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ITSM Capabilities: It’s Not About the Processes!

By | July 12, 2016 in Service Desk

Producing value in ITSM

Ever hear that ITSM (and ITIL) are not about the processes? If that’s true, then why are the ITIL volumes full of processes? Incident management, change management, release, and so on. Twenty-six of them, at last count. What am I missing?

Processes Are Great, But…

If you look at IT from the perspective of the customer – as all IT providers should – it becomes immediately obvious that processes are vastly less important than the outcomes the customer can see. Customers know processes are key to producing outcomes, but frankly, the customers care very much about the outcomes, and very little about the processes themselves.

So, let’s agree on this:

Outcomes are more important than processes.

Pearl Zhu talks about Business Capability versus Processes over at Future of CIO. The article is well worth reading; in it, she describes a process as how it’s done, whereas a capability is what is done. In other words – what’s accomplished, or (the outcome).

It comes down to this – a process by itself doesn't produce value. Processes produce outputs.  What the business is able to achieve with those outputs are business outcomes, and can be measured in monetary terms.

In a corporate environment, directors and senior managers are accountable for how they spend the company's money. They must ensure that what the company is investing in produces optimum value for the stakeholders.

IT spend is no different. Whatever investments a company makes in IT must be held to that same standard – that of producing maximum value for the organization.

Where I'm driving at is simply this: companies don't invest in processes. At least they shouldn't. What they do invest in is the capabilities that processes enable for the company.

Organizational Capabilities

Think of it like this. A manufacturing company owns a tool like, say, an industrial sewing machine. Picture it sitting in a dark warehouse under a musty tarp. Last time it was used was 1996 when the company made automotive upholstery. Does it still work? We assume so. But it takes more than a functional tool to make a sellable product.

For the sewing machine to produce value, you'll need:

  • Operation and maintenance manuals and processes
  • Technicians who are familiar with the machine to get it functional, test it out, and calibrate it
  • Designers and layout staff to design products
  • Manufacturing engineering to develop production templates and processes
  • Trainers and line supervisors to oversee daily operations
  • Skilled operators who are trained on the machine and processes

A pretty extensive list, and I'm greatly simplifying it to make a point. Hopefully you'll agree the machine by itself doesn't produce value. It has value, but alone, it produces no value. The same is true of IT processes – best practice or otherwise.

This is the difference between processes and capabilities. A capability is the combination of people, processes, technologies, and often – strategic partnerships, along with the wherewithal to effectively coordinate the workings of the components such that the net result has value.

ITSM process is part of a capability

You see how a process is simply one piece of a capability. Processes are important, of course, and they should be well engineered and executed. But alone, even the best of processes aren't particularly valuable.

I couldn't do justice to this topic without bringing up the not-so-polite phrase “a fool with a tool is still a fool.” Just because you have a process – a piece of a capability – doesn't mean you're able to produce business value.

This is why I prefer to talk about capabilities because it includes all the required elements as well as how well the organization orchestrates them to produce a business outcome.

But, Out Here in the Real World...

All of which brings us to the big 'who cares'?

You might be thinking: "Out here in the real world, we're focused on doing what needs to be done to deliver the types and quality of services our customers need. This is just an academic play on words that has no bearing on real life."

It’s a fair point, but before I respond, let me ask you a couple of questions:

  • When you get your car fixed, do you care about the tools and processes the mechanic uses?
  • Do you understand how a commercial kitchen works? Do you know the difference between a chef, sous chef, expediter, or caller?

Most people are really only concerned with the results, though “factory-certified mechanic,” or “world renowned chef” might catch your attention. But a car that takes the family on vacation without breaking down, or incredible tasting food is what really matters in the end.

Now to the real question: what difference does it make. Well, the certified mechanic with an enviable tool chest, whose customers' cars break down, risks going out of business. The chef with impeccable knife skills, whose guests get food poisoning, may find himself unemployed.

Out in real life, it's results that matter – the outcomes of the activities we do.

I was in a conversation recently and when I mentioned that I was well on my way to ITIL Expert certification, That Look came over their face. The "oh, you're one of those (process) people" look. I found myself explaining that processes are tools we use to deliver value to our customers. I made the analogy of the carpenter hired to make cabinets. When we talk about what I want built, I don't expect him to talk about his laser guided compound miter saw, or his pneumatic face frame clamping system. I would want to talk about things like styles, design options, wood, and finish choices. I expect him to be an expert with his tools; that's a given, part of why I hired him.

And when friends come to admire my new cabinets, not one asks about the tools of the carpenter.

Building Capabilities

When evaluating your IT capabilities, consider:

  • People. What knowledge, skills, and expertise are required? What attitudes, behaviors, and culture best support the desired outcomes?
  • Processes. What are the key inputs and outputs? How does the process fit within the current organization? How well is the process producing the desired outputs?
  • Tools. Where and how can tools/automation optimize delivery? How do these tools integrate into the organization’s infrastructure? Have your processes been engineered to meet the business’s requirements, and does the technology fully support them?
  • Partners. Where and how is the organization leveraging external providers to optimize delivery? Does the organization have the necessary skills and experience to effectively manage these relationships?

As an ITSM professional, processes are one of the tools you use to create capabilities. The wise practitioner is focused on coordinating the optimal balance of these elements to create value for their organization.

Greg Sanker

About Greg Sanker

Greg is an IT Service Management blogger, speaker, and practitioner with decades of global IT experience ranging from Fortune 10 tech giant to public sector. He lives in the Pacific Northwest (USA), where stunning natural beauty and high tech form a unique lifestyle. In his spare time, Greg hikes, bikes, and plays a bit of blues guitar. He blogs about Excellence in IT Service Management at