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Leveraging the ITIL Service Support Framework

Service desks exist to resolve end-user computing incidents. But in many cases, the front-line service desk acts as little more than an answering service, logging incidents and forwarding them to a more senior IT person for resolution. Further, service desks often lack the information needed to address end-user incidents — particularly those that involve proprietary applications.

The under-utilization of front-line service desks poses both cost and credibility problems for IT organizations. Incident resolution costs (and indirect opportunity costs) increase as cases are passed on to more senior IT specialists. Business users suffer from productivity declines and perceptions of IT often sour as customers fail to see their issues being addressed in a timely fashion.

One approach in addressing these challenges is the implementation of integrated Service Management processes that enable the IT organization to better integrate and manage change and the flow of information between groups and disciplines within IT.

The Problem

Service desks typically function as the primary point of contact between IT and the end-user community. Despite this critical role as IT ambassadors, front-line service desks often are ill-equipped to handle many technical issues beyond the most basic desktop and networking functions such as permissions and password resets.

Service desk team members generally possess only a basic understanding of the IT infrastructure’s components (network components and desktops) and their interrelationships. Further, service desks are often not informed of planned changes to the environment. Instead, front-line service desks tend to focus more on answering the phone quickly, ensuring good customer service skills, and resolving basic and “known” incidents and service requests.

Organizations with this orientation generally exhibit the following conditions:

  • A lack of shared tools and information across IT disciplines
  • A lack of effective knowledge transfer from various teams and disciplines within the IT organization to the front-line service desk
  • Poorly adhered to, or nonexistent, processes governing IT operations

In configurations where the front-line service desk is underutilized, there exists the opportunity to significantly enhance the desk’s value by increasing its ability to resolve a larger and broader set of issues. This in turn will help contribute to reduced incident resolution costs and help to support good relations between IT and the business.

The Solution

To enhance the capacity of the service desk to provide sustained higher-end incident resolution, changes across the entire IT operation are required. This can be done by instituting integrated IT Service Management best practices that will:

  • Significantly enhance the efficiency and reliability of IT systems and infrastructure
  • Provide substantial resources to the front-line service desk to provide informed high-quality support to end users that will reduce the flow of cases to more expensive IT resources

One of the leading best practice frameworks in the provision of IT Service Management is the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, popularly known as ITIL. ITIL was developed in the 1980s when the British government determined that IT service quality provided by both internal and external resources was inadequate to its needs. Bodies within the government, in partnership with various contractors, developed the standards to be general enough to apply to public and private sector organizations of varied size and industry and with all sorts of unique needs and challenges.

Today, thousands of organizations use all or some of the ITIL standards to provide a framework to manage the provision of IT services.

Three sub-disciplines (or modules) of the ITIL best practice framework directly address key functions within the IT operation that have a direct impact on the quality of service delivered by the front-line service desk. They are:

Configuration Management

In the ITIL framework, Configuration Management is a discipline that organizations use to gain and maintain control and proper oversight of their IT infrastructure in order to deliver high-quality, consistent, and economical services to their organization. This is done by creating a comprehensive model of the IT infrastructure and its asset components, particularly focusing on the relationships between assets. In practice, Configuration Management involves the maintenance of a Configuration Management Database (CMDB), which contains details of the current state of all elements of the IT infrastructure and their relationships to one another.

Change Management

Change Management is a structured process and approach toward making changes to the IT infrastructure. It is designed to gather suggested changes from multiple constituencies, and to ensure that changes are authorized, prioritized on an enterprise basis, and that all impacts have been recognized and considered, thus reducing the potential for support incidents in the user community.

Release Management

Release Management is an ITIL discipline that uses a series of prescribed procedures and checks to ensure that any changed or new elements slated for release into the IT infrastructure do not negatively impact the live environment or its users. Release Management involves building a set of release components, testing them, assessing potential impacts, scheduling the release, and performing the release.

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Situational Relevance in Social Networking Websites

Anyone who has spent a fair amount of time on a social networking website is familiar with the “what’s next?” problem. Put quite simply, “what’s next?” is what you say to yourself after you have exhausted the novelty of the service, and from that moment on you use the site less and less.

The answer, it turns out, is actually quite simple, and it deals with the concept of situational relevance. We all have many social networks: our primary social network, which is comprised of our close friends and family, and numerous secondary social networks, which may be comprised of coworkers, classmates, neighbors, fellow church patrons, teammates and so on. As our social networks are webs, the primary and the secondary nets all intertwine; regardless, we maintain separate identities for each.

Additionally, at different times in our lives, our primary and secondary social networks grow together and apart. For example:

* As youths, our primary social network grows very close to the secondary social network of classmates.
* As we enter adulthood, our primary social network moves away from the secondary social network of our classmates, and towards the secondary social network of coworkers and community relationships.
* As grown adults, our primary social network may move closer to the secondary social networks of PTA’s, church groups and neighborhood associations.

Of course, these lists are not absolute, just illustrative examples. At different times in our lives, different social networks play more or less important roles: they are situationally relevant.

From birth through adolescence and young adulthood, our primary social network expands continuously. Eventually, we settle; the incentives for primary social network expansion, such as partnering and friend aggregation, diminish. As we settle on a core social network, the secondary social networks step forward to serve the role of providing us a steady stream of new people to meet (sustaining a human need for sociality). Just as “the new kid” was a remarkable event in grade school, the new neighbors down the street and the new vocal parent at the PTA provide us with later-life social network renegotiation that we all find interesting.

Regardless of how it is spun, all social networking websites rely on users to fuel the interestingness of the system. Users know that the websites are only as interesting as who is on them; that is why social networking website users often become advocates to non-users. However, once everyone is on the website, the users are posed with a quandary: “what’s next?” We know what happens to traffic after that point.

The actual problem is not that users are tired of each other or the sites are faddish (common explanations); it is simply that the users no longer need the website’s service. Take the case of Friendster: Aimed at a mid-to-late twenties demographic, Friendster positions itself as a way for people to visualize and expand their primary social network. The problem, of course, is that an average Friendster user has long established much of his or her primary social network. If the average user is not frequently or drastically changing his or her primary social network, a site that seeks to aid in that role is actually not useful. Visualization and exploration of a social network is simply not enough.

Let’s bring situational relevance back into the picture. In the context of social networks, situational relevance of a social networking site is based on 1) the demographic it attempts to serve, and 2) the social network it attempts to map. While it is almost always interesting to view social networks (for example, conducting a time-to-time investigation of ex-classmates on Classmates.com), to create real value, a site must be positioned properly. To do so, the site must address the social network, primary or secondary, of a demographic where that social network is relevant and in flux.

Facebook may be the best example to date of synergistic situational relevance. Facebook addresses a secondary social network (classmates) that is, at the time, closely tied to the primary social network of its demographic (college students). College students spend 4 years constantly in flux, each semester meeting new people and dynamically shifting their primary and secondary social networks. For the college student, their world is largely the campus; the Facebook provides a constant companion as they navigate the college experience. For this reason, I believe that the Facebook, as long as it continues to serve the core information needs of the students (by continuing to give them interesting ways to explore information about each other), will continue to stay relevant on college campuses for a long time to come. Of course, poor marketing or unpopular business practices could diminish the brand; nevertheless, students will always find a service like the Facebook necessary and useful, because it answers student’s social and informational needs.

I hold Facebook up as a shining example, of course, because it is the service that best fits my criteria of situational relevance. LinkedIn, the popular business networking site, is an example of a site that addresses a secondary social network of a relevant demographic. However, LinkedIn is not nearly as popular as Facebook. Unfortunately for LinkedIn, the only time people strongly rely on their personal-professional secondary social network are in times of need. When someone has a comfortable job, there is limited incentive to invest much time in a site like LinkedIn. While LinkedIn serves a real need, its users will never be simultaneously vested in the system the way Facebook’s users are.

Now let us look at Friendster and MySpace, two sites that attempt to serve the primary social network of a wide demographic. Friendster and MySpace eschew situational relevance, opening up the door to all comers; as a result, both are faced with the “what’s next” problem. Friendster did not successfully deal with this problem; MySpace, by properly leveraging the userbase’s media interests, is in the process of a transformation. Both sites effectively realized that leveraging non-dynamic social networks eventually lead to burnout, or “what’s next?”

Addressing secondary social networks of relevant demographics may seem formulaic, but it requires changing attitudes towards the ways websites support social networks. For example, residents of a neighborhood, whose primary social network do not change, are interested in the constantly changing secondary social networks that comprise their neighbors. Church members, again, whose primary social networks do not vastly change, are very interested in the constantly changing secondary social networks of their fellow worshippers. These networks are large, personally relevant and dynamic (new neighbors move in, new worshippers join the church, families expand and change, etc); unfortunately, simply setting up neighborhoodsocialnetwork.com or churchsocialnetwork.com is not the answer.

Secondary social networks do not benefit from economies of scale. That is, simply because I am interested in my fellow neighbors, I am not interested in all neighbors everywhere, nor do I wish for all neighbors everywhere (a secondary social network that may encompass many of my social networks) to be able to see my particular identity in that social network. In each social network, we possess a unique identity; this is why the Facebook works. In the Facebook, students can retain a particular identity without worry of everyone (parents, siblings) being privy to that identity. In essence, the vast, untapped secondary social networking market is comprised of semi-open (gated) secondary social network communities.

Imagine gated social networks for parents of students at a school. Imagine gated social networks for the in-flux neighborhoods of a place like Cary, NC or Northern Virginia. Imagine a gated social network for church members, for employees of a company, for adults entering retirement living. All of these cases, and the many more like it, involve in-flux social networks that the relevant demographic is personally vested in, where they have strong incentive to participate. Since these secondary social networks are gated, users are comfortable the way college students are comfortable in the Facebook.

Of course, there are difficulties that come with this model. The Facebook gets off easy by limiting access by email accounts; they let the universities do the gating for them. Gating churches and neighborhoods are harder, but how much harder? I can think of a number of solutions off the top of my head; if a business could solve this problem elegantly, there’s no limit to the secondary social networks that can be augmented by websites. In a sense, this is the perfect long tail, and everything that is right about Web 2.0. There’s gold in them hills, people. Now go get it.