an IT team’s ability to find the root cause of issues while offering continuous service delivery to users. Crucially, problem management goes beyond identifying issues and delivering a quick fix; successful problem management operates on a comprehensive understanding of all underlying factors that contribute to incidents and solutions that address the root cause.

IT operations (ITOps) involves managing a complex system of interdependent applications, software, hardware, IT infrastructure and other technologies. Ideally, incidents and problems would not occur in the first place, but when they do, it is necessary to solve issues and identify known errors before they cascade into larger ones. Service disruptions prevent organizations from providing continual service improvements and can cause serious reputational and financial issues.

Proactive problem management helps enterprises stop problems before they occur and reduce downtime. IT automation solutions help manage the impact of incidents by automating incident detection and the workflows that lead to resolution. IT issues can include long load times, inefficient or broken code, or database queries that fetch unnecessary data. Proactively addressing problems leads to reduced costs and improved customer satisfaction.

Effective problem management requires observability into IT systems and rigorous categorization of problems and incidents. By classifying instances that might lead to major incidents, organizations can address issues likely to have the largest business impact. Problem management strategies address incidents across an organization’s tech stack and compel organizations to explore better ways to address incidents across operations.

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Key problem management components

Problem management requires a well-thought-out approach to ensure that teams are allocating resources as efficiently as possible. Problem management teams and other stakeholders use several levers to address problems effectively and efficiently. These levers help teams identify the root cause of the problem and create solutions that can stop the problem from recurring.

Most problem management approaches follow a similar pattern of assessment, logging, analysis and solution.

Problem detection

IT professionals identify recurring incidents that are classified as problems, often by using automation. Automated systems help find anomalies by sifting through large data sets and identifying data points that might be out of the ordinary.

Anomalous data can lead IT team members to the potential causes of incidents. Incident reports and automated notifications are sent to the service desk, which can identify whether the incident is new or if a team has identified and resolved it in the past.

Problem assessment

Teams or automated systems identify and categorize incidents as problem records or as unrelated issues likely to occur again. This categorization helps an organization determine whether it can solve a problem immediately or if the problem requires deeper analysis.

Problem logging

Problem management teams log problems, often by using self-service platforms, and create problem records. Problem records consist of comprehensive accounting for the problem, including any related incidents, where and how the problem occurred, the root cause analysis and the solution.

This logging system creates a known error record and enters it into the known error database (KEDB). Enterprises should connect their problem-management and knowledge management approaches. Knowledge management creates a library of solutions for known problems.

Root cause analysis

Organizations study the underlying issues behind identified problems and develop roadmaps leading to long-term solutions. Understanding the root cause allows organizations to prevent the problem from repeating, reducing the long-term impact.

Problem solving

When an IT team understands the problem and its root cause, it can address the problem (also known as problem control) and find a resolution. This can involve a quick or protracted response depending on the severity or complexity of the problem. Quick resolutions are made by finding workarounds that shorten downtimes while IT teams find the root cause.

Problem management can also use templates, such as ones focused on escalation information and problem reviews, to minimize human resources previously dedicated to key problem management tasks.

Error control is another facet of problem control. Error control focuses on finding resolutions to known errors with the goal of removing them from the known error database (KEDB).

Problem management benefits

The goal of problem management is to minimize downtime, increase efficiency and improve service delivery. Some of the more impactful benefits of problem management include:

Enhanced security

Identifying the underlying cause of incidents is an important part of cyberrisk management. Organizations that merely patch or resolve individual incidents without exploring their root cause might be overlooking significant security issues.

Problem management teams can work in coordination with security professionals to understand which incidents and problems result from malicious actors or security flaws, both of which can create major problems for an organization.

Increased customer satisfaction

Customer retention relies on the consistent delivery of quality services. Sustained downtime and the inability to access applications or websites can drive customers elsewhere. By prioritizing problem identification and problem resolution, organizations can minimize downtime and increase customer satisfaction.

Improved knowledge management

Organizations that prioritize knowledge management, the process of identifying, organizing, storing and disseminating information in a knowledge base, as part of their problem management approach have a better chance of avoiding repeat incidents. By capturing this information in a problem record, organizations can create known error databases so they can avoid future incidents and create permanent solutions.

Increased productivity and employee satisfaction

Implementing problem management strategies helps maintain the efficiency of IT departments and improve employee experience. Problem management prevents employees from having to repeatedly fix and maintain the same issues, allowing them to boost productivity on higher value work.

Problem management vs. incident management

Problem management and incident management are closely related processes. IT departments perform both functions with the goal of providing continuous service and eradicating issues. The main difference between these two functions lies in the technical definitions of “incident” and “problem.”

  •  An incident is a singular event that causes a disruption and hinders a system’s ability to deliver a specific service. 

  • Problems are the root cause of that incident. A problem can consist of a single incident or multiple concurring incidents.

The incident management process has its roots in the IT service desk, which provides a single point of contact between IT operations and users, and handles the entire lifecycle of IT service delivery. Incident resolution happens reactively and involves quickly resolving incidents before they disrupt service.

Problem management is concerned with finding the underlying cause of each incident and offering a permanent solution to the cause of the problem. IT teams set standards for problem analysis, allowing them to trace the root cause of incidents. The most effective problem management strategies are proactive and can identify the potential cause of a problem before it occurs. 

Problem management and knowledge management

Efficient problem management strategies involve an emphasis on knowledge management. Knowledge management strategies use organizational experience to resolve issues more quickly or avoid them entirely.

Robust documentation of solutions, protocols and common workarounds is a key aspect of knowledge management. IT departments store documentation in a centralized location and ensure that documentation is easily accessible across teams. Knowledge management repositories help IT teams focus on more complex work and the optimization of existing services. They are also an important tool for proactive problem management.

Reactive and proactive problem management

A problem management team can either engage in reactive or proactive problem management, depending on what incidents they observe and what historical data they have. Reactive problem management is concerned with identifying the problem when it occurs and solving it as quickly as possible. The problem must first occur before organizations can apply reactive problem management.

Proactive problem management involves more investigative work on why a problem is occurring and creating a solution to prevent it from happening again. The more proactive an enterprise can be, the more likely it is to avoid large issues, security threats and service interruptions.

ITIL, ITSM and problem management

The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) is a repository of best practices for optimizing IT operations and improving service level functions. The ITIL is an integral part of the configuration management database (CMDB), which is the centralized authority for every component needed to provide and manage IT services. IT teams use the ITIL when implementing IT service management (ITSM).

ITSM is how an organization ensures its IT services work in the way that its users and business need them to work. ITSM strategy aims to enable and maintain optimal deployment, operation and management of IT resources. Problem management is a core component of ITSM. ITIL is the most widely adopted guidance framework for implementing and documenting ITSM.

ITIL problem management uses ITIL processes to minimize the foundational work that addressing any one problem requires. Many problems that organizations face, such as server outages and cybersecurity issues, have happened before to other organizations. Often, standardized responses exist. Therefore, ITSM approaches often incorporate ITIL to minimize the new work needed to solve IT problems. ITSM also encompasses the process of change management.

Problem management and change management

Change management is the process of managing and implementing organizational change. Change management can occur throughout migrations, digital transformations or organizational mergers.

DevOps teams use ITIL to guide them through these changes and measure KPIs and metrics related to the successful implementation of changes to IT systems. Ideally the change management process should be seamless. When it isn’t, problem management strategies can help smooth the transition.

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