Why the IT Infrastructure Library is becoming one of the most popular process frameworks for running IT, and what it can do for you.
When Mead and Westvaco - the US's two largest forest products and packaging companies at the time - merged in early 2002, Jim McGrane, then the vice president of process development at Mead, was promoted to CIO and assigned the unenviable task of standardizing the new entity - $US7.2 billion MeadWestvaco - on a single ERP system. McGrane had started redesigning Mead's order management and financial processes four years earlier, so it was natural this new job would fall to him. But something about the project didn't sit right. Even though he was standardizing the processes the business would follow and providing users with a system that would enforce these new, more efficient processes, his own department was continuing to operate the same way it always had, following what was basically a collection of ad hoc practices. "There was no focus on process for IT," says McGrane. The contradiction was obvious: The group responsible for developing and enforcing a set of common business processes didn't have a process of its own. Consequently, the IT department wouldn't be able to hold itself to the same standards it was applying to the rest of the organization.
McGrane and his senior staff spent the better part of 2002 coming to grips with this disconnect by developing a vision for the future of the IT department and figuring out what core processes it needed to get there. McGrane wanted a lean department, one that could anticipate and solve problems before they happened and adapt to changes in the business as quickly as the business itself changed. The team started with the governance frameworks available but invariably hit a wall. "We would look at stuff from Gartner and IBM and other places, but it was never at the level of something you could implement," McGrane says. "They would give you a description like 'availability management'. But [they] never really said what these terms were."
Then one of McGrane's staffers discovered the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a collection of best practices for IT operations first developed by the British government 20 years ago. It differed from the other process frameworks they had found: It was high-level but had enough detail to make the meaning of each term clear and show how it could be applied to an organization. Intrigued, McGrane bought 10 copies (ITIL is available only as a set of books or CD-ROMs) and he and his team read them over the December holidays. At the end of the first quarter of 2003, McGrane formalized a plan to rebuild his IT department using the ITIL framework. Although MeadWestvaco's transformation is still ongoing, to date the company has eliminated more than $US100,000 annually in IT maintenance contracts and recognized a 10 percent gain in operational stability. McGrane credits these gains and savings to ITIL.
A confluence of circumstances, including the need to demonstrate IT's contributions to the company in an era of outsourcing and the increased financial oversight mandated by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, is leading CIOs to look harder at process frameworks for running IT. Frameworks help bring consistency, an ability to measure performance and some much-needed scientific rigour to a field that, despite the term "computer science", historically has thought of itself as an art. Some of the more popular frameworks include the Capability Maturity Model (better known as CMM), Six Sigma and Control Objectives for Information and Related Technology (Cobit). Each has a particular area of emphasis (see "The Power of Processes", above for a comparison of the different frameworks).
What sets ITIL apart is its strict focus on IT operations. When used properly, ITIL helps IT departments improve their quality of service, including increased system uptime, faster problem resolution and better security. ITIL has long been popular in Europe, and now it is gaining steam in the US and Australia. At its 2004 data centre conference, Gartner polled 164 attendees, most of whom were from large companies based in the US, and found that their awareness of and familiarity with ITIL had both increased from the previous year, and that 41 percent reported using the methodology to some degree, up from 31 percent in 2003. And a recent local Gartner survey of ITIL adoption in the Asia-Pacific region suggests some 44 percent of organizations with more than 500 employees have adopted ITIL in Australia, compared with 22 percent in Singapore and just 6 percent in Hong Kong. Gartner surveyed a total of 126 organizations from both the public and private sectors, excluding "external service providers".
But putting ITIL in place isn't easy. McGrane says the process change is so substantial that CIOs should treat an ITIL project the same way they would treat an ERP implementation, measuring progress in years, not months. Also, CIOs expecting easy answers will be disappointed: ITIL doesn't offer any advice on how to actually implement the best practices it catalogues, a lacuna that can be shocking to CIOs used to highly detailed software development methodologies. Perhaps for that reason a recent Forrester Research survey of CIOs at 65 large global companies found that, despite widespread interest in ITIL, only three percent were using it as their primary methodology. "It's in many more organizations [than three percent], maybe at the help desk," says Bobby Cameron, vice president of Forrester's CIO group, "but that doesn't mean that there is organizational acceptance or that it is part of an overall strategy."