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Upskilling Your Service Management Office (SMO)

By Donna Knapp and Jeff Jensen

Let’s answer the obvious question first. What is a service management office (SMO)? ITIL® describes an SMO as a “group or department that functions as a center of excellence for service management, ensuring continual development and the consistent application of management practices across an organization.” So given that service management is a “set of specialized organizational capabilities for enabling value for customers in the form of services”, it is the SMO that helps the organization to develop these capabilities.

A SMO can be formalized and have significant authority to drive service management in the organization, or it can be less-formal teams focused on continual development of the organization’s management practices. In some organizations, the SMO provides a management structure for the various practice/process owners and managers to report into. This also allows for a roll-up of enterprise metrics and reporting, and in some cases provides governance for ITSM practices.

It is important to recognize that in some organizations, governance has a negative connotation. This is often because of heavy-handed policies, or policies that seem to be out of sync with the organization’s strategy. The SMO can play an important role in breaking down bureaucracy and ensuring that policies and controls are ‘sufficient but not excessive’, as explained in ITIL: Direct, Plan and Improve. The SMO can also help distinguish between controls that are necessary to satisfy legal and regulatory requirements and internal controls that can be adapted (compensating controls) or possibly even eliminated.

In this role, the SMO can monitor the performance and conformance of management activities against the direction provided by governing bodies (such as corporate steering committees) and can examine those activities to ensure that they are appropriate to the organization’s circumstances, needs, and goals from a strategic, tactical, and operational perspective. This is particularly important as organizations aim to accelerate their digital transformation initiatives, maximize the velocity of product development and innovation efforts, keep products reliable, enhance customer experience, and drive cost efficiencies.

SMO team members act as practice leads and coaches, ensuring that management practices are effectively and consistently applied and integrated in the context of the value streams. They can also monitor the development of established and emerging practices in the industry, ensuring that the organization adopts relevant innovations and that its practices are relevant and up to date.

Why is this so important? The benefits of leveraging established best practices are many and range from establishing a common vocabulary and shared understanding of concepts, to minimizing the proverbial reinventing of the wheel. Organizations cannot, however, stop there. A characteristic of the highest performing organizations is the ability to continuously improve. This involves listening to customers and employees and being on the lookout for emerging practices and relevant innovations, and then determining if, when, and how these insights can enable the organization to improve. 
This does not negate the investments previously made in best practices. Rather, it builds on those investments by combining customer and employee feedback with the latest ways of thinking and working to get your practices ‘just right’… for now.
Essentially, the SMO fosters a culture of continual learning and improvement. In DevOps, The Third Way is about creating a culture that fosters two things: continual experimentation, taking risks, and learning from failure; and understanding that repetition and practice is the prerequisite to mastery. Concepts an effective SMO should live and breathe.

To lead and coach others, members of the SMO must first commit to ensuring they themselves are continually learning and improving. They can do this by:
  1. Getting clear on the organization’s strategy. Everything the SMO does needs to align with the organization’s strategic vision and goals and so team members need to be well versed. Industry knowledge and an understanding of trends that are impacting and disrupting the industry are a plus.
  2. Identifying and learning about relevant best practices, frameworks, and guiding principles. No one framework is perfect. Members of the SMO need to learn about and align relevant ways of working and should be masters in how to ‘adopt and adapt’.
  3. Becoming experts in continual improvement. The SMO is ideally positioned to mentor and coach teams on how to continually improve. This means that members need to learn about and practice principles-based ways of working along with proven methods and techniques. Yes, there are processes for improving value streams and processes!
Upskilling SMO Team Members

So, what are the knowledge and skills that SMO team members need to fill this critical role? SMO team members should work to increase their subject matter expertise in areas such as (but not limited to):
  • ITIL 4 (particularly the advanced perspectives gained in the Managing Professional and Strategic Leader schemes)
  • Framework alignment (ITIL 4 and DevOps, Lean, Agile, Agile Service Management, Site Reliability Engineering, and so on, as relevant to the organization)
  • Practice/process objectives aligned to strategic objectives (adopt and adapt)
  • Coaching, facilitation, and transformational leadership
  • Value stream and process mapping, design, reengineering, improvement, and management
  • Baselining, benchmarking, assessment, and continual improvement techniques (e.g., the Continual Improvement Model, the Improvement and Coaching Katas, Kaizen)
  • Enterprise and outcomes-based reporting, measurement cascades and hierarchies, dashboards
  • Backlog management (particularly in the context of the continual improvement backlog or register)
  • Systems thinking, complexity thinking, design thinking, design of experiments, hypothesis testing
  • Communication and organizational change management strategies
This is admittedly a lot and likely represents years of formal and informal education. It speaks to the need to fill this team with individuals that are curious, open-minded, and committed to lifelong learning.

SMO team members must be willing to learn and willing to teach.

It is also important to recognize that the SMO is a team and so different individuals can contribute different levels of expertise. Building a team filled with T- and M-shaped individuals that possess a common broad base of skills, while also excelling individually in particular specialty areas will benefit both the individuals and the organization tremendously. An education strategy can be used to determine the knowledge and skills that team members need to understand the role they play within the organization (or aspire to play within the organization), along with expected behaviors.

The strategy can also establish, based on each individual’s background, role(s), and

responsibilities, the levels of knowledge and skills needed such as:
  • Aware – Understands key concepts and why they are important
  • Core – Can use the concepts as needed in the performance of a given role and set of responsibilities
  • Advanced – Can mentor others, lead teams, and improve or transform the concepts                  
Putting the SMO to the Test

Realizing a return on an education strategy requires a commitment from both SMO team members and their respective organizations. A key to ensuring the application of education and the attainment of desired outcomes is an action plan that is aligned with the goals set when defining the strategy.

Approaches will vary based on the expected level of competency but could include:
  • Applying lessons learned to make measurable improvements to the organization’s products, services, practices, technology, people, etc.
  • Facilitating value stream or process mapping workshops and supporting the resulting improvement efforts
  • Setting up and conducting experiments and reporting the findings
  • Taking on a project or task that is beyond the team member’s current knowledge or skills in order to ‘stretch’ the individual developmentally (e.g., by applying newly acquired knowledge or skills)
  • Mentoring and coaching others
  • Leading a team or improvement project
The overall goal is to create an education strategy that enables the SMO to acquire and then transfer to the organization the needed service management capabilities, and that contributes to the attainment of desired business outcomes and the shift to a learning culture.

To learn more, consider the following ITSM Academy workshops and certification courses:


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