Set in stone

IT best practices such as ITIL and ISO are growing in popularity, but some may be adopting standards too rigidly.
Set in stone
By Eliot Beer
Sun 06 Jul 2008 04:00 AM

IT best practices are growing in popularity, but some proponents and organisations may be adopting the standards too rigidly. ACN reports.

We live in a superlative world. The tendency among purveyors of goods and services from pizza to phones is to describe their offerings as the pinnacle of whatever the product happens to be.

There are now so many "ultimate", "greatest", "super", "ultra" and "mega" offerings out there that marketing departments are now having serious problems coming up with new adjectives ("Ultimate 2" anyone?).

The relatively sober world of enterprise IT tends to be less affected by this - when spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, greater introspection and consideration is generally required. But one critical area has long come under the superlative influence - best practices.

Humans have been sharing techniques on how best to go about a particular activity since before the dawn of civilisation, and the fruits of this process can be seen in specialist guilds and societies, apprentice-driven industries, and documents including dictionaries and grammatical primers.

But the more complex a field becomes, the more these guidelines on how to go about things can seem to be less a practical guide, and more an arcane set of rules, understood only by initiates.

IT, being more complex - and certainly more jargon-laden - than many other professions, is particularly at risk of this. In recent years best practice frameworks such as ITIL and various ISO standards have become increasingly fashionable - but some organisations that implement them may be taking adherence too far.

Saheem Ibrahim, ITSM manager at Doha Bank, which implemented ISO 20000 recently, shares a recent experience: "Yesterday I was attending a session by a company talking about ITIL and ISO 20000, and people in the audience were all saying they wanted ITIL, they wanted ISO.

They were bombarding me with questions - how did you go ahead with it, how did you do it - but without thinking if it was necessary for their companies, if their organisations were ready for it."

He says he has observed best practices becoming more like a ritual to be followed than guidelines: "This has come about due to the overemphasis by some organisations on their ITIL processes, especially the ones related directly to the end users.

They have become so engulfed with the best practices that they're ignoring the practices they were following before implementing the new processes.

Organisations should not immediately and suddenly stop what they were using and move to a new set of processes, and start emphasising and forcing those processes.

"All of a sudden they've started talking about completely following the ITIL language, ISO 20000 language, without considering the fact that adoption of this will take time - end users need to be educated gradually, and the benefits of these new processes should be explained to the users before being forced onto them. It's definitely sometimes considered a religion - end users think: ‘Is this a new religion my company is following?'" adds Ibrahim.

Best practice advocates - from trainers to standards bodies - vehemently deny that these frameworks should be adhered to as a strict set of rules, but through misunderstanding or poor communication, organisations around the world do on occasion adopt the guidelines in an overzealous fashion.

This can range from implementing processes that go against the grain of a company's organisation and culture, to enforcing the use of "standardised" languages throughout an enterprise - often to the bafflement of end users.

"People can see best practices as a religion for several reasons," comments Osama Ghoul, managing partner at Devoteam Middle East, a consultancy firm.

"First, a lack of exposure - users look at these frameworks as being the collected experience of so many people, and think: ‘I may as well use the exact same approach.'

Second, some users don't understand that technology is a business enabler, and the business has a major impact on decisions - but best practices may not reflect the challenges of the business.

So if people use it just like this, it's not going to give them the results they're looking for - but enterprises may use best practices just because they are the latest trend," he adds."The third reason is something we've seen in a lot of cases - you can have capable IT people in an organisation, but no communication with the business. They understand the importance of bringing the business on board, but they're lacking the capability to establish this communication.

The business pushes for IT to invest and enhance its capabilities - so IT invests based on best practices, not its own terms or conditions, because it's not able to reach the business, and it doesn't have time to establish a clear understanding with the business," he suggests.

T Nagarajan, IT manager at Qatar-based Abdullah Abdulghani & Bros, which is planning to adopt ITIL processes this year, builds on the theory that regional enterprises are underexposed to best practice ideas: "As far as end users are concerned with these best practices, they feel something is missing - there's no regular updates.

They feel the need to follow the exact definitions; for example, there are some policies and definitions that we looked at and shot down - they're more than ten years old, a decade-old of practices.

Users feel the need to follow practices the way they follow religion - some of these processes are completely outdated, but we still feel that these are the definitions, this is the way to success.

"For them something is missing, something more is needed. The complete range of world-class processes is still missing, as far as the end user is concerned. The frameworks are mainly focused on day-to-day services - if you take my case, for example, in IT, the regular updates work fine for daily operational jobs, But is this going to be the way to success, can we call these world-class procedures?

There's something missing - that is why they feel they cannot ask questions, and they have to follow the practices the way they follow daily prayers," he adds.

The suggestion, then, is that adopting best practices is to a large extent a matter of education and research beforehand, coupled with a good understanding of business objectives - and a willingness to look sceptically at the processes that are being offered. Doha Bank's Ibrahim emphasises the importance of this last point.

"But do companies really need it? To take my example, our aim was not certification - our aim was to implement a successful IT service management framework. We implemented the framework, we started using the processes, educating the business, and when the end users were comfortable with the processes - we brought them in gradually, not all at once - the users understood the benefits, and the processes were sold to them," he explains.

As to dealing with processes that are not entirely appropriate, Ibrahim gives this example on how to adapt them: "We did come across some parts of the ISO 20000 framework that didn't fit our organisation - for example the financial process has a charging concept, where IT charges the business for its services.

History of ITILThe Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) was originally developed by the United Kingdom government - the copyright is now held by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC, now unfortunately famous for its latest misguided logo attempt).

The standard grew out of a series of IBM publications from the early 1980s: ‘A Management System for Information Systems'. These became the base for many of the concepts in ITIL. The UK government's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) set out to create a standard for government IT projects, and set out what would become ITIL in 31 volumes.

However, due to inter-departmental infighting ITIL was largely ignored until the 1990s, as the CCTA was broken up and the impetus behind the standard was lost. But by the 1990s increasing number of organisations started adopting the guidelines, and a number of other best practice regimes - competing and complimentary - appeared.

In 2005 the OGC started the process of refreshing ITIL, which resulted in ITIL v3, issued in March 2007.

But we as the IT department of Doha Bank are not selling our services - we're giving them free to the business. That model did not fit 100% with Doha Bank's model - but what we did was to create a charging model, not to charge the business, but to demonstrate the savings we're making to the management. We turned it around for our own benefit.

"Enterprises have to do a proper road map, they have to do a proper analysis of what the best practices say, and whether they are really appropriate. The whole thing started when ITIL was being talked about in seminars and training sessions around the region - suddenly everyone wanted to go for ITIL, everyone wanted to go for ISO 20000.

It was not because they had an immediate requirement for it - it was because they wanted to be in the league of companies that have done it," suggests Ibrahim.

Mohammad Siam, IT service management solution manager at HP Consulting and Integration, offers his own suggestions on how to succeed in adopting best practices: "The best way to go through the change, is first of all to have the awareness and commitment from management.

Secondly, the enterprise needs to do an assessment, to understand where the IT organisation is, in terms of process, people, technology and culture.

We know where these standards are compared to reference models - we can identify the approach, we can identify the speed, we can identify the quick wins and the mid-term and long-term objectives. It's a journey - we don't see it as a project, three months and done."

And, perhaps unsurprisingly for a consultant, he strongly suggests that enterprises invest in a third party to help them with the process: "It's really necessary to have an external consultant to guide the organisation through the change, as well as after the implementation - the organisation will need guidance on living these process.

The important thing is not to implement these processes and put them in the cabinet - you need to automate these processes with technology, and to develop people on these processes. So you need someone to come in from outside to coach the IT organisation."

Best practice frameworks are justifiably gaining in popularity throughout the Middle East, with training courses and seminars often oversubscribed. But veterans such as Doha Bank's Ibrahim and HP's Siam - both of whom have direct experience of implementing various frameworks - state clearly that enterprises need to do their homework first, and go in with their eyes open.

Wiki warsIn the course of researching this article, ACN looked at a number of different sources for background information, including Wikipedia. The article covering ITIL on the free, user-edited encyclopaedia was generally informative and useful - until we looked at the discussion page.

This revealed some of the conflicts and apparent personal vendettas for which the encyclopaedia is becoming increasingly infamous.

Initial comments are substantive and useful, addressing important issues around the article. But when user ‘Beland' makes the point that "There are no negative comments about the standard in the article whatsoever.

Surely someone must have published something at some point citing at least one drawback to the standard?" things take a turn for the worst.

Several users wade in and state that negative discussions are available on blogs, but that Wikipedia discourages linking to blogs. Then ‘Charles T Betz' enters the discussion, claiming there is "a freelance vigilante with no constructive material to offer" purging links to blogs from the site.

He cites his own blog - which he claims to have made only a few dollars in advertising from - as having been removed as a link from other articles.

An unidentified user - from additional comments, probably ‘Audit9' - then attacks "MFA" (Made for Adsense) blogs, saying Betz's actual income is "immaterial" - the principle is the same.

The editor ends with the following comment to Betz: "If I were you I would support those attempting [sic] to keep the Wiki clean, rather than those trying to make a fast buck."

User ‘Pukerua' defends blog inclusion, suggesting that advertising-supported sites can be valid sources, and should be judged on merit.

Audit9 responds, in part, with: "No, I am objecting to MFA ‘blogs' which are full of ads to line the authors pockets. Almost all of these add no value and are designed for clicks. I might also point out one other issue: blogs are almost all OPINION. That is their nature. Wikipedia is not a message board or forum for opinion.

Don't you understand that? Don't you see the difference? Let me guess: you have a blog too right (like Mr Betz, surprise surprise)? Thought so."

Despite attempts to bring it back on track, the discussion deteriorates further at points, with additional personal attacks, such as this anonymous addition: "Sheesh! Back again eh Pukerua? Do you never give up? It is obvious that you have a blog or your colleague does, probably one to entice Adsense clicks as suggested above.

Banging on and on to try and change opinion so that you can use Wiki as a vehicle to get those clicks is not going to work."

Full discussion can be found at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Information_Technology_Infrastructure_Library

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