Five Keys to Successful Change Management Maturity

IT must implement an effective, mature method of change management or experience significant downtime and negative impact on productivity and profits.

by Dennis Powell

Implementing changes to an organization's IT infrastructure has a critical impact on overall business growth and success. Failing to implement an effective, mature method of change management can result in significant downtime and drag down productivity and profits.

Application and infrastructure change requests of all sizes -- from large-scale and important projects to small and low-priority requests -- continually inundate IT operations teams. To meet these requests and to be responsive to the business, IT operations teams must fully understand how these changes will impact the day-to-day operations of systems and processes. This brings about a "perfect storm" for IT operations teams: IT and infrastructure changes are necessary in every organization and grow along with business and system expansion, but in organizations with increasingly complex environments, changes can lead to significant service outages and downtime.

Many approaches can be used to improve change management for mission-critical applications, but few, if any, organizations exhibit all the characteristics of a mature change management process. This means that nearly every business, no matter its size or industry, has room to improve.

StackSafe worked with independent research firm Research Edge to survey over 400 IT professionals on their change management practices. They produced a Change Management Maturity Report that uncovered some very interesting information on the aspects of change management maturity that provide key business benefits to any company.

Change management maturity includes five factors, each offering benefits to business operations: change scheduling, automation, process adoption, change testing environment, and completeness of change testing. Although it is rare to find businesses that actually meet the maturity criteria in each factor, the benefits of each can have a significant impact on service downtime and operations (see Figure 1).

Change Scheduling

It's logical that companies with a more disciplined approach to changes are less likely to have problems with emergency changes. Think back to your school days. When you studied a little each week over the course of the semester, you were less likely to "cram" for the exam. Companies that make regularly scheduled changes are following this approach. You can still get an A when you cram, but you are more likely to make a mistake.

Unscheduled changes are often a major cause of service downtime, especially if the changes are done quickly and without proper testing or screening. Regularly scheduling changes can significantly reduce the number of production problems, the number of IT staff members dedicated to change management, and even the number of emergency changes made. The biggest benefit, however, may be the resulting smoothness of the process. A smooth process makes IT operations teams more successful because it makes it easier to handle the difficulties associated with complexity and the surge in changes. According to the study, 82 percent of companies with changes scheduled at regular intervals reported a smoother overall change management process as compared to the 49 percent that make changes ad hoc.

Automation

When striving for change management maturity, a company must move from a manual change process to an automated environment. The more an organization can automate and schedule changes on a regular basis, the less likely it will be that increases in the number of changes will negatively impact the process. Just the sheer number of changes that come at IT operations teams on a daily or weekly basis makes automation for change management a wise choice.

The study shows that once automated, companies see a 25 percent decrease in production problems caused by changes and a 20 percent reduction in the number of IT team members dedicated to change management. Interestingly, automating the change management process did not show any significant difference in the number of emergency changes, but 90 percent of companies automating their process described the process as smoother than manual implementation.

Process Adoption

Adopting best practices, such as ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), can go far in helping organizations achieve change management maturity. According to the Research Edge report, nearly a quarter of all companies have already adopted the ITIL best practice guidelines for change management, and a significant number of companies (12 percent) have adopted other standards. Half of the companies with no best practices or process in place today plan to adopt ITIL within the next two years. Companies that have adopted a best-practice guideline report having greater confidence that changes work properly and say they enjoy a smoother change management process.

Our prediction is that as downtime incidents are increasingly made public, the adoption of guidelines, and standard methods for change and release management will grow. IT managers will adopt tried-and-true processes to address how changes are made, managed, certified and released into production.

Change Testing Environment

Companies that maintain a testing environment for changes can also lower the number of emergency changes they make. Companies that test changes in a formal testing environment are more likely to catch problems that changes might cause. A test environment can be expensive to develop and maintain, but because it provides an available representation of the production environment, the environment provides a more flexible "sandbox" that IT can use to minimize emergency changes and their impact.

Dedicating an environment solely to change testing is a significant step that IT operations can make toward change management maturity. According to StackSafe's research, emergency changes are 33 percent less likely to be needed in a company with a dedicated testing environment.

Completeness of Change Testing

Testing changes on the entire software infrastructure stack, as opposed to a single component or partial system, can significantly improve the IT operations team's confidence in changes and reduce the number of problems caused by the changes. According to the Change Management Maturity Report, only 20 percent of IT operations managers report that they have full confidence that the changes they are making will not cause problems when rolled into the production environment.

The software infrastructure stack includes a myriad of technology, including Web servers, application servers, database servers, and operating systems. Limiting testing to just the component or area of production that has been changed cannot ensure that the entire environment will react as expected to the change. Naturally, incomplete testing methods like this limit the ability to understand the full impact of the changes.

Summary

Research Edge's report reveals that not all change management activities deliver the same positive business impact. There are specific factors that dramatically increase the positive impact achieved from change management in complex software infrastructure environments. To reduce downtime, decrease the amount of staff devoted to IT change management, limit the number of emergency changes, and increase confidence and improve the overall smoothness of the change management process, companies must move along the road to change management maturity. All companies can dramatically increase positive business impact by:

  • Regularly scheduling changes
  • Investing in automated change management
  • Adopting a process best practice such as ITIL
  • Maintaining a staging environment for IT operations testing
  • Testing changes across the entire application stack before making them in production

These change-management factors are not "one-size-fits-all." Every company must look internally to determine the best use of each of these factors and their application profile and weigh them against their business goals to develop a change management process with the greatest benefits.

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Dennis Powell is the senior product manager at StackSafe Inc. You can reach the author at dpowell@stacksafe.com.