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Keeping IT Connected to Corporate Goals

Communication and service management are key to ensuring IT stays aligned with business goals.
May 30, 2003

Paul Desmond

When IT groups and business executives aren't on the same page, bad things can happen. IT projects fail to meet business expectations, product and service rollouts get delayed or don't live up to their advance billing. Ultimately, the bottom line suffers.

Experts point to a number of classic failings that lead to a disconnect between what business execs expect and what IT ultimately delivers, but most of them come down to one thing: communication. Fixing the problem, they say, means taking concrete steps to open the lines of communication between IT and business groups. A number of vendors are now offering IT service management tools that are intended to aid in that effort, by forcing organizations to define their business goals, then monitoring IT resources with an eye toward how well they are fulfilling those goals.

The problem is all too real. Approximately 65% of enterprises have a neutral or negative view of how well IT is aligned with business goals and objectives, according to a recent survey by people3, a Gartner, Inc. company that focuses on IT human resources. Two problems stick out, according to Jamie McCleary, a director with people3: organizational structure and IT people who aren't trained to operate in the kind of business-oriented role that is now required.

In terms of structure, McCleary says enterprises need to ensure they create the proper "touch points" between IT and the business units they serve. "It's a matter of having IT leadership and business leadership working together to implement programs and processes," he says.

IT should get their business counterparts involved early on in the development process to make sure there's a common understanding between the two groups, says Franco Negri, founder, CTO and chief strategist of Panacya Inc., a vendor of IT service management tools in Columbia, Md.

IT also should be aligned with various business units, not organized according to technology silos, he says. Organizing by technology might be more convenient for IT, but it doesn't serve the needs of the business as well as a structure that ties distinct IT groups with specific lines of business.

Ken Herold, solutions architect with Melillo Consulting in New York, says a key goal of IT-business communications should be to set expectations.

"Oftentimes, service level agreements aren't put in place properly or aren't talked about enough, so that each side understands what the other is looking for," he says. When measuring availability, for example, is there a distinction between prime time and off-times? Does IT have the capability to measure it accurately enough?

A Service-level View

If an IT organization measures availability in terms of whether a given network or server is available, it may appear that all is well when in fact some piece of the puzzle isn't functioning properly.

"I can say my database hasn't been down in three weeks, but if a user can't connect because of an issue on a firewall somewhere, from a business perspective, the database is not available," Herold says. "So the question is, where are we measuring from?"

That's where IT service management comes in. The idea with service management is to determine whether a specific business service or application is being delivered to end users as intended, with proper performance and availability. Part of the equation involves identifying those services that are most critical to the organization, to ensure they get the attention they deserve -- hence forcing communication between the IT and business organizations. Service management also involves monitoring every component involved in delivering each service, including servers, routers, end stations and everything in between.

To achieve all that, Herold advises clients to use the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) model. (Link to ITIL home page.) ITIL, which was originally developed in England in the late 1980s, provides documentation that describes best practices for achieving IT service management.

"It gives you guidelines for how to measure," he says, noting it is flexible enough to be adapted to any environment.

Tools of the Trade

ITIL can also be incorporated into IT service management tools, including HP OpenView Service Desk, an OpenView module that addresses service management. Herold's company is an OpenView reseller.

Other service management tools include Panacya's BusinessAware and Silas Technologies, Inc.'s Silas Reveille. Reveille is a set of software and services that provides a user-level view of the health of applications and services as well as a proactive problem isolation process, says Chris Edden, senior VP with Silas, based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"The big issue in problem support in a complex environment is not so much fixing the problem as finding it," he says. Rather than a general fire alarm alerting users to a problem, Reveille provides a targeted alert. If it pinpoints the problem to a database, it alerts the database administrator.

"You can avoid chaotic isolation activities that are common," Edden says.

Reveille accomplishes that by exercising an application as if it were an end user. It also decomposes services into their component sub processes and independently observes each one to isolate problems.

"So it's not just, is the server up, but is the application code operating on that server actually satisfying the request it's expected to?" he says.

Panacya's BusinessAware performs similar functions but also focuses on delivering rapid return on investment by automatically identifying and mapping new application components. That capability is crucial in an era when companies may refresh an application multiple times per quarter, Negri says.

"For all intents and purposes, the application changes trickle down into infrastructure changes as well," he says. BusinessAware will automatically identify those changes and map them to its service model.

Ultimately, the goal of products like BusinessAware is two-fold, Negri says: detect a failure before it impacts a service and reduce the mean time to repair any malfunctions by pinpointing their source. Achieving those goals will go a long way toward keeping the business side of the house happy with its IT organization.