Where to Start

One of the most common questions in IT Service Management is “where do we start?”

It is a very common understanding that the IT infrastructure and therefore the management of IT is growing increasingly complex. ITSM solutions are commonly sold based on this knowledge and IT managers demonstrate significant pain from this reality. Increasing complexity is an integral part of our world today and is recognized in many areas such as science, politics, and religion. The explosion in technological innovation, however, is the driver for much of this complexity and is one of the areas in most need of solutions. Fortunately, there are tools that help people deal with complexity but they require a change in thinking and assumptions.

Systems theory is probably the most central tool for managing complexity and serves as the basis of many advanced tools. This is not an article on systems theory but we are going to use some of its concepts to determine where to start in IT Service Management. We start with the idea that the IT department is a system that both exists within a larger system, the business, and that contains systems, e.g. Incident Management System, Change Management System, etc. (processes are systems themselves that conform to very specific definitions.)

One fundamental element of systems, business systems in this instance, is that systems have boundaries. In order to have a system, one must be able to articulate which elements are within the system and which are outside the system. The IT department is typically defined by the resources that are under the control of the CIO and the results (work product) that the CIO is responsible for. Everything else is external to the system.

This concept will help clarify for many the taxonomy issue regarding the term customer. People often ask me questions about how customers interface with IT and in the resultant discussion it becomes clear that there are potentially three customers recognized by common definition; customers to the business, customers to IT, and everyone as customer. The answer to any question about how IT deals with a customer depends on exactly which customer is being discussed.

(Another layer to the customer discussion is the difference between customers and agents of the customer. This is not much of a concern in consumer based customer service guidance but in enterprise environments where there are few customers and many agents [end-users] the differences become important. This topic deserves its own article and taxonomic discussion)

Systems receive inputs and produce outputs at their boundaries. This can be seen in graphic detail with living cells, systems that have physical cell walls. In order for the cell to survive it must take in nutrients and expel waste. Most people learn about amoebas in school and how they eat by simply wrapping themselves around their prey. They reform their cell wall around the prey. Once fully enclosed in the cell wall the internal aspects of it dissolve leaving the prey totally within the amoeba to be digested.

This simple system works well for the one celled free roaming amoeba but cells that exist within larger living systems require more sophisticated mechanisms. In more advanced cells there are many different specialized mechanisms in the membrane for bringing in nutrients and passing waste out of cells. Within the cell there are usually specialized processes for receiving nutrients into the cell and for preparing waste to be excreted. Likewise, in business systems there is a need for transport across boundaries and for processes to feed these boundary interfaces.

Due to the law of entropy, Systems cannot long survive without a source of energy. In the case of living systems this energy comes in the form of food and chemical processes for breaking down molecules into ATP or from the sun through photosynthesis. Business systems are no different. They require energy in the form of negotiable assets or money. Customers provide the money that keep business systems functioning. Every organization of any size has an accounting department that defines how money is dispersed throughout the organization and how it gets into and out of systems.

IT cannot dictate how this is performed but must be aware that it is necessary for survival of the system just as nutrients are necessary for the survival of living systems. Therefore a primary interface between the IT system and the business is the receipt of budget. Much like cells in complex living organisms, business systems must provide value to the larger system in return for the survival resources they receive. Systems that don’t provide value eventually fail to receive necessary resources, wither, and die. In complex organisms where inefficient systems are not weeded out, the larger organism becomes inefficient and is eventually replaced by more efficient organisms; basic evolution.

Businesses and business systems aren’t much different. Businesses must efficiently utilize the resources they receive to produce value in procuring additional resources. Businesses that do this well create a surplus called profit and survive in the market place. Those that do it poorly wither, die, and are replaced by hardier companies. Part of this process is ensuring that internal distribution of resources is done in a manner that produces sufficient value to produce a surplus. At the level of survival every business system must ensure that it receives adequate resources and that it provides processes for turning those resources into surplus back to the larger business system.

From the IT system perspective there are therefore two primary system interfaces that are vital to its survival; budget in and services out. Every process within IT should contribute in some demonstrable way to receiving resources and turning resources into surplus. Many people will recognize this concept as the value chain. Any process, activity, or resource within IT that cannot be linked to this chain is waste and should be eliminated according to commonly recognized Lean Concepts.

Without going too much deeper into these concepts we should recognize several things:

* value exchanges between systems occur at the system boundaries
* processes are required to service those exchanges
* Processes must link to the value chain or be eliminated as waste

When using systems theory to better understand IT Service Management it becomes very clear that value/survival begins and ends at systems boundaries. In order to increase the system’s odds of survival over time there must be efficient exchanges at systems boundaries linked to internal processes that produce a surplus of value.

So the simple answer to “where do we start?” is “at the system boundaries.” Identify the most important boundary exchanges, optimize the boundary exchanges, trace the process flow from input boundary to output boundary, and optimize that process as a system.

Copyright 2010, Ron B Palmer