How to choose an IT service management tool

IT service management (ITSM) activities have steadily evolved from their beginnings, building up operational stability by managing the service desk, incidents, requests, changes, and problems. They rely on resources including configuration management databases (CMDBs) and service catalogs to improve asset management and request executions. ITSM practices accommodate functions such as capacity management, too.

And the road doesn't end there. ITSM activities are beginning to combine frameworks such as ITIL with lean, agile, and DevOps practices, said Jack Probst, principal consultant and certified business relationship manager at Pink Elephant.

This combination helps companies manage the flow of work related to IT and business projects transparently and holistically, from ideation through deployment, he said. The focus is now on increasing business value by improving time to market, lowering costs, and improving customer service.   

"A service is a service whether it's coming from IT or out of the business." 
Jack Probst

With all that ITSM practices already do and increasingly will encompass, enterprises planning to adopt the discipline or broaden their interpretation of it have a lot to think about when considering which ITSM solution will best support their needs.

To make sure you choose the right tools for your team's needs, follow these best practices.

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Understand your organization's ITSM goals 

Clients are beginning to appreciate the importance that ITSM has for data protection, security, operations, DevOps, and even human resources-related issues, said Anthony Evans, ITSM principal consultant at Computer Design & Integration.

Scott Lawrence, vice president and senior research analyst at AOTMP Research Practice, said any ITSM solution should be an automation and workflow database that can easily integrate into other data sources that bring together the enterprise processes.

"[Bringing together processes] will achieve critical efficiencies, enhance visibility into the environment, and reduce the chances of manual errors."
Scott Lawrence

"[Users] need to think about the business objective they are looking to hit with the tool they are looking to purchase," said Evans. It may not be an objective the enterprise faces today, but instead one it expects to confront given its business growth trajectory, for instance.

Fermilab, America's particle physics and accelerator laboratory, decided to move to a different ITSM solution about eight years ago. Among the drawbacks of its original tool were that, at the time, it couldn't support requirements beyond service desk and incident management, such as request management. The old tool also had poor service reporting, and it didn't offer a cloud option.

Fermilab knew it needed to change vendors to get a better handle on service performance in the face of an IT staff consolidation, as well as to support a government-wide push to the cloud, said Tammy Whited, head of service management in the office of the chief information officer.

"You have to think about what you need this tool to do for you and ... the outcomes you need," she explained, both now and with an eye to the future. Fermilab, for instance, was able to stay with the more flexible tool it chose when, a few years later, an objective was to create "strategic alignment with the business of science," she said.

A demand-management module lets scientists submit requests for computing resources to get their experiments up and running and receive feedback on costs to fulfill it. "[Once the budget is approved] we can procure and provide what they need, and in the last two years it's been amazing," said Whited.

Generally, scientists get what they need in a matter of weeks.

"Because of this proactive process, no one has once run out of computing capacity for conducting their experiments. I think it has improved our operational integrity with the labs."  
Tammy Whited

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

Consider the role of automation 

Automation can be critical to eliminating costly manual processes while making businesses more efficient, compliant, and secure, as behavioral care provider The Priory Group has found. It chose a solution that assists its help desk team by automating workflows. The company started by automating new user requests for employees and service users.

"The requests encompass multiple steps ... all of which are now sequenced appropriately," explained Jeff Hayman, IT support services manager.

The Priory Group has branched out to automate even more mission-critical processes. For example, if there is a major help desk incident, "all actions and communications are automatically logged to be in step with compliance and can be used when evaluating lessons learned after the incident has taken place," said Sarah Nash, IT support specialist.

Enterprises should also think about how their would-be solutions could help drive ITSM automation to an even higher level. "Artificial intelligence for ITSM is maturing," said Timothy C. Colwell, senior vice president and leader of AOTMP Research's Efficiency First Adoption practice. So expect AI technologies to play a key role in helping IT reduce costs, providing consistent end-user experiences, and resolving trouble tickets faster, all through ITSM software.

"The real takeaway is that over the next few years, telecom and IT management professionals can expect artificial intelligence to become a more viable option. Start planning for it."
Timothy C. Colwell

Budget for potential extra costs

Customizations, integrations, consulting: ITSM costs can add up.

For example, a CMDB is the solid foundation upon which an effective ITSM solution sits. "If you can ensure that the data in the CMDB is trustworthy and has business impact aligned within it, your ITSM processes become much easier to run," Computer Design & Integration's Evans said.

But populating a CMDB may require leveraging a discovery tool, which Fermilab's Whited cautioned may be an expensive add-on. "A good CMDB really helps," she said, and a discovery tool can provide a nicely integrated way of getting it in shape.

Fermilab was able to avoid the extra cost since it used an existing network asset-tracking solution to load configuration items into its CMDB. "If you don't need it, you can save on costs," she explained.

Similarly, it's important to explore a solution's reporting capabilities and budget for anything else you may need. "A lot of systems have just standard reports, and the tools they provide to customize your own reports can be complicated and require the help of a consultant," Whited said.

Not only that, but in some cases—such as KPI reports for anything beyond incidents—the purchase of a separate analytics/reporting module may be required. Fermilab hasn't had to buy the module its vendor sells, because it has enough expertise on staff to develop these capabilities itself. But not every business will.

"Understand integrations that will need to take place with the ITSM solution and the additional costs for development," AOTMP Research's Colwell advised. 

Gauge the tool's ability to integrate ITSM concepts with DevOps practices

The idea behind this is to produce an integrated delivery value stream and continuous delivery/continuous integration (CD/CI) pipeline, from customer concept to deployment to feedback. 

These are key stakes for businesses that are cultivating a DevOps culture, said Carmen DeArdo, a DevOps technology leader at a major insurance provider that he asked not to be named. Highly governed ITSM processes for incident, change, and release management that can be automated in DevOps workflows and tools can, in turn, help avoid wait states in the delivery value stream.  

As an example, one DevOps metric is mean time to response. "A key is that the ITSM tooling needs to provide APIs that can be utilized," he said. So, one requirement of ITSM solutions might include determining whether they provide native APIs to integrate incident management. This would allow alert and response information to flow directly to the DevOps team's own chat solution for quick redress.

ITSM's value expands, DeArdo said, when it can be used to optimize the developer experience, because that, in turn, optimizes the delivery experience. "You grow the business because of how good you are at delivering quickly," DeArdo explained.  

Structure a strong RFP 

This can be complicated. Pink Elephant, for instance, walks its clients through a focused process of information gathering to generate a request for proposal (RFP) that will "give them a sense of the viability of the vendor and the product relative to their requirements," Probst said.

In brief, though, he said the RFP should probe:

  • Who the supplier is as a company, what technology it relies on, and its plans to support future trends. Without that information, it can be hard to measure a lesser-known player against a major vendor and, depending on your needs and pocketbook, the lesser-known vendor may wind up being a better choice than a more prominent offering that is "sound, solid, and terribly expensive," he explained.    
  • How a vendor's system requirements measure up to the client's usability, architecture, security, database scalability, and other needs. Some issues may require added exploration—for example, if the client is interested in a cloud solution, that may warrant more in-depth security questions.
  • How the vendor's system functions support all processes described in the RFP, such as passing records from one process to another, reporting, transaction processing, and other aspects necessary to simplify ITSM processes in an organization.
  • What the solution's true TCO amounts to over a forecast period of time, including install costs, license costs (in all their varieties), and future fees for required refreshes or upgrades at set intervals. 

When organizations fail to define business requirements before RFP development, they're likely in for trouble. "This often leads to dissatisfaction with the solution and missed expectations," said AOTMP Research's Lawrence. The idea is to design questions that will help companies assess how well each vendor can support their needs, and not automatically opt for the lowest-cost provider.

By understanding and factoring in these ITSM best practices from enterprise leaders, your IT Ops team can avoid many pitfalls. Share your team's experiences with ITSM in the comments below.

For more on ITSM lessons learned, see Tammy Whited and Jack Probst speak at the Pink18 conference starting on February 18.