How southern company revamped IT change management

How southern company revamped IT change management

Think it's hard to sell new systems and processes to the business? Just try making changes to the way IT itself works.

Think it's hard to sell new systems and processes to the business? Just try making changes to the way IT itself works.

"I've worked with a lot of tough customers, but there's nothing tougher than being in IT and implementing for IT," says David Traynor, business excellence manager in Southern Company's IT department. "They're our brothers and sisters, but they're pretty critical if something doesn't work right or if something isn't explained well. You know you're going to get that extra scrutiny because it's within the family."

Traynor knew he had his work cut out for him as he prepared to roll out a new enterprise change management (ECM) suite from BMC. The business case for the seven-figure investment was clear. The Atlanta-based energy company's IT department was managing some 600 change requests to its computer systems every month.

Some changes were high-risk; others run of the mill. But, without ECM, IT was forced to treat all requests equally. Change review meetings, lasting an hour or more, were held three times a week to go over requests from major to mundane. "Everyone had to wait on the call until it was your turn," Traynor explains. "It was a little bit tedious." So tedious that some people eschewed the process altogether and made changes without review.

But while a more rigorous and automated ECM process is the holy grail of service management, Traynor will be the first to tell you that "nobody in IT is screaming for a new change management process and system."

IT's Firefighter Urge

That could be traced to IT's dirty little secret: IT likes to fight fires. "Following a change management process doesn't give you that feeling of accomplishment, that oomph you get when you're solving a major problem or you're closing a trouble ticket or something's down and you're all pulling together to fix it," says Traynor. "With ECM you're trying to avoid that. You're saying maybe it's better if no one ever called me to put out a fire."

As much as IT preaches process and rigor to the business, as they say, the cobbler's children often go unshod. "I grew up in IT and for a lot of us change management is only for those people who aren't as smart as me. My stuff works," says Traynor. "But we're never as good as we think we are."

[ Southern Company is trying to build a more diverse IT department. For a look at why and how, see CIO's profile of the staffing diversity effort. ]

Rolling out the first phase of the new ECM -- asset configuration and change management applications -- was in itself an enterprise change management challenge. [For many in IT], it changed their world quite a bit," says Traynor. "They had to log all their changes, gain approval, take all these steps that they weren't being tasked with before."

IT spent more than six months on process design before selecting BMC's Remedy suite of software. They then spent another ten months customizing the systems and seven months building them. What they should have spent a little more time on, says Traynor was getting buy-in from the IT departments that would have to adopt the new software and processes. "We found that we had to really get into the whys," says Traynor. "When you have your head down doing server support, you're pretty busy and you don't have much time to focus on the global picture. We really had to get into why we want good test results, why we want to have back up plans, why we want to have post-critiques. So that when you do make changes, you don't impact the customer."

New Ability to Focus on High Risk Changes

The first ECM tools were rolled out last August and the new processes have yielded an interesting result--more change requests, about 840 a month (Of these, 42 per cent relate to infrastructure; 31 per cent to applications and 27 per cent to data.) Why did the request number rise?, In the past, a significant number of changes were processed without any review. While less than one per cent of such changes could be categorized as high risk, 85 per cent of them carry some risk. And that's not the kind of dice-rolling you want to do when you're charged with keeping the lights on for a business keeping thousands of lights on.

Today, the change advisory board meets just once a month and concentrates on major risk changes (changes to enterprise solutions impacting a large population or critical sites, new technology) and emergency change post-mortems. Most standard change requests (similar changes made repeatedly) are pre-approved and templated. "It frees up a lot of resources and creates a lot more opportunity from a project perspective," says Traynor. "It makes life a little bit easier."

Traynor says that he should have started the ECM communication and training effort much sooner. And that's what he did with the second phase of the implementation: the incident and problem management system.

Traynor appointed ambassador from each IT unit to the ECM project team as he did with the first phase, involving them in meetings as a group and individually, but brought them in on day one. "It was a great concept, but we pulled them in too late in the process [during the first phase of the rollout]," Traynor says. "By the time we got them up to speed, the design was finished, we had already started building the tool, and they're were playing catch-up."

This time, it's different. "They've suggested different ways to change the design. They've put their fingerprints on it," says Traynor, who's also following up with the IT representatives to make sure they're having discussions within their own teams about the new systems and processes. "We get a lot of mileage from [the ambassadors]," Traynor says. "The hope is that you have people that become skilled [in the new system] and can help us with testing and training and become the go-to person after we go live."

Traynor's team continues to tweak the already implemented components based on user input. IT professionals complained of long waits for change approval from manager's who were tied up in meetings. So the ECM project team worked with application development to introduce a mobile app for change approvals that they mapped back to the Remedy software.

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