Olé to OLA – the art of managing ITSM and SIAM


Flamenco may not, on first glance, have much in common with Operational Level Agreements in SIAM. But being able to successfully manage and improve the relationships with different IT service partners is like bringing together the guitar, song and dance to create a unified, effective and enhanced performance.

I am a hoarder, especially of any piece of documented ITSM knowledge. I still hold on dearly to the 1995 Service Desk Guide, compiled and published by HUG (today known as the Service Desk Institute (SDI)) and it is fascinating to see how many ITSM vendors there were. I remember Utopia being a UK leader and that IDS (Royalblue/Fidessa) had disrupted the market with its Helpdesk for Windows solution – all very opportunistic but a strategy that clearly worked as the latter soon acquired the former, yet neither are here today to tell the tale.

At the time, I was at WorkGroup Systems (WGS), the proud author of another UK-developed service desk solution: Quetzal (also known as Visual|QSM). Like many others, in 1998 its ITIL processes were accredited by ‘PinkVERIFY’ (part of Pink Elephant, a global IT consulting firm).

Back then, the challenge for WGS was how to build workflows within service level agreements (SLAs) that allowed management to track and escalate/reallocate a support request when the required service had a dependence outside of the internal IT organisation. This came to a head during a pitch at the BBC, where there was already an ITIL stronghold emerging with the likes of Jenny Dugmore and Shirley Lacy. The Beeb had a requirement to also include a considerable amount of broadcast technology within its IT asset management database, in those days still far from being a digitised environment, but video back-up was run across a highly complex IT infrastructure. The BBC service desk and internal 2nd and 3rd-line support groups typically handled most of the pure IT requests. However, where IT met broadcast, requests were often allocated internally and then escalated to third-party service providers and the standard SLA lacked that operational dimension.

So, Quetzal’s workflow was adapted to hold multiple targets within an SLA. In effect, any SLA that managed multiple service level targets became a formative Operational Level Agreement (OLA), a rationale that became fully developed in later versions of ITIL.

OLAs govern the dependent relationships and performances held across an SLA and are often (rightly) compared to underpinning contracts. OLAs became prevalent for large hardware contracts, with outsourced maintenance and service provision for many enterprise organisations being picked up by the likes of HP and Dell. An OLA defines the responsibilities of the internal IT support function linked to the other support groups needed for resolution and the timely delivery of services.

Certainly, by ITIL 2, the OLA and underpinning contracts were well catalogued but its importance did wain a little shortly after this version’s publication, as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) shifted hardware purchases and subsequent service responsibilities to individual employees. This was further compounded by rapid commoditisation. So, for many organisations, the importance that OLAs played in measuring service success have not always met with universal deployment.

Fast forward to 2017 and the OLA is back on the agenda, if hidden away a little. The hardware may have disappeared but multisource management of the cloud, enterprise platform providers and managed services in enterprises are now driving a greater need for differentiated service delivery. SIAM (Service Integration and Management) is now at the forefront of ITSM and the CIO’s agenda.

At the recent iTRP Connect event in Rotterdam, Martijn Adams (EMEA General Manager) and the insightful Claire Agutter (lead tutor at ITSM Zone) both alluded to the re-emerging use of OLAs. Claire cited her previous experiences of the increasing need to manage IT outsourcers in the UK Public Sector, while Martijn stated the importance of end-to-end SLAs and the use of underpinning contracts. OLAs put this into a SIAM context.

So, we are agreed that multi-sourcing of IT partners is becoming the norm for enterprise IT services. According to Gartner, in North America most enterprises, on average, are working with between 13 and 14 service providers, yet managing multiple suppliers remains a challenge for most IT organisations.

It is possible that for some organisations the requirement for SIAM is more apparent than most. For instance, if digital transformation is a stated strategy within the business and tactically is being cross-functionally pursued, then the chances are IT is onboard and ITSM service integration is underway. However, for many organisations the strategy may still be half-baked, half aspirational and IT and business services creep will be driven from the predictable silos of Sales, Marketing, Service, Finance and Manufacturing and/or Distribution. IT needs to be ready and SIAM adoption is part of that readiness.

ITSM with Service Integration is there to analyse and measure partner performance and therefore their selection. The use of the OLA as a key metric across the service management supply chain allows multiple suppliers to be benchmarked to ensure services are both best-of-breed and practice, where the conditions of performance are fully transparent.

On a day-to-day basis, those in IT service management will enjoy a more delineated range of responsibilities as their duties can better focus on users, increased strategic service delivery and contract value to significantly improve alignment with business goals.

The bottom line is where the benefits reside in utilising overarching OLAs as part of ITSM SIAM objectives. These objectives should be to:

  • Offer clear lines of management responsibility that enable greater control on every request and event within defined conditions for allocation and escalation based on contracted supplier capabilities
  • Drive cost-effective operations by increasing competitive benchmarking that encourages greater value from supplier contracts
  • Fully enable a cohesive and targeted workflow between internal ITSM, support groups and third-party service providers that garners the right behaviour to support contracted outcomes

Where the rise of SIAM within ITSM realises IT’s role in managing the many service partners, OLAs used for end-to-end service management can provide the metrics to measure and report supplier performance to contractually assess their performance to avoid expensive lock-ins. This also leaves the business to get on with utilising these services in pursuit of their internal and commercial needs as they relinquish the day-to-day technical management to IT. As such, the cost and operation risk of Shadow IT is fully mitigated with win-win, cross-functional initiatives.

Using OLAs in SIAM-mode will raise questions for many IT organisations with regards to their incumbent ITSM vendor. A best-of-breed approach will be from specialist providers, that bridge both ITSM and BSM, with a flexible ‘plug-and-play’ capability (published APIs and more) that seamlessly connects an IT organisation to the company’s service partners to transparently share events, requests, escalations, changes and resolutions. Services are contractually managed and integrated at a system, process and data level; the OLA provides the metrics for continuous improvement – olé!