In the 1970s, when the American auto industry found itself under attack by leaner, hungrier Japanese competitors, it fought back by adopting some of the very production processes the Japanese had pioneered. Using techniques such as statistical process control, quality circles, just-in-time inventory management, total quality management, lean manufacturing, and Six Sigma, the industry focused on improving how its people worked and how its processes operated. For example, workers were encouraged to stop the assembly line when anything went wrong so the process could be fixed permanently, rather than simply scrapping rejects at the end of the line.
Today, American IT organizations are at a similar crossroads, facing challenges from offshore outsourcers and from internal financial pressures. In response, they’re stealing a page from their global competitors’ playbooks -- a process framework developed in the United Kingdom called ITIL, or IT Infrastructure Library.
Like the CMM (Capabilities Maturity Model) for application development, ITIL is a set of best practices and standard methodologies for core IT operational processes such as change, release, and configuration management; incident and problem management; capacity and availability management; and financial management for IT. Although the datacenter is ITIL’s primary target, its best-practices templates apply across almost every IT environment, from the service desk to the corporate desktop.
ITIL adoption is growing like a weed. Four years ago, ITIL was already in high gear in Europe, but almost no one in the United States had heard of it. Today a rapidly growing North American industry of consultants, conferences, and training resources is spreading the ITIL gospel and helping customers implement it. “We can’t keep up with the demand from organizations like the big airlines, government departments, and banks and insurance companies,” says David Ratcliffe, CEO of Pink Elephant, an ITIL consultancy based in Toronto.
“It’s spreading like wildfire across large U.S. companies,” says Kathryn Pizzo, a group program manager at Microsoft’s consulting division. That growth raises some interesting big-picture questions about the future of IT: Could ITIL, with its concept of a CMDB (centralized configuration management database), be the catalyst for the widespread realization of utility computing? And will success with ITIL hinge more on automating processes, as vendors would like us to believe, or on getting human beings to work more efficiently?
In a sense, ITIL is nothing more than a reincarnation of the stringent management processes that evolved in the mainframe world before the proliferation of PCs, client-server, and Web-based architectures made those operational disciplines seem anachronistic.
So why is ITIL taking hold in the U.S. now after being virtually ignored for years? For one thing, its two biggest benefits -- improving service and reducing costs -- are right in line with the new marching orders IT organizations got when the economy slowed down in 2001. “It’s really about moving from being technology-centric to being services-centric,” says Regina Kershner, director of IT service management at HP Services.