Dec 31 2009

Smart Support

Learn how the IT Infrastructure Library helped FAA's help desks achieve a 97 percent success rate.

Photo: Keith Ball
ITIL has helped FAA better coordinate its help desk services — standardizing them on best practices and making them more efficient, the agency’s Judy Hogan says.

When Judy Hogan took control of three Federal Aviation Administration help desks in 2001, each was using different applications to track information technology problems. When FAA asked Hogan to take on an additional 15 help desks, they were logging trouble tickets in spreadsheets, on scraps of paper and sometimes not at all. There was no method for spotting trends or determining how effectively the support team was serving FAA employees.

In pursuit of a better approach, Hogan discovered the IT Infrastructure Library, a set of best practices that a growing number of IT shops is using to improve help desk performance, boost uptime and resolve problems quickly.

Hogan, who manages the agency’s first point-of-contact help desk for FAA’s Mike Munroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City, decided to give it a shot. Hogan oversees a team of 20 to support desktop computers, mainframes, applications and production control for 25,000 FAA employees nationwide.

She says ITIL lets her team operate efficiently and effectively. As part of the ITIL effort, Hogan has negotiated support agreements with the departments the help desks serve. The agreements guarantee levels of service and promise quick problem resolution. Every issue is now logged, prioritized and tracked to ensure that it’s resolved. Because every problem is documented, employees have a vast and frequently updated database to help them identify and resolve recurring IT issues, she says.

“In years past, IT shops drove everything. If a customer said they wanted an accounting system, the IT shop determined what the agency would buy and said, ‘Here, live with it,’ ” says Hogan, an FAA contracting officer technical representative. “With ITIL, customers drive the requirements. The goal is to give good customer service.”

ITIL, created by the British government in the late 1980s, is a set of guidelines on how best to manage IT infrastructure in seven disciplines. Most of the IT organizations that have adopted ITIL, including FAA, focus on two disciplines: service support and service delivery. These two disciplines help IT departments develop processes to deliver good service and prove IT’s value to agency leaders. To convert an agency’s help desk services to ITIL demands a five-phase process: educating yourself, gaining management support, training colleagues, developing good service processes and ramping up the new service in reasonable phases.

Gaining Ground

ITIL adoption has spread throughout Europe and is growing increasingly popular among U.S. corporations and government agencies, says analyst Julie Craig of Enterprise Management Associates in Boulder, Colo. “They’re looking to do more with their IT budgets, and one way to do that is to improve the processes and how the staff communicates to reduce trouble-shooting time,” she says.

Hogan says ITIL adoption isn’t easy and requires good planning. That’s because ITIL is not a standard, but best practices that give IT departments high-level recommendations on how processes should work. The ITIL guides don’t tell them how to develop the processes, Craig notes.

ITIL, for example, recommends that IT organizations not operate in silos, but it’s up to the IT organizations to develop processes and deploy software to maximize cooperation between groups so that users and the support staff can communicate better, she says.

“In the past, if you had a problem, you’d call the network infrastructure technologists and they would say, ‘It’s not me,’ so you’d have to call the database administrators,” Craig says. “Now they interact and solve the problem together, so problems are solved faster.”

It’s been two years since Hogan began implementing ITIL. She says her help desk consistently meets requirements agreed upon in the service-level agreements. It meets 97 percent of service-level agreement requirements, and 97.2 percent of customers surveyed rate her help desk as above average.

The Basics

ITIL’s service support discipline has six processes and offers the most benefit because it boosts help desk performance, says Michael Disabato, service director for the Burton Group systems consultancy in Midvale, Utah.

First, a service desk must be the central point of contact between IT and its customers. All calls must be routed to one phone number, so they can be tracked. The incident management process focuses on quickly restoring service and tracking incidents in a central database. Through the problem management process, IT departments analyze incidents to spot trends or larger problems that need to be fixed. Determining the root cause of related incidents reduces repetitive help desk calls, freeing IT staff to handle other tasks, Craig says.

The three remaining service support processes are related. Configuration management ensures that the organization maintains an inventory database of its IT hardware and software. The change and release management processes analyze potential infrastructure changes, such as software fixes, then approve them and update the database so everyone is aware of the changes.

ITIL’s service delivery discipline, which features five processes, takes a strategic, long-term view of service and includes negotiating service-level agreements and developing a financial management process to keep track of spending and determine the return on investment of existing and planned services, Disabato says. The other processes focus on disaster recovery, ensuring that services are available and that an agency’s IT infrastructure can meet future demands.

The heart of ITIL is the Central Management Database (CMDB), a central repository for housing information on all IT assets, service-level agreements and trouble calls. An agency can use a single database for its CMDB or it can pull the necessary information from multiple linked databases.

ITIL is customizable, so agencies should only implement the best practices that they need, Disabato adds. “You have to do what’s best for the agency. This is not a cookbook that you blindly follow.”

Getting Started

Buying good help desk and service management software is important. But agencies must first determine their goals and develop their IT processes, so they can figure out their software requirements, says James Governor, a founder of the Redmonk IT analyst firm in London.

Make a Mark with ITIL
• Do your homework. If you don’t have time to read the books on ITIL best practices, invest in ITIL certification classes.
• Get senior buy-in. ITIL doesn’t work without support. It must start with the CIO and push downward because it involves time and money.
• Send your staff to ITIL training. The more people who understand the best practices, the better your team

will be able to solve problems.
• Develop processes before buying software. Make sure that any software products you buy fit your processes.
• Implement in stages. Adopting ITIL all at once will frustrate the IT staff and the project could fail.

“You can’t just drop a tool in and expect it to solve all your problems,” Governor says. “This stuff is hard work and requires process change and an investment in training your people.”

FAA’s Hogan says she spent nearly three years researching ITIL before diving into a full implementation in 2004. She took courses and earned an ITIL certification. She touted ITIL to her superiors and got their support. Buy-in is especially critical because of the cultural change involved, she says.

Taking advantage of existing processes and information is crucial, Hogan says. For example, if your help desk has already taken inventory of IT assets, make use of that data as part of your CMDB, she says.

With colleagues’ help, she made sure her IT organization followed the same processes as prescribed by ITIL. FAA’s Office of IT had been improving processes since 1995, so it was a matter of making sure every part of the organization adhered to the same processes, Hogan says. “Most of our processes were in place, but when you have different divisions, some will excel and do better than others,” she says. “What ITIL allowed us to do was pool it all together in one location and strive for a common vision.”

In mid-2004, Hogan bought help desk and service management software to support the new best practices. It documents and tracks every trouble ticket from first report through resolution and produces regular reports telling the help desk’s users how well IT is meeting its service levels.

FAA spent one month training IT employees on ITIL best practices and on using the software. Then Hogan migrated the help desks to the new software in incremental steps. Every few months, help desks went live. Within 18 months, everyone was up and running. “We did everything at high speed,” she says.