Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a collection of best practices for IT service management, was developed by the government of the United Kingdom, but it's getting more and more attention these days from businesses in the United States. Large businesses, with their vast array of technology, typically silo’d IT infrastructures, and large IT staffs, have had both the problems and the resources to be the leaders in driving the discipline forward on this side of the pond.

But small and mid-size businesses are increasingly interested in what ITIL can do for them, as well. After all, they experience the same kinds of service delivery problems that major corporations do, although at a different level of complexity and scale. Smaller businesses also want to achieve more efficient management of their IT configurations and changes to their infrastructures, in order to gain more control and consistency in dealing with problems that affect the quality of service they can deliver to their business partners.

The five core ITIL books -- Service Strategy, Service Design, Service Transition, Service Operation, and Continual Service -- provide guidance for addressing these problems and improving results.

The beauty of ITIL, however, is that the books aren’t gospel. ITIL is adaptable to the requirements of companies of all sizes. “Regardless of size, IT managers and shops do see the benefits of ITIL,” says Morgan Chmara, research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. “The adopt-and-adapt theory is where it’s reassuring for smaller business IT leaders.”

Best practices for a five-person IT shop

Small and mid-size businesses may want to concentrate first on adopting a phased approach to implementing ITIL in incident, problem, configuration, and change management -- the core areas of the service desk function. Or a single person can be given responsibility for two roles, such as help desk and change manager, which in larger organizations would be divided between two different people.

Knowing which ITIL processes will have a big impact on the business -- and addressing them first -- pays off in multiple ways. For instance, solving particular problems in small bites will show the business why it’s worth going further down the ITIL road. The fact is that ITIL is not necessarily an easy sell in small companies with limited resources, since IT leaders can’t promise an end date to what is really a continual service improvement process. Nor can they translate at the outset the benefits of increased process efficiency, improved service quality, and better customer service into hard dollar cost-savings.

Chmara advises that smaller businesses invest the time upfront to make sure ITIL is understood, and to evaluate where ITIL can be of assistance out of the gate. “Then from there you can go in to the next steps -- is there somewhere that would be a quick win? Start small and show quick wins so you can demonstrate the benefits,” she says.

Other experts agree that IT managers can improve buy-in along the chain of command by demonstrating short-term gains. “ITIL is a journey with different wave points along the way, and as you perfect one element it sustains a project,” says Chris Aherne, a managing director at BMC Software, which makes a suite of business service management products. “For example, if asset management is an area where there is concern or pain, and you resolve that, it shows the value of ITIL and having a service management strategy, and makes it easier to get buy-in to optimize the service desk or whatever the next phase might be.”

Cohesive infrastructure can lead to savings

Over time, having a better and more cohesive IT infrastructure -- where incidents are closely tracked, problems are solved in the same way every time, and changes are monitored to see their potential effect on other parts of the infrastructure -- will result in long-term savings. 

Andy Atencio, chief technology officer of Colorado’s Greenwood Village, and a contributor to the book, ITIL Small-scale Implementation, published in the United Kingdom, has some good advice for his colleagues in the small business sector. His municipality operates with a five-person IT organization. But Greenwood Village has been able to define and use ITIL practices for service desk management, incident management, and problem and change management. The city is also beginning to work on configuration, availability, and capacity management processes. In the process, he's encountered some problems, such as not having many ITIL training options in the Denver area. But he's also seen successes, such as achieving a 1 to 2 percent increase in customer service levels.

He recommends not only that small organizations read ITIL Small-scale Implementation to figure out how to approach deploying ITIL, but also that they consider the IT Service Management Forum USA as a resource. “Small organizations can benefit from the lessons learned of other organizations, and save themselves the pain of going down a bad road by getting plugged in to this organization,” he says. This year, Atencio will be giving a presentation based on the book at the itSMF national conference in Charlotte, N.C.

The key thing is not to get scared off before you start. “When I approached ITIL for the first time it was a very daunting thing,” Atencio says. “You look at all of the processes and read in the core books that every process has to have an individual owner and you wonder, how can I possibly move to these best practices if I only have five individuals?"

But as small organizations work through ITIL processes, Atencio says, "you realize that it is only as complex as you want or need to make it for the culture and goals of your organization.”