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Sun 3 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Help is at hand

Despite the rise of service management standards, the service desk concept still remains a struggle for many enterprises. ACN speaks to regional service desk experts to discover the secrets of their success.

Despite the rise of service management standards, the service desk concept still remains a struggle for many enterprises. ACN speaks to regional service desk experts to discover the secrets of their success.

Service desks are a function, not a process. This is the only function that every IT department has to start with - the service desk is meant to be the single point of contact between business and IT.

The issue in the Middle East is that 90% of companies are categorised as SMBs. The size of a company is not as big as in the US or Europe.

It's supposed to bridge the relationship between the business and IT, whenever it comes to a request or to provide information, or attend to IT issues - and also the reverse; a service desk has to be able to provide results and metrics and data to the business."

So says Zaki Sabbagh, CIO of Zamil Industrial Investment Company (ZIIC), on the subject of service desks. Sabbagh's definition is probably one of the most concise and complete basic outlines of a service desk it is possible to give - but behind the simplicity of his statement lies a complex set of standards, processes, best practices - and business politics.

With the rise of the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) set of best practices, the term ‘service desk' has largely supplanted the more traditional ‘help desk' in the lexicon of enterprise IT.

Far from being a mere name change, though, proponents of ITIL and IT Service Management (ITSM) concepts claim a service desk delivers far more value than its predecessor.

"The primary purpose of the traditional help desk is to manage and coordinate and resolve incidents as quickly as possible. It is also its responsibility to ensure no request is lost or forgotten," explains Saheem Ibrahim, ITSM manager at Doha Bank.

But when we talk about service desks, the role is much more mature. The service desk extends the range of services to the business - it not only handles incidents, problems, queries and change request, it also provides an interface between the business and IT, for SLAs, for consolidation management, for availability management, for financial and IT service continuity. It also continually educates and trains the business.

As Ibrahim makes clear, though, the majority of organisations - Doha Bank included - start with a help desk, and then evolve and develop this to a full-fledged service desk. A critical issue in this development is finding a way to demonstrate the value of a service desk to the business - a process which is harder for smaller organisations.

Sabbagh says: "The issue in the Middle East is that 90% of companies are categorised as SMBs - the size of a company is not as big as in the US or Europe.

So the implementation of a service desk in these companies would not be as easy, as it's touching the IT area more than the business area - at least from the business point of view. Despite that, the results would be very much to the favour of the business.

The challenge of IT in this area is big, and the pressure is big - so making a proof-of-concept for a service desk is important in order to justify it. This is why I don't see a lot of effort in this regard in SMBs."

Despite Sabbagh's scepticism, some industry hands in the region do see smaller enterprises adopting service desks - as well as larger organisations taking service concepts a step further. Prashant Maiti, senior consultant for business service optimisation at management software vendor CA, sees increasing numbers of SMBs taking on the service desk model.

"The idea of service desk has moved from being just an enterprise concept, down into small and medium businesses as well. More and more people are adopting the service desk - it shows in our selling graph, more people are adopting service desk as a core, and are building solutions around it.

People have come out of the service desk, and are moving towards a service management model. As enterprises have matured, they are trying to adopt the service provider model - I would say, in fact, that we have many clients that have adopted, or have the vision to adopt, the service provider model," he says.

One firm which has actually adopted the latter model is Sabbagh's ZIIC - it now operates its IT department as a separate profit centre within the business, and has recently moved into the ITSM business itself, following the successful adoption within ZIIC of an on-demand service management provider.

"ZIIC is a typical example - before, we were using systems from a major vendor, one of the three leading IT service management vendors. But we moved from this vendor to Service-Now.com, which is a purely on-demand solution - and we are more than satisfied as a customer.

These days the issue is not the money - it's the time. For instance, when we used to work on the old system, we needed licences, software, hardware, and the most important part for us - the skilled people to run it, both internally and at the vendor," explains Sabbagh.

"Now, all these hassles have gone, with the concept of on-demand. It's not only saving money, it's also saving a lot of time.

For instance, with these concepts now, we're able to implement all these processes in a fraction of the time - it took us years with the legacy systems, and now with the new system we did it in a few weeks. Now the platform is available, everything is open and customisable - all that's required is internet access. You don't need to get into unnecessary issues around administration," he adds.

ZIIC was so impressed with Service-Now.com that it promptly went into partnership with the service's parent company, Navigis. The resulting joint venture - Zamil Navigis - was launched at last year's GITEX Technology Week in Dubai; and in the course of this, Sabbagh discovered many organisations that were unaware of ITIL - something which came as a surprise.
"The main reason people are not adopting the service desk model is that ITIL itself has not yet become a culture for most people, it's not the norm. I'm very astonished to see big companies - even in the UAE - that have a lot of pressure to improve IT, and yet are completely unaware of ITIL.

The opposite should be the case - every company should be aware of ITIL, even if they're not going to invest in it. But I still see companies that have a lot of money but are not aware of ITIL at all," says Sabbagh.

Companies are spending US$250,000 just for a dispatching service – it's like buying a Rolls Royce to drive around the compound.

While disputing the lack of knowledge suggested by Sabbagh, CA's Maiti has seen some ignorance of ITIL in the regional market: "I disagree that ITIL knowledge is poor in the region; even small enterprises know about ITIL. When ITIL 3 was launched, CA was overbooked for registration for our training. It is quite contrary - people know about ITIL, but don't know how to implement it. They're aware of the terminology, but a lot of people don't know how to go about it.

Sabbagh also sees hope in the region for ITIL uptake: "I think this will change. The maturity of these ITSM products is now improving, so this is a positive thing for the users. For example, ITIL 3 is very different from ITIL 2 - so enterprises need to invest in re-learning ITIL 3.

One organisation of which this can definitely not be said is Doha Bank.

Not only has it adopted the ITIL framework, but it has recently completed ISO 20000 certification - the first company in Qatar to do so, according to Ibrahim, a fact of which he is justifiably proud.

Despite the not insignificant achievement of certification, though, Ibrahim is very clear on the reasons why the bank completed the process - which was not just for the sake of the certification, but for the wider benefits to the business.

"ISO 20000 is an incidental certificate - our aim was to build an IT service management system. I wanted to build an ITSM system, and I wanted to build it on the best international standards and best practices - ISO 20000 is a certificate which comes and measures how well you are following the best practices," he explains.

Having been through the process of a successful best practices certification, Ibrahim has a good idea of what makes a service desk implementation a success. The key elements for him are preparation, planning, and selling the project internally. This enabled him and his team to avoid the vast majority of pitfalls in the implementation and certification process.

"We did not face any specific headaches as such - we prepared a very strong business case, with very clear objectives presented to the management, and we also brought in our IT teams. It's very important to bring in your IT teams when you're going for a certification process, or even when you want to implement certain processes - you need to make sure everyone is in the same boat and supporting the cause," Ibrahim says.

Not producing a business case and involving business leaders is one key mistake which Ibrahim has seen in other enterprise service desk deployments, along with a lack of internal promotion among IT teams. The theme for Ibrahim's points to avoid is communication, or a lack of it - this holds true for other areas as well.

"A lot of the time, enterprises do not measure the progress of the service desk - they set up a service desk, tell the operators ‘OK guys, this is the service desk, you have to take calls and support people' - but most of the time they just leave it at that, leave it for the service desk team to support the business," he says.

"And some organisations do not involve their third-party suppliers - this is a very important concept.

To give my example, when I wanted to implement ITSM processes, this included a process called supplier management - that's when I contacted all my suppliers and explained to them that we were implementing a service management process, and they will be involved in this process as our partners.

This would involve them adhering to certain standards and processes, and so forth.

They were very happy that we were involving them in implementing a process. If a supplier fails to deliver to me, I will fail to deliver to my customer - that's why it's very important for suppliers to realise that since Doha Bank is committed to certain SLAs to its internal customers, they are also part of delivering this quality of service," he adds.

Sabbagh sees a different problem facing regional service desk implementations: too great a focus on the product first, without working out what the organisation is going to do with the service desk. This gives vendors a large degree of power over regional enterprises.

"The problem in the Middle East is that IT departments are more driven by the IT vendors than elsewhere. The vendor is driving IT into making the decisions - not the business, and not with a business case - because of the limitations of IT capabilities, and also because of the influence of
the vendors.

"There should be some compromise here - the company should know how to implement a service desk first, before moving to select the product. You can see a lot of failures in the ITSM industry in the region - a lot of failures. Companies are spending US$250,000 just for a dispatching service - it doesn't require all that money just for this. It's like buying a Rolls Royce just to drive around within the compound," Sabbagh comments.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sabbagh sees a great future for on-demand services such as that from Service-Now.com, thanks to the reduced up-front investment in capital and, more importantly, according to Sabbagh, time. Against this, though, will be the region's reluctance to look at totally outsourced services, especially for core IT and business services.

The overall picture for regional service desks seems to be confusion - enterprises are aware of some of the concepts around the service desk, and the wider issue of service management, but often lack the capacity or impetus to investigate or deploy best practices such as ITIL.

As tools and services mature - something set to accelerate as traditional vendors such as CA and BMC face up to the growing challenge of on-demand providers - coupled with increasing regional knowledge of and interest in IT best practices, Middle Eastern IT departments should be able to offer increasingly sophisticated service desks to their businesses.

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