IT powers business transformation by getting out of the way
- By Paul McCloskey
- Dec 23, 2015
Few agencies are more dependent than NASA on the support of sophisticated teams and service desks to manage scientific research and operations support around the world.
In protecting its workforce from getting snared in time-consuming manual processes and email-based service requests, NASA’s Shared Services Center (NSSC) has turned to a new set of cloud-based tools designed to streamline agency workflows.
This fall, the NSSC went live with a project to consolidate its workflow applications in the cloud using an IT service management (ITSM) platform developed by ServiceNow Inc. The platform helps identify, replace and automate the inefficient workflows that limit the productivity of agency workers.
Using the ServiceNow platform, the NSSC has automated more than 50 services -- from provisioning IT and responding to grant requests to administering human resources and workforce services -- for 40,000 agency and contractor staff.
The firm, which is on a roll after contract awards from the Army, the U.S. Postal Service and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is helping spur a government transition to the use of digital workforce services.
“We think it’s a sea shift in the way technology will be delivered if you look at the movement to the cloud and the delivery of things as a service,” said Travis Howerton, deputy director for IT services at the Oak Ridge National Lab. “We’re a couple of years into our journey toward what we think the state of the possible will be in IT delivery.”
Eveline Oehrlich, vice president and research director at Forrester Research, says ITSM technologies have become “a key automation step to improve effectiveness and productivity of the workforce in these agencies and organizations.” Industry has been using ITSM for “a while already, and now the U.S. government is catching on,” she said.
The move toward ITSM “grew out of the function of service desks in organizations,” which are under pressure to streamline old workflows, said Oehrlich. Help desks that still rely on email-based processes for service requests end-up bogging down business workflow. However, organizations taking an ITSM approach are looking for ways to streamline service requests by letting users generate their own service inquiries, which cuts down on handoffs and unnecessary middlemen.
In its current project, the NSSC is looking for ways to extend services management for IT and other workforce services, including human resources.
The project started with using the ServiceNow platform to locate “all the processes and interactions that need to take place between legacy systems, the current tools they have in place and the people that support all those tools,” said Steve Alfieris, ServiceNow vice president of federal solutions.
That information can then be used to automate, restructure and otherwise streamline operational workflows, including processes for human resources, finance, procurement and grant applications.
“We leverage capabilities built into the platform that allow you to remove antiquated ways of doing things and really automate the process and flow of work,” he said.
The ServiceNow platform is built around a set of software suites for IT service management, IT operations management and business management. It is also used as an application development platform.
The solutions suites are also built natively on a single code base, “which allows us to capture all the activities of those independent applications,” said Alfieris. For the application developers, that means that “instead of having to start a development process all over again, they are able to leverage natively integrated applications to support the automation of the business process,” he said.
From choppers to staff onboarding
ITSM also came in handy when the Army Program Executive Office Aviation wanted to develop a life cycle management system for its helicopter forces, which it had been managing with un-integrated tools.
Today, the office treats each component of the end-to-end management of the helicopter fleet -- from technical tasks to human resources documentation as an IT service.
“Our organizational attitude is to use [ITSM] for anything and everything,” said Stephen Light, who works for SAIC as an enterprise service manager, special projects, for PEO Aviation. “The idea is that IT affects everything -- there is nothing that a person in the workforce does that’s not IT-related, including onboarding new employees.”
At Army PEO Aviation, adoption of the ITSM approach started with simple IT provisioning, but then expanded to include more technical workflows, including tasks as small as an overtime request or as big as an engineering configuration change to the helicopter fleet.
“We want to keep this simple,” Light said. “Find success in automation where you can; sometimes it’s the small wins that turn into the big wins.”
That could mean replacing a paper-based contract funding request application with a web-based form. “So that office now is adopting a service management approach, and they don’t even know it, Light said. “IT was kind of a driver for that behind the scenes.”
No more ‘mother, may I?’
That view is shared by ORNL’s Howerton, who believes that the focus on IT has overtaken the importance of services and results in discussions among agency IT managers and users.
“I think the idea is ‘quit talking about data center, quit talking about all these different technologies’ and start talking about what’s the service we’re trying to deliver,” Howerton said. “We also need to talk about what success looks like and how do we measure the ability to meet that.”
The ORNL user base, a sophisticated mix of scientific researchers, program managers and support staff, does not require a “mother, may I” approach to service calls and requests, Howerton said.
Instead, he envisions ORNL moving to a broker model of supplying services, whereby the IT department offers a user-facing catalog from which staffers can choose a range of self-service-based tools and options.
“We want to empower those users by saying, ‘here are the services we offer, pick whichever one you need to accomplish whatever science you are trying to do. You are the one who is the best position to know what you need to get your job done,’” Howerton said.
“It’s IT’s job as a broker to give you a Chinese menu you can pick off of to deliver whatever it is you need to do,” he added.
The ORNL in the last year has set up a bring-your-own-device program as a self-service model, in part to find out how to make program cost-effective. Users were offered a digital services catalog, through which they could supply enrollment information in a series of steps. Provisioning was handled on the back end.
“Historically without a platform like this, they would have had to schedule time to go our help desk area, maybe they have to wait in line,” said Howerton. “Now they do all this themselves with zero touch on the IT side.”
For Oak Ridge IT managers, the primary lesson of the project was about finding the right tool, Howerton said. “The core technology problem was that we had relied on email to do this stuff, but it really was not the appropriate tool for service delivery,” he said. The lab also gained feedback on the proper role of the IT department in setting up BYOD and similar cases.
Today, the lab is looking at how to use self-service management tools for other functions, including procurement and the checking out and reservation of scientific equipment by agency staff. “You can now reserve high-end scientific equipment from your phone the same way you in your personal life you reserve a haircut at SuperCuts,” he said. “It’s all about empowering through self-service to everybody in the lab, not just to IT.”
“We may be a back-end provider or we may not,” Howerton mused. “But we don’t want to be the provider for all things. Instead, we’re trying to use the service concept and the catalog to deliver self service for end users.”
“So we’re making that shift and we’re gluing it all together through the service management framework with a goal of transformation -- not IT transformation but organizational transformation.”