Ordering help desk services, Amazon.com style

If some software vendors have their way, ordering services from corporate IT departments may start looking more and more like ordering a book from Amazon.com. But the idea has attracted limited attention from IT managers so far.

In April, BMC Software Inc., of Houston, added an online service request tool called BMC Service Request Management to its Business Service Management (BSM) product. Users log in and see a Web-based graphical user interface from which they can choose services, from resetting a password to ordering a laptop, says Gerry Roy, group manager for service management at BMC.

BMC SRM presents each end user with a menu of IT services tailored to his or her position, Roy says. For instance, the menu that a department manager with hiring authority sees would include an option to set up IT services for a new employee, while someone without hiring authority wouldn’t see that option. “I’m only going to see the services I’m entitled to see,” Roy said.

When service requests need superiors’ approval, SRM will route them to the appropriate people, Roy says. Then, BMC SRM will automatically create a request for IT staff to act on. Nothing will change for IT staff using BSM, who will see the same requests in their inboxes, he says.

Though this is still an emerging category, BMC is not the first to enter it. In February Kinetic Data Inc. of St. Paul, Minn., which provides add-ons for BMC’s software, launched Kinetic Request, a service request management product designed to integrate with BMC’s software. And newScale Inc., in Foster City, Calif., offers a Web-based tool called RequestCenter to give end users a consistent way of requesting services from a standardized catalogue.

NewScale launched RequestCenter, its first product, in 1999, says Jason Schroedl, the company’s vice-president of corporate and product marketing. “NewScale has been leading the charge, if you will,” he says.

The Sears catalogue approach

The idea of substituting a kind of Sears catalogue of IT services for a more ad-hoc approach to service requests is getting a boost from the recent publication of the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) Version 3 framework for IT management.

The ITIL update, published in April, will treat service requests as a separate process for the first time, rather than just as particular types of incidents. The change is “just recognizing what’s reality” and cleaning up the ITIL standard, says Jack Probst, an IT management consultant with Toronto-based Pink Elephant Inc., which specializes in IT infrastructure management, with an emphasis on ITIL.

Probst doubts that the arrival of new service request management tools such as BMC’s and Kinetic Data’s is a result of the ITIL revision, but, he says both developments result from growing awareness that services should be better handled. “I see organizations beginning to recognize that this catalogue of services needs to be as well managed as, say, the service catalog that ties into service level management,” says Probst.

Roy says self-serve tools to handle service requests are appearing because budget-strapped IT departments need more efficient ways to handle requests from end users and because people are getting used to doing more things online. “We’re going to continue to see more and more online catalogues. We’ll be able to get pretty much everything we need online,” Roy says. “Self-service and assisted service are going to be the two big pushes for these next few years.”

Phone it in

Canadian IT managers aren’t necessarily clamouring to climb on the service request bandwagon, though.

The IT department at James Richardson International, a Winnipeg-based grain merchandiser and agricultural products supplier, prefers that users phone in their requests. “We tend to have a very personal, service-based model,” says Paul Beaudry, director of technical services, management information services at James Richardson, “so we encourage our users to call us.”

JRI has fewer than 1,500 employees, Beaudry says, so this approach is manageable. In a larger company, he admits, such a personal approach might not be viable.

Schroedl says larger companies with 5,000 or more employees were the first to adopt service catalogue tools. “The pain is greater in very large companies,” he says. In the last couple of years, though, Schroedl says there is growing interest among mid-sized companies with 1,000 to 5,000 employees.

Borden Ladner Gervais already gives users the ability to request IT services through a Web portal, says Joel Alleyne, the national law firm’s chief information officer and chief knowledge officer, “but they don’t usually use it.” Alleyne says Borden Ladner is in the midst of ITIL implementation and training, and will focus on service request management and promoting its self-service capability more in the future.

Steve Norris, manager of information systems at the City of Niagara Falls, says the Ontario city doesn’t have a service request management system currently, and adopting one isn’t on his radar. And John Melodysta, vice-president of information technology at office supplies retailer Grand & Toy in Toronto, says his IT department has other priorities right now.

Still work to do

Schroedl acknowledges there is still some work to do in educating the market about the value of service management. “For a time, there was some confusion around what a service request was,” he says, “and frankly some of that was perpetuated by ITIL.” Now that ITIL Version 3 has given the subject “the attention that it really deserves,” Schroedl expects awareness of the concept will continue to improve.

Besides making it easier for end users to request services, Schroedl says, service catalogue tools will help them track the status of their requests. And IT will gain a better picture of what services are being requested and how efficiently they are being provided, which will help improve service. “We’re seeing companies that have been able to reduce the time it takes to fulfill those services by 30 per cent or more,” Schroedl says.

The idea might even spread farther. “It’s not just a service catalogue for IT,” says Schroedl. “There can also be a service catalog for facility services.” In future a manager might log on to request not just a PC and network access for a new employee, but a desk, phone and employee badge too.

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