Article

Your IT service – understanding the true nature of the beast

Stew Hogg examines why it's crucial to assess the whole picture when reviewing your IT service so that you are equipped to make the right decisions and ensure any changes you make realise true business benefits

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Indian folktale of three blind monks who come across an elephant for the first time. Each approaches the beast in an attempt to understand what an elephant is like.

The first monk approaches and grabs hold of the elephant’s trunk. “Ah ha! An elephant is similar to a big snake!” he deduces. The second of the monks happens to wrap his arms around one of the elephant’s legs. “No it’s not! An elephant is a bit like a tree!” He establishes and shouts out to the others.

The third monk disagrees as he happens to grab hold of the elephant’s tail and concludes “No no! An elephant is like a length of rope!”

The tale ends with the monks in disagreement about the reality of what the elephant looks like. Each had part of the picture and so they could never reach an agreement.

When it comes to understandings the needs of our IT services and where investment may be required it can sometimes seem very similar. Depending on who we ask in the business from the service desk technicians to the software developers, board members to the end users, we can often have a confusing picture of the effectiveness of our existing IT service.

This means that questions such as “where should we be investing in our IT service in order to deliver the most business value?” can yield very different answers depending on who we ask. So how do we start to tackle this very question? The answer is we need to see the whole elephant!

Why do we need to see the elephant?

If we consider the role IT plays in organisations I’m sure we would find it difficult to find a process or function which isn’t in some way enabled by the IT service. IT helps to operate, communicate and innovate within almost every area of businesses. However often major risks of business disruption and opportunities for significant improvement are not addressed due to a lack of visibility of the big picture.

Imagine you emerge from the subway in a city you’re unfamiliar with, your smart phone battery has just gone flat, however you have the address of the destination you need to reach. You quickly realise that without a good grasp on your current location the exercise of navigating your way through the busy streets becomes an impossible task. If we don’t understand where we are, we will never be able to determine how to get to our final destination.

If you don't know where you are, then you don't know where you're going. And if you don't know where you're going, you're probably going wrong – Terry Pratchett

The Waterstons' assessment process

The need to get a handle on the big picture of our IT services is become increasingly critical in today’s business environment. One method of identifying this is to conduct a site assessment. This exercise involves benchmarking the existing capability of an IT service with a view to facilitating targeted investment to reduce risk and realise opportunities with the aim of maximising the value your IT service provides.

When embarking on an IT site assessment one common pitfall is to focus solely on the technology without examining the IT service as a whole. This can often lead to the implementation of silos of technology which do not deliver the expected value to the business. Another common mistake is completing the assessment by interacting exclusively with staff in the IT department. This can lead to a skewed view of both the perception of IT across the business and a poor understanding of the business processes which the IT service is required to support. In order to address these risks and ensure the exercise is impartial it is recommended that a trusted third party is engaged to assist with the site assessment exercise.

The Waterstons’ site assessment process is a tried and tested method used by Waterstons’ consultants to complete this exercise and provide a valuable insight into the risks and opportunities associated with an organisation’s IT service. The assessment is designed to be completed in partnership with key business stakeholders and focuses on three critical elements: People, Processes and Technology. Waterstons is committed to excellent service management which we believe is achieved when all three of these components are optimised to deliver an IT service which meets business needs.

The assessment will look in detail at the following aspects of the IT service:

People

  • Existing capabilities, skills and organisational structures
  • Communication plans and meaningful interactions between IT and the business
  • Assigned roles and responsibilities for improvement across the service

Processes

  • The extent to which repeatable processes are documented and implemented
  • The effectiveness of the integration of IT processes with other business processes
  • Review of existing processes against best practice frameworks such as ITIL

Technology

  • Identification of key risks associated with the current IT infrastructure
  • Appraisal of opportunities which can be leveraged by investment in particular services
  • Identification of existing ‘pain points’ and quick wins

The findings of this exercise are categorised into appropriate people, process and technological areas and a final report is compiled. In order to allow the report to be used as part of decision making process in the board room it is critical that the report contains an executive summary distilling the key findings with an associate red, amber, green (RAG) status. This is supported by a more detailed appraisal of the findings in the body of the report which will drill down into categories such as 'Network Security', 'Incident Management' and 'Disaster Recovery'. Finally a prioritised list of recommendations with indicative costs is produced for consideration.  

The value of finally being able to see the elephant

The output of an IT site assessment report is often referred to as a ‘Service Improvement Plan’ and will detail proposed quick wins, medium and long term goals. In many organisations this can be used to identify programmes of improvement which can be communicated and sponsored by the whole business to create a vision for IT service improvement.

A review of the findings of a site assessment can be a very eye opening experience for many organisations. In some cases the root cause of years of performance inefficiency is identified. For others opportunities for improvements to much needed services are proposed to increase business productivity. In all cases a clear understanding of the risks and opportunities associated with the IT service should be plain to see – for many the elephant in the room is finally visible!

A number of Waterstons' clients have benefitted from the site assessment process. The findings are always very different but in all cases a new insight for improving the existing IT service is gained. In many cases the results of the site assessment help to form a service improvement plan which can be communicated to the whole business to help improve both the value that the IT service provides and the perception across the organisation.

Recently Waterstons worked with a large UK port to identify and implement a number of IT service improvements. It was identified that while the IT department was well respected across the business and delivered excellent customer service it was their ticket management system which was at odds with their support process. A project to improve both the technology platform and supporting process was implemented to improve the IT support process at the port with a view to improving both user and customer experience. The IT Manager commented that the service improvement project led by Waterstons provided a valuable insight into the perception of the IT service across the business and identified several opportunities for improvement. The port has benefitted from the service improvement plan provided as part of the exercise which identified quick wins and key milestones to improve the IT service offered to both staff and customers.

Summary

It’s all too easy to react to IT problems encountered on a case by case basis, potentially at great expense! However the key to unlocking value from your IT investment is by first getting an assessment of the big picture. The IT service can then be assessed holistically to ensure it’s aligned to the business needs. Recommendations to address both major risks and opportunities for improvement can then be planned into a service improvement plan. As quick wins are consolidated, momentum is gained and longer term improvements can be planned to ensure that IT allows your business to operate, communicate and innovate better than ever before.

It’s time to go and find that elephant!

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