5. Think and work holistically – the fifth guiding principle of ITIL4

With the new and updated version of ITIL there is also an update on the 9 guiding principles first introduced with ITIL Practioner. These new set of 7 principles provides practical help with making decisions when adopting the ITIL4 framework:

  1. Focus on Value
  2. Start where you are
  3. Progress Iteratively with feedback
  4. Collaborate and promote visibility
  5. Think and work holistically
  6. Keep it simple and practical
  7. Optimize and automate

In a series of blogs I will look into each principle asking how these will provide guidance when adopting the ITIL4 framework and when improving the service management capabilities of the IT provider. To me these guiding principles should support the decision making when adopting or improving IT service management. It is also important to note that these principles will have to work together. The principles will not work in isolation, it is not a matter of pick-and-choose.

Think and work holistically

Of all the guiding principles supporting ITIL4 this principle is probably the most difficult to grasp. It is often quite hard for people to see and understand their role in relation to the whole of the organization. When the organization is small it is a bit easier to understand how your work fits in. Organizations that become bigger loose the obvious connections between the different tasks executed and how these combined work for to create value. It is easier for people working in the IT department to concentrate on the systems that are in front of them than to think about how these systems support colleagues working in another department. Colleagues you might never encounter in person because they are far away and have no reason to visit the locations where the IT department is located.

Part of a larger system

Behind this principle of thinking and working holistically is the idea that companies and organizations are systems. There are several different ways to look at systems In the mechanical approach systems are made from components that can be taken out, upgraded and replaced. In this approach you can freeze an organizational unit, take out the non-functioning parts and give the rest an update before you unfreeze again to accomplish a successful reorganization.

On the other hand is the organic approach to system thinking that takes a different view. In this view the system is more than just a collection of individual parts. If you take a part out the system might be gravely harmed. In order to make changes you look more into making improvements by training and educating. You can make a cut to take out a problematic part, but you have to give it time to heal.

The mechanical approach fits IT better (at first glance)

The holistic approach to systems align more with the organic view on system thinking. And that is a bit of a problem where the approach to IT systems tend to be more aligned with the mechanical view. The idea that you can implement a framework like ITIL fits more with the mechanical than the organic view on organizations. Likewise the concept of different and better versions as illustrated by the use of version numbers. And technology itself has become more integrated and connected making it harder to isolate a component for upgrading or replacing.

The mechanical view on systems is useful when dealing with machines and technology in a stand-alone situation. Where you can take out isolate the malfunctioning part or where you can disconnect the computer. When computers and programs are part of a larger system and are connected to the world 24 hours a day, the mechanical approach becomes problematic. The tendency to separate functions into smaller functions with each a different focus weakens the overall view on relations and connections.

It can be hard linking business needs to IT performance

Some years ago I was asked to analyze the trends in capacity demands for a mainframe systems. I had to speak to system administrators, technical application developers, functional application developers and more. Each of them was looking at a different aspect of the main solution. One group saw only the batches with scripts. Another group looked into the operation of specific jobs. And the third group saw only the CPU cycles and memory usage. None of these were linked in some useful way. Nobody could tell me how the business transactions related to the jobs, scripts and batches and ultimately to CPU and memory use. In the end it came down to pure statistics and data analysis between the number of transactions and the total CPU and memory usage of any specific days.

This illustrates a common problem in IT that the principle of thinking and working holistically is addressing. Instead of focusing on the components within the control of the IT department, the focus should be moved on the connections between the components and the usage by the business. The focus should be on contribution to the value by the collaboration of the collection of components the IT department has responsibility for.

We cannot design Humans (yet)

Humans, human interaction and human behavior play an essential role in organizations. When applying the think and work holistically principle the human factor is a main consideration. The human factor is often underappreciated in IT. From a mechanical perspective humans should behave as is expected of their role in the organization. You should be able to design process flows, create tasks and responsibilities, assign human resources, push a button somewhere and go. Or not….

Humans already have ideas on their own

The first problem is that in most situations people were already doing work and performing tasks before a friendly consultant decided to create ITIL based process flows. And there is not such a thing as wiping a workers memory and start afresh with a new set of instructions or program. People have to be instructed, trained, coached, evaluated, managed and convinced to perform tasks and to deliver results in a certain way. You can design systems like organizations only to some degree, humans are not like to show the designed behavior from scratch.

Users are human too

The second problem is that you have humans performing activities to deliver technology as well as humans using technology. Surprise, users are human too. Even well-designed technology will be left unused when the users themselves were not part of the consideration. Collaboration between technology providers and business users, as described in the principle collaboration and promote visibility, is not a mathematical, rational and logical process. There will be assumptions, biases, emotions, fears, different perspectives and more human factors that need to be addressed. One of the most common assumptions by many business users is that you need to have specific technology knowledge and skills to use technology. An assumption that will prevent technology from being used and will costs companies of lot of money invested in unused or underused technology. The answer is to invest in User Adoption or User Experience programs, with the risk that technology is very user-friendly but still not fit-for-purpose.

Organizations are part of a larger ecosystem

In designing organizations as systems and designing systems from an organic perspective you will needs to address the human factor. And there are humans and human organizations everywhere. The customers of your companies products tend to be human, your suppliers tend to be human organizations and even the bureaucrats in governmental organizations might on occasion be human as well. And they are all connected in the context of your organizations business and as part of the value chain. They form part of the ecosystem your organization is operating in. When you are working in IT services you should consider the ecosystem as part of your domain of concerns. For instance by looking into the IT systems used by your organizations competition and how these relate to your use of technology. Is your IT comparable to the competition or lagging behind? What are the developments in your market and how can you and your organization benefit?

An holistic view on ITIL is not easy

Taking a broader view on how IT supports your company or organization and seeking to understand the different ways how IT connects to the business and to the ecosystem are important aspects of thinking and working holistically. When using a collection of best practices like ITIL is also good to understand the connections within ITIL itself. The different practices should not be seen as disconnected and on their own. For instance, it doesn’t make much sense to focus on incident management by itself and ignore the problem management (this is not uncommon) or availability management practices. Both these practices help to define what to report in incident management to learn what is happening and to be able to identify ways to prevent future outages.

The broader view and the human aspect of IT services

In the end the principle of think and work holistically is about taking the broader view and finding connections and dependencies between IT systems and business use. It is about taking the human factor in consideration when making changes to the organization. Reserving time for training, communication and conversations. And it is about showing how different behavior and actions interact with each other and can both strengthen or weaken the contribution of IT to the value of the organization.

Principle 4: Collaborate and promote visibility

Principle 6: Keep it simple and practical