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ITIL® 4: It’s time to focus on people, not just SLAs

Originally posted on DevClass, June 22,2021 written by Joseph Martins and sponsored by Axelos
Experience is everything when it comes to delivering IT-enabled products and services. But it’s no longer about how many deadlines your team smashed, how often you’d exceeded service-level agreements (SLAs), or how many lines of code you’ve spat out.

Rather it’s about how the services and products you deliver impact the rest of the organisation’s ability to do their jobs, increase productivity, deliver customer satisfaction and co-create value.

“Experience” may be seen as subjective, even ephemeral, compared to the traditional IT metrics, deadlines and SLAs. But if you want proof of its importance, consider how ITIL® 4, the latest revision of the best practice framework for service management from AXELOS, focuses on improving user experience of digital services and how this enhances productivity right across the organisation.

Ian Aitchison, VP Product Management at Nexthink, the leader in digital employee experience management, argues that the IT department – and the organisation at large – needs to shake off the idea that their job is only to develop and deliver IT services, and then set an “an availability metric”, which they then aim to meet – more or less.

That’s because 95 percent availability is meaningless to someone who is unable to do their job during the other five percent of the time. “IT might be doing a great job running IT,” says Aitchison, “but if your employees’ experience is terrible, this will impact their willingness to work, the pleasure they take in their work, and the productivity of the business as a whole.”

How does your experience measure up?

That’s assuming the right things are being measured in the first place. For example, with an increasingly distributed workforce, stuttering Zoom calls or dropped VPN links can affect the ability of both office-bound and remote workers to carry out their work. “Is it okay for the business to shrug and say, ‘Oh, we don’t care if your home equipment isn’t good enough, just cope’?” says Aitchison. “Surely the business should say ‘we do care, we want you to be a happy and productive employee, we want you to do a great job’.”

A Nexthink-commissioned study, published in April 2020, reveals a disconnect between most companies and their employees. The research showed that IT downtime can amount to two weeks a year for the average employee. More shockingly, although 84 per cent of employees believed companies should do more to improve their digital experience at work, nine out of ten IT leaders believed workers were happy with the status quo.

These figures should be wakeup call for IT leaders and business managers. As Aitchison points out, technology means employees can work from virtually anywhere, and many will continue to do so. “But it also means that people can pick and choose who they work for. And it means attracting – and retaining – talent becomes much more important.”

The cloud giants have raised the bar for experience – and its relationship to value – even further. “People have an expectation of a technology experience that’s similar to using Amazon, to using Apple, to using Google. These things should be easy to use and always available, says Aitchison. The webscalers also lead the way in the methodologies they use internally to develop and deploy technology and services, he adds.


ITIL 4 can help organisations in their quest to improve employee experience and productivity, and deliver value. The framework embraces modern development and deployment approaches such as DevOps and Agile, which focus on incremental, collaborative progress involving the whole business. It positions these methodologies within a broader context of realising value for the organisation, its customers, and crucially, for all its employees.

ITIL 4 appeared at “just the right time for IT leaders to recognise that the IT organisation needs a cultural shift, a mindset shift,” says Aitchison, who was a contributor to ITIL 4 Specialist: Create, Deliver and Support.

So how do you start working experience into how you deliver IT? In Aitchison’s view, two of the ITIL 4 guiding principles are particularly key. These are: “focus on value” and “optimise and automate”.

These should immediately lead to conversations where IT asks people using technology about their experience, and collaboration, in order to understand journeys within the organisation and beyond. “You have to be able to measure and understand people’s ability to do their job, their digital experience, you have to be able to know what that is. And then you have to improve it by reducing delays, reducing failures.”

The processes and the technology are there do this, he argues, so why delay when you could be building individual experiences that are smooth and seamless?

As for determining whether people are having a good experience, Aitchison says there are two key dimensions, the first being to simply ask them. “Which is a surprisingly simple thing… ‘Is everything OK? Is everything good? Is it working?’.”

But that only delivers half the picture, he says, and must be supported by monitoring technology performance you need to know more about, even when the user might say “it’s fine”.

Try working in someone else’s shoes

“That’s where this idea of experience level agreement gets interesting (an evolution of SLAs in the ITIL 4 Specialist: Drive Stakeholder Value guidance). Because you merge together things you can measure, things you can monitor and things that people feel. Perception becomes very important.”

Which is where ITIL 4’s focus on the importance of IT and digital people thinking and working holistically about the employee or customer journey comes to the fore, which is also another of the guiding principles.

“Sit with your employees as they use technology,” Aitchison says. “And think about what it’s like for them, under pressure when the phone rings and it’s a customer or it’s a sales call, or it’s something critical, whether they’re in the office or home. Think about what it’s like for them to do 10 clicks, instead of one. What it’s like for them to have to wait for 10 seconds instead of one.”

It’s not hard to see how this “business minded” approach fostered by ITIL contributes towards the development of T-shaped individuals. These are individuals with deep experience in one area and the openness to engage with other specialities within the organisation, to realise greater value co-creation and build greater collaboration across teams, which in turn boosts productivity. Over time, the analogy goes, they will become comb-shaped employees, successively building experience in multiple areas, making themselves ever more valuable to the company.

“Obviously, these people get harder and harder to find,” says Aitchison. Or indeed to develop internally. “But when you’ve got them, you want to hang on to them. And again, you’re back to experience, you’re back to why people are so important in a business. These days, you can’t afford to lose precious people, because they’re so valuable.”

It’s no surprise that organisations sometimes turn to the ITIL 4 guidance in the wake of a major catastrophe, for example by bringing in a new leader with ITIL experience. But increasingly, it’s a question of organisations proactively building the framework into the foundations of their IT team, giving staff a common terminology and concepts, and a platform for exploring the higher levels of ITIL 4, the Managing Professional and Strategic Leader designations. And, crucially, says Aitchison, “it makes your skills portable. It proves you’re at that extra level.”

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of IT – not just in terms of infrastructure, but also in terms of the people who enabled organisations to keep going and do business or deliver services, according to Aitchison. “I’ve heard a lot of feedback from a lot of organisations since the pandemic hit that their IT function has done a great job. They have really excelled… the IT function are the ones that have shipped out the laptops, that have fixed things, that have remoted in and have corrected things, so people could do their job under stress.”

All this provides a platform for the future. “That continuation is ‘we now recognise and care about your experience and your relationship with the technology. And we are making sure it just keeps getting better.’”

If the pandemic had hit ten, or even five years ago, he says, we’d all be in a very different place. “That’s my point. You strive to improve technology all the time because you don’t know when the next weird, unexpected event is going to hit your business and your staff and their ability to work.

“You have to be deliberately innovating ahead of the game. By focusing on digital employee experience, and adopting and adapting ITIL 4 into your organisation, your employees and your whole business are better equipped to manage future unexpected challenges, and to turn them into opportunities to excel.”

Discover how you can future-proof your organisation with ITIL 4 today.

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