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How ITIL can accelerate your IT help desk

Tammy Whited Service Manager, Fermilab

The IT help desk at Fermilab used to be chaotic. The research lab, best known for its particle accelerator, had multiple help desks, a decentralized IT structure, and was suffering from ongoing availability issues.

During my second week on the job as service manager, we suffered a critical incident that took the primary data center down for an entire day. People were freaking out that the systems were down, but no one truly understood the business impact.

A post-mortem showed we had a lot of gaps in the way we worked. That finding, in addition to a push to reduce IT costs, drove the organization toward centralizing IT and consolidating help desk operations. But to get started, we needed a common language and a way to prioritize requests.

That's where ITIL came into play. It provided us with a common language for incident and change management. By leveraging frameworks and standards such as ITSM, enterprise architecture, and ISO, we were able to reorganize and consolidate help desk operations, centralize IT, and better prioritize requests.

If pursuing the ITIL/enterprise architecture/ISO path sounds complicated—something that only large enterprises should attempt. It's not. If my staff of fewer than 10 full-time equivalents can serve an organization of 250 IT staff, 1,700 employees and 5,000 end users, your team can as well. Here's how.

How we got started with ITIL

The keys are using the standards to fit your own needs and keeping things simple. We took a very lightweight approach. We continue to view these standards as common-sense business practices. And we’re still ISO-certified.

To succeed, you need to engage your own people, rather than relying heavily on consultants, in the in the development of new processes. Then you need to build an ITIL foundation for those new processes, and modify ITIL guidelines as needed to meet your organization's needs. Depending on your situation, you may need more structure, or less.

Here's how things rolled out for us in terms of the consolidation, adoption of ITIL, enterprise architecture, ISO frameworks and standards, and the evolution of our service offerings. 

[ Special Coverage: Focus on IT Service Management at Pink18 ]

Keep it simple

We had a few false starts. For example, to help us move toward ITIL, Fermilab initially brought in an outside company, which tried to apply complex textbook guidelines for all processes. Aside from incident and change processes, that effort met with resistance and failed.  

The consultancy's proposals were great, but so complex for our environment that no one could follow them. So we made them simpler and focused on the fundamentals. "Say what you do, and do what you say" became our mantra. We shaped the standards so that they were applicable to our organization.

We started down this road with a focus on operations and service design. Today we are ISO20000 service management-certified for 16 ITIL processes and 19 IT services, from foundational infrastructure all the way up to the app level.

Our focus is on strategy, and the business sees us as a strategic partner. Management comes to us with initiatives to help the business, rather than just giving us things to do. It's also willing to fund those things from a strategic perspective.

While many organizations are struggling with service design, we've mastered it. Now we're focused on driving more efficient operations by making strategic moves, whereas before we were just keeping things up and running.

The results have been amazing. We went from managing chaos to being proactive. We do a much better job of getting what we need from suppliers, and we get better pricing.

Get started: Do ITIL your way

Even small businesses can do this. Don't just follow ITIL by the book. Keep it simple—make the standards and frameworks conform to your needs, not the other way around. Strategy and organizational change lead to proactive strategic partnerships with the business.

For more on our experiences with ITIL and how we drive strategic alignment with best practices at Fermilab, come hear my presentation at Pink18 in Orlando starting February 18.

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