IT Administration | Feature

Secrets of the Service Catalog

An effective service catalog serves multiple roles: to steer users to the appropriate resource, to communicate to the campus what IT does, and to help IT stay within its own capabilities.

For an in-depth look at how the University of Michigan is implementing a new governance model that involves a transition to shared services for IT, read Extreme Makeover: IT Edition.

When a college or university moves to a shared-services model in which multiple entities are responsible for delivering IT services, a certain level of confusion is common: Users are uncertain about whom to contact for particular technology needs, while even the IT people may not know who is responsible for what. It's in situations like these that a robust service catalog can prove invaluable.

That's certainly the hope at the University of Michigan, which is implementing a whole new IT governance structure that envisions IT services being provided by four different types of organizational structure: central IT, external service providers, IT within a given academic or department unit, and IT delivered by two or more units working together. Without a trustworthy service catalog, making sense of the new structure would be a massive headache for everyone involved.

At its most basic, a service catalog provides a list of IT services available across campus, typically searchable and categorized by type, so users can find out what's available where. As with most things technical, however, it gets more complicated from there. The idea of the service catalog derives from the work of ITIL, the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, a collection of guides that grew out of efforts by the UK government to systemically improve the delivery and management of IT services.

There are two types of catalogs, each with its own jargon, said John Borwick, an assistant director at Wake Forest University (NC) who leads the continual service improvement program for the institution's Information Systems.

One type is the business service catalog, "where all the language makes sense to people outside IT," he said. At Wake Forest, the business service catalog is brief--about a dozen services--and tends to use the language of ordinary users. The technical service catalog, intended for IT people, describes services in a much more granular fashion. "Those technical services roll up to the business service," Borwick explained.

While a campus user would consult the business service catalog to learn how to obtain internet connectivity, for example, an IT staff member would then tap the technical service catalog to determine which services were needed to support that request: wireless access, 802.1x authentication, and RADIUS authentication.

What's in the Service Catalog
The listing for each service might include a brief description, as well as details about who is eligible to receive the service, when the service is available, what service levels the provider guarantees, what features and benefits are provided, and how much it costs.

Borwick pointed out that cost is frequently tied to the service-level guarantee. He recalls a state agency that won an award from the IT Service Management Forum for its ITIL implementation. "They created blanket service-level agreements for each of their business services," he says. "Then, if a department wanted coverage beyond what the SLA provided, it could get a rider--like an insurance rider for an expensive piece of jewelry--that it would pay for."

For instance, a research compute cluster might provide each user with a quota for disk space. Users needing additional storage would pay an ongoing fee toward buying and maintaining the extra space.

The service catalog should also provide a mechanism for customers to make requests. "With e-mail support, you want a way for customers to order a new listserv, get a guest e-mail account, or get a quote for an increase in e-mail quota--all the things they can act on related to that service," Borwick said.

The Value of the Service Catalog
Borwick believes the service desk or help desk manager should be tasked with promoting the service catalog to the campus community--and given the resources to make it work. "They're in the best position to advertise it, because they're the ones getting the most benefit from it," he explained. "Their team should reap substantial benefit from users going through the web rather than having to contact the service desk. Hopefully, the user is happier and the service desk has less work."

There are myriad ways to educate the campus about the service catalog: If users are put on hold during a call to the help desk, for example, a recorded message could highlight the catalog as a source of additional help. References to the catalog could be integrated into the training that users receive for new software. It could also be referenced in e-mail replies to users who submit a ticket to the help desk. And it could have a visible presence on the IT website.

Changing user behavior is vital to the success of a service catalog. If it's not used, it can't deliver benefits. A primary advantage is that it helps communicate the value of IT back to the campus, helping others understand that IT delivers more than just a bunch of hardware, software, and programming.

The service catalog also provides a means for monitoring service usage and expectations, and modifying them as business requires. "The tendency of IT is to keep running all the same services while people ask IT to do more and more," Borwick observed. "Something's going to give, and it's going to be service quality."

Staying on top of the listings in the service catalog forces IT to manage its operational load. Every time a new project comes up, IT needs to figure out whether it's going to create a new service, deliver that service through external sources, make modifications to an existing service, or get rid of something in order to maintain balance and service levels.

For example, Wake Forest has e-mail support, but this fall it will also have a sitewide license for Webex, Cisco's video-meeting and web-conferencing technology. "Webex is a similar communication tool to e-mail in some ways," Borwick pointed out. "Our e-mail support is going to change to become more about communication and collaboration." To include Webex in the service catalog appropriately, he noted, will require IT to "step further away from the technical tools and more toward the business value for why those tools exist. That will help us make better decisions about when our services overlap and when we need to streamline them."

In this respect, the service catalog can be viewed as a way for IT to link the activities it performs to the institution's goals and strategies. "A service catalog is a linchpin that ideally ties everything IT is doing operationally to things that are useful for campus," Borwick concluded.

Service Catalog Tips

John Borwick of Wake Forest University offered guidance for getting the most from a service catalog.

  • Understand the value you're seeking. IT needs to ask itself why it has a service catalog and be prepared to revise it until it's just right for the institution. Your initial business service catalog might be used by the CIO more as a talking point than as a source users refer to. Or your catalog might be the mechanism by which IT handles financial management, by capturing how dollars are being spent. Each of these values requires a different approach to the service catalog.
  • Don't wait on a tool. Although multiple vendors sell service catalog software, Borwick said the catalog could be as simple as an HTML file. "The biggest step forward," he noted, isn't the creation of the catalog itself, but the shift in thinking that happens in converting IT into a service organization--along with the conversations IT will have with the rest of the campus about the services it will deliver.
  • Use your change process. Treat changes to your service catalog in the same way you treat a production or process change. "We use our change-management process whenever we change our service catalog to make sure that our IT leadership is on the same page with those changes," Borwick said. Likewise, don't be shy about removing entries that are no longer valid. A dated service catalog won't be trusted by users and therefore won't be used.
  • Think like an end user. When writing descriptions for your business service catalog, use non-IT people to help develop the terminology and the categories. "If you have a bunch of applications rather than services listed, you're getting to a level of detail that's not productive," Borwick said. Wake Forest has used a CIO Fellow--a graduate who comes back to the university and serves a mentorship--to gather feedback from administrators about what they thought IT was doing and to capture the language they used to describe it.
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