SLM Promises Higher IT Service Levels with Fewer Resources

A Service Level Management process may be what IT service organizations need to better support business demands.

Whether business is conducted locally, remotely, or globally, companies depend on technology to keep operations running smoothly. Users have high expectations, making any downtime potentially disastrous. At the same time, economic pressures are reducing the resources available to improve IT service levels and, with the level of complexity in the IT enterprise continuing to increase, achieving high service levels is more challenging than ever.

The primary goal of every IT service organization should be to align and support the strategy and objectives of the business. However, this goal is becoming elusive. A Service Level Management (SLM) process may be the answer IT service organizations need to better support business demands. An SLM process can improve service levels and maximize technology investments by ensuring IT resources are prioritized to focus on key business requirements.

What is Service Level Management?

The IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), an industry standard framework and set of best practice guidelines for IT service delivery and support, defines Service Level Management as "the process of defining, agreeing, documenting and managing the levels of customer IT service, that are required and cost justified" (see footnote 1). The ITIL guidelines describe best practices, but leave it to organizations to implement the work-level procedures and methodology for daily service delivery and support activities.

Implementing an SLM methodology benefits the business by promoting proactive, structured working practices along with two-way communication and agreement among the stakeholders (both business and IT) of the business process. Direct business benefits include improved levels of service and reduced costs.

Creating the Service Level Management Methodology

To succeed at Service Level Management, IT managers need a well-defined SLM methodology that provides the focus and objectives for all implemented technologies, for all steps and tasks assigned and for all delegated responsibilities necessary for providing service to the end user. The SLM methodology must also include an IT management process that helps the organization provide continuously improving service levels for business services from an end-user's perspective.

The result of a well-guided SLM methodology: improved IT and business service quality. Further, SLM ensures the lines of communication between IT and business stay open as they work together to improve and refine service-level agreements (SLAs).

There are two components of SLM:

  • IT operations for service delivery must manage IT components from an end-user perspective, incorporating end-user experiences and business function knowledge

  • IT support must manage the service support process from a business perspective, incorporating business requirements into the asset management, change management, and problem and incident management processes

Step 1: Identify Expectations

Every provider of service (internal or external) aims to provide a positive end-user experience. To achieve this, however, IT should identify the full customer spectrum to understand the range of end-user expectations and requirements based on business objectives and priorities. End users can be trading partners, business staff or customers.

IT must identify all of the business processes for which it provides service by working with business owners to pinpoint these processes and to identify their corresponding automated services. Once each distinct business process is defined, specific and measurable end-user service expectations can be determined for the automated services aligned with the business process. This is key to ensuring that IT and business are aligned with regard to service-level expectations, business needs and business priorities.

Once expectations are defined, IT must identify the underlying IT components of the affected services so it can align its performance with user expectations. These components include IT application and infrastructure components that are operational in nature, as well as IT service support components that are process-related, such as asset, problem and incident, and change management. Service level objectives (SLOs) or goals must be set for the IT components to ensure they are performing at the required level to achieve the SLAs.

Also, IT must make sure critical end-user transactions that comprise business processes are identified, as customers are highly sensitive to these measurements because they directly affect business success. Measuring fully executed transactions provides a quantifiable indicator of customer satisfaction. These measurements should be captured and reported on a scheduled basis from all locations where customers and partners connect to the business process, so IT and business owners have the same information to evaluate service delivery.

In ITIL, this step maps back to the "Establish Function" phase.

Step 2: Record Expectations and Speak the Language of Business

When working with business owners, expectations must be described in terminology and processes that are familiar to them. IT should avoid technical definitions and describe IT service-level expectations in terms that match business process terminology. To gain the business owners' understanding and respect, IT also must document how these expectations will be measured in the business process. This documentation may come in the form of an SLA, Operational Level Agreement (OLA) or Underpinning Contract (UC).

End-user expectations must become the primary focus of IT as it manages the level of service that must be provided. The goal for IT is to translate the business requirements and priorities into SLAs and then associate those SLAs with the underlying components; for example IT infrastructure and applications, end-user transaction time, trouble ticket responsiveness and resolution time, responsiveness to change requests, resolution time of making a change, etc.

In ITIL, this step maps back to the "Implement SLA" phase.

Step 3: Manage to Service Level Agreements

Once the SLAs and/or OLAs are in place, IT must proactively measure, monitor, and manage against them. SLA reporting is also key to communicating the actual level of service that IT provided as compared to the SLAs in place.

For service-delivery-focused SLAs, the goal is to proactively address IT infrastructure and application component and end-user transaction time issues that put the SLA in jeopardy. To do this, IT must measure the underlying IT components' actual values against the SLAs and then associate this status against the SLA for a particular business process. With real-time alerts to service-level degradation, IT immediately can begin to identify the IT problem and restore service to the agreed-upon level. If end users also have real-time system status notification, they can avoid unavailable services and frustrating calls to the help desk. IT can use this real-time metric for periodic reports to the business owner.

For service-support-focused SLAs, the goal is to quickly address service-support process component issues that put the agreement in jeopardy, ensuring that response time and service-support-resolution times are addressed prior to an SLA violation or impact to the end users. To do this, IT must monitor the time between process steps and have a fully defined and deployed automated workflow mechanism that can take actions—such as escalations or paging IT staff—when certain states exist to ensure prompt attention.

Reports showing the overall SLM performance should be communicated to IT management and the business owners. Effective SLM reporting shows the value of IT and performance against service-level commitments. It also provides IT and business with the data necessary to decide whether to scale back or enhance the level of service provided during the review cycle to meet business needs on the horizon.

In ITIL, this step maps to the "Manage the Ongoing Process" phase.

Step 4: Continuous Improvement

The requirements for managing against service levels and meeting customer expectations is constantly changing. To maintain effective SLM, IT must periodically re-evaluate the service it provides, seek ways to improve on the levels of service provided and renegotiate as appropriate to reflect new realities and priorities.

In ITIL, this step maps back to the "Periodic Reviews" phase.

Effective Service Level Management & Improved Service Quality

In conclusion, a well-guided SLM methodology begins at understanding business requirements and needs, moves into setting appropriate service-level commitments and reporting against them and develops into the automated management of business services in a highly complex environment. The end result of a successful SLM practice span from increased service quality and cost reductions to improve alignment of IT services with business needs.


Office of Government Commerce, ITIL—The key to Managing IT Services, Service Delivery, December 2001