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How AI will transform IT service management

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Esther Shein, Freelance writer

Not long ago, Jan-Willem Middelburg was at a restaurant and noticed a rack of 25 good-quality umbrellas with the establishment's logo standing at the entrance.

"It attracted my attention, and I asked the restaurant owner about them," said Middelburg, vice president of the Asia-Pacific division for ITSM training consultancy Pink Elephant. "He told me, 'At this time of year, we typically have two nights of rain per week. We keep the umbrellas because our staff can walk people to their cars after dinner when it rains. It is all part of the service experience. It makes people come back.'"

That same approach applies to IT service management. "As an ITSM provider, you can predict that certain situations will occur," such as servers crashing, applications needing updates, and people needing help because they forgot their passwords, Middelburg noted. If you know what's coming you can be prepared. "The only question is when it will happen."

With the use of AI and machine learning growing, these types of predictions will become even more accurate, Middelburg said. But as with the restaurant owner, he said, "you can also make decisions based on common sense."

Here's how AI will transform service management.

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Moving right along

AI-driven changes are inevitable, observers say. "Teams are looking at service levels more holistically and managing change and compliance and financial planning, so it's not simply the classic service desk professional" any longer," said Dennis Drogseth, vice president at Enterprise Management Associates (EMA), an IT and data management research and consulting firm. 

Although it is still early to glean all the ways that artificial intelligence is going to transform business processes, there is no doubting its widespread popularity. While the number of AI implementations stood at 10% four years ago, today it has grown to 37%, a whopping 270% increase, according to Gartner.

[ Special coverage: Focus on IT Service Management at Pink 19 conference ]

So it stands to reason that applying AI technologies will be transformative for ITSM. Systems generate a lot of data, and automation is the key to helping IT improve how it delivers services, industry observers said.

The handshake between analytics—which some consider an AI subset of sorts—and automation "is clearly a focus area" for the near future, Drogseth said. "Both have evolved, and both reinforce the value of the other," he said. 

Pink Elephant's Middelburg agreed. Automation has been one of the fastest-growing topics in the service industry for the last few years, he said. "Bringing services that are faster, cheaper, and of better quality is still on the agenda in many enterprise organizations."

AI and machine learning can help deliver automated services for end users, said Middelburg, as well as provide context-based recommendations, improved correlation, anomaly detection, and root-cause analysis.

A chance for ITSM to shine

AI is coming along at a good time for IT. Service management has fallen out of favor in the past few years because of a perception that it doesn't address the entirety of service management and addresses issues only from an operations perspective, said Doug Tedder, principal consultant at Tedder Consulting.

"DevOps kept running into this because ITSM never made it out of operations in many organizations," he said. Many companies implemented ITSM to address incidents, requests, and changes, but not to add services or to define application portfolios, he explained.

Now, however, there is a gold rush in the vendor community to integrate various machine-learning capabilities into tools, "to connect all the dots to all the things going on in the [IT] environment," Tedder said. "I see this as another way to perhaps get ITSM propelled again."

As that happens, AI in ITSM will become very powerful, because it will start to do that correlation and recognize the linkages around various events within the managed environment, Tedder added.

Today's systems might log 10 different incidents around 10 different events that, in actuality, are all related, he explained, so they should all really be characterized as one incident. "That's where AI will come in and algorithmically figure all that stuff out." 

Michael Cantor, CIO of Park Place Technologies, a provider of third-party data center maintenance products, said his shop is applying AI in its environment now to automate processes and determine the root cause of an issue. "With AI, we may be able to correlate data" and, eventually, reduce "all the noise an environment produces." 

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Today's key trends in ITSM

With AI becoming mainstream in ITSM, a key trend will be the use of virtual service desk agents and chatbots leveraging natural-language processing (NLP) technologies, said Jacques Conand, product management director for service management at software provider Micro Focus.

"A new trend that I have seen recently is that AI and machine-learning techniques are increasingly more embedded," said Pink Elephant's Middelburg. "I refer to this development as 'service intelligence,' which is the contraction of service management and artificial intelligence. I think we are going to see this term more and more in the next year."

AI can make a difference in processes such as patch management, incident routing, and software deployments, wrote Raja Renganathan, vice president of IT services at consulting firm Cognizant, in a 2017 blog. "There has always been something lacking in these tools that requires manual intervention," he said. "End-to-end automation, it seems, has been more of a claim than a reality."

But ITSM "modernization" has taken a big leap forward because of AI combined with other digital technologies such as the Internet of Things, robotic process automation (RPA), and bots, he said.

Technology is now a central element in the design of new services, said Pink Elephant's Middelburg. "If you want to deliver 'automated' or 'intelligent' services, the technology component is the determining factor," he said. 

How AI will transform service management 

Service automation and service intelligence will completely transform the concept of service management, Middelburg explained. In current service management organizations, 70% to 80% of resources are spent on operational activities: executing service requests, closing incident tickets, and delivering changes. "All of these activities can be automated, making service delivery faster, cheaper, and more efficient," he said.

Consequently, attention will shift from service operations toward service design, he said. A properly designed automated service can be used "for years," he said. 

Because organizations can leverage AI to intelligently automate complex tasks at just about every operations level, IT professionals can now spend more time innovating and evolving the department to help achieve business goals, said Cognizant's Renganathan.

Anytime something is automated, organizations can utilize their resources for more proactive and creative work, rather than on performing routine tasks, agreed EMA's Drogseth. "If you can shorten the cycle for resolving incidents, you may be able to spend more time working on how to improve end-user satisfaction with internal or external services," he said.

Robotic processes are coming

Park Place's Cantor says RPA will be the next big thing. "AI is great for identifying a problem, but what do you do about it? RPA takes machine learning and takes action in a sensible way. That's our next step."

Micro Focus' Conand is convinced that the increased use of AI in ITSM is inevitable because it improves self-sufficiency and the end-user experience as well as the overall effectiveness of the service desk. He foresees the technology transforming ITSM "by providing a virtual humanlike first level of interaction for end users, with a conversation level that is increasingly natural and contextually relevant," as well as prescriptive insights for how to improve ITSM processes like change management.

For his part, consultant Tedder believes increased use of AI means that service management will eventually move outside of IT and become an organization-wide capability and competency.

"I think it moves into the enterprise," he said, "because at the end of day … the line is blurred at best between where technology ends and the business process begins."

For more on how AI will affect service management, drop by Jan-Willem Middelburg's talk, "Service Intelligence: The Next Wave of ITSM," at Pink19, to be held February 17-20 in Las Vegas. His session starts on February 19 at 2:15 PM.

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