Scientists and IT staff at the National Cancer Institute can save time and focus on their own jobs through the use of ITSM tools, says CIO Jeff Shilling.

Nov 12 2020

ITSM Organizes Data and Services for Agencies

With the ServiceNow solution, agencies such as the National Cancer Institute and Oak Ridge National Laboratory can keep a better handle on the flow of IT work.

Imagine you’re at a restaurant that doesn’t have a menu. You sit down and ask the server what you can order. The server might ask, “What would you like?” How about bacon and eggs? Unfortunately, the server replies, the restaurant stopped serving breakfast. So, maybe you’ll have lasagna. Nope, the chef doesn’t make that dish.

That’s a lot of wasted time and frustration that would be avoided with a list of available items. Just like a menu at a restaurant, information technology service management, or ITSM, creates a menu of the tools, capabilities and data that a federal agency’s IT department can put to use, says Jeff Shilling, National Cancer Institute CIO. 

At a restaurant, once the menu is in place, it’s up to the expert staff to make the food delicious and the setting comfortable. It’s the same at an agency using ITSM: The menu sets the agenda for the IT staff, who then can create the ideal conditions for their “customers” — the agency’s employees and those they serve.

“ITSM is a lot like running a restaurant,” Shilling says, “a very efficient restaurant.”

The NCI implemented ITSM with ServiceNow to generate data out of every IT activity, from a service request for a new monitor to a system outage. ITSM gives the IT team a bird’s-eye view of those activities. If they notice multiple incident reports related to the Outlook email platform, for example, they can determine that it’s not a system problem, but instead a recent upgrade that’s tripping up users, and initiate the proper messaging and training.

The NCI team applies the data to drive down the number of incident reports and improve efficiency, Shilling says. ITSM draws a roadmap, showing IT experts the ­potholes and problems they might face on certain routes, so they can find the best way to reach their destination.

“It allows me to change my business, because we’re now measuring ­everything we’re doing,” he says.

That’s the key benefit of ITSM, says Greg Rankin, director of the service management office for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “It turns data into information, ­information into knowledge and knowledge into action.”

ITSM doesn’t do the IT work for an agency. It just provides measurements and analysis that help an agency deploy its IT experts most effectively.

“The fix for that problem still comes back to the human, the smart person,” says Kris Torgerson, CIO and director of the information technology services division for Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

EXPLORE: How can a ServiceNow approach help your agency? 

IT Support Is Crucial for Complex Government Work 

The NCI, part of the National Institutes of Health under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services, has about 9,000 staff members who support science and research to treat and prevent cancer. It’s complex work that involves months and years of information gathering and analysis.

IT support is critical, Shilling said, as NCI’s work increasingly involves more machines, such as PET scanners and other imaging systems, that generate terabytes of data. If the IT staff isn’t familiar with a specific scientific system, ITSM enables them to plug in its serial number and find the equipment specs and support history, so the ­scientist doesn’t have to bring in an outside ­technician to get it running.

“As the CIO, I want every dime of money to go toward research,” Shilling says. “If scientists buy a new radiology machine, I don’t want them to have to hire a technician to get that radiology machine online. They can come to us.”

With ITSM, the NCI has set up a Digital Service Center, a digital architecture that addresses activities including administrative tasks such as employee promotions or the paperwork that scientists must complete for research grants. 

“We really wanted to shift the NCI’s IT model from a technology model to a services model,” Shilling says.

Accustomed to working in a silo, separate from the rest of NCI’s operation, many IT workers solved problems one at a time. With ITSM, the IT staff became collaborators with the scientists, learning about their work so that the staff can ensure they have the right technology. “To do true service in IT, the users need to give you a lot of feedback,” Shilling says.

With ServiceNow, NCI is providing several groups with an interface for customer support, delivering the most valuable expertise whether it’s for IT help or a clinical trial. The institute also has put in place ServiceNow’s knowledge resources, a platform for uploading guidelines or information that NCI employees create or consult.

ServiceNow lets the agency customize the platform with a unique look and layout that users are comfortable navigating, “so they can manage their content, and it’s all on the web,” says Shilling. 

Like the NCI, Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s work is intense and complex, including research on some of the most ­sophisticated instruments in the world, such as Summit, the world’s ­second-largest supercomputer.

ORNL, part of the Department of Energy, shares data and collaborates with ­scientists across the globe. Tools such as Simple Network Management Protocol and management information bases help keep things moving.

“We’ve got users all over the world who expect that to be available,” Torgerson says.

Without the data-driven framework of ITSM, it’s more difficult for the lab to focus on priorities, Torgerson says. The IT team shouldn’t always grease the squeaky wheel, but direct ­attention where it’s most critical. “I can identify areas of investment, and I can identify areas of opportunity,” he said.

LEARN MORE: Get advice on using ServiceNow for business continuity on the CDW Solutions Blog.

Make the Most of Your IT Resources

At the NCI, the IT team has more opportunities to assist researchers, Shilling says. And VA IT staff can concentrate on higher value activities, such as reducing the “tech debt” that has accumulated over the years — “the tradeoffs that we make for the sake of speed to market,” Rankin says.

Now in its second year with ServiceNow, the VA is able to track, report and analyze requests, events, incidents and changes. A robust configuration management database helps provide the granular detail needed to make best use of IT resources, Rankin says.

Jeff Shilling, CIO, National Cancer Institute
We really wanted to shift the NCI’s IT model from a technology model to a services model.”

Jeff Shilling CIO, National Cancer Institute

The VA now offers an AI chatbot named Abel to handle tasks that would have previously required employees to contact the service desk. 

Before ITSM, the VA’s IT staff worked in a disparate fashion, with each incident handled in a vacuum and no way to see the big picture.

“A lot of people had to do it themselves and go it alone,” Rankin says, “so you end up with a lot of duplicated efforts and duplication of tools.”

Rankin came to the VA eight months prior to the ITSM deployment. The agency had a backlog of more than 100,000 incidents; each month, the list grew by 5,000. In the year since launching ITSM, the VA has reduced that backlog to about 30,000. That means VA employees and clinicians are spending less time on tech problems, he says: “They’re able to focus on patient care.”

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic confined many federal workers to their homes, the VA had built a self-service tool for password reset and personal identity verification exemption to bypass the IT service desk. 

About 20,000 password-related calls were coming in every Monday morning, causing long wait times for help, Rankin says. Self-service cuts that time to about five minutes. 

That mission is personal to the IT workforce, Rankin says. A majority, including him, are U.S. veterans who depend on VA care.

“We show up every day,” he says, “with that in mind.”

Photography by Jonathan Timmes