Set in stone

IT best practices such as ITIL and ISO are growing in popularity, but some may be adopting standards too rigidly.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  July 5, 2008

IT best practices are growing in popularity, but some proponents and organisations may be adopting the standards too rigidly. ACN reports.

We live in a superlative world. The tendency among purveyors of goods and services from pizza to phones is to describe their offerings as the pinnacle of whatever the product happens to be.

There are now so many "ultimate", "greatest", "super", "ultra" and "mega" offerings out there that marketing departments are now having serious problems coming up with new adjectives ("Ultimate 2" anyone?).

The relatively sober world of enterprise IT tends to be less affected by this - when spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, greater introspection and consideration is generally required. But one critical area has long come under the superlative influence - best practices.

Humans have been sharing techniques on how best to go about a particular activity since before the dawn of civilisation, and the fruits of this process can be seen in specialist guilds and societies, apprentice-driven industries, and documents including dictionaries and grammatical primers.

But the more complex a field becomes, the more these guidelines on how to go about things can seem to be less a practical guide, and more an arcane set of rules, understood only by initiates.

IT, being more complex - and certainly more jargon-laden - than many other professions, is particularly at risk of this. In recent years best practice frameworks such as ITIL and various ISO standards have become increasingly fashionable - but some organisations that implement them may be taking adherence too far.

Saheem Ibrahim, ITSM manager at Doha Bank, which implemented ISO 20000 recently, shares a recent experience: "Yesterday I was attending a session by a company talking about ITIL and ISO 20000, and people in the audience were all saying they wanted ITIL, they wanted ISO.

They were bombarding me with questions - how did you go ahead with it, how did you do it - but without thinking if it was necessary for their companies, if their organisations were ready for it."

He says he has observed best practices becoming more like a ritual to be followed than guidelines: "This has come about due to the overemphasis by some organisations on their ITIL processes, especially the ones related directly to the end users.

They have become so engulfed with the best practices that they're ignoring the practices they were following before implementing the new processes.

Organisations should not immediately and suddenly stop what they were using and move to a new set of processes, and start emphasising and forcing those processes.

"All of a sudden they've started talking about completely following the ITIL language, ISO 20000 language, without considering the fact that adoption of this will take time - end users need to be educated gradually, and the benefits of these new processes should be explained to the users before being forced onto them. It's definitely sometimes considered a religion - end users think: ‘Is this a new religion my company is following?'" adds Ibrahim.

Best practice advocates - from trainers to standards bodies - vehemently deny that these frameworks should be adhered to as a strict set of rules, but through misunderstanding or poor communication, organisations around the world do on occasion adopt the guidelines in an overzealous fashion.

This can range from implementing processes that go against the grain of a company's organisation and culture, to enforcing the use of "standardised" languages throughout an enterprise - often to the bafflement of end users.

"People can see best practices as a religion for several reasons," comments Osama Ghoul, managing partner at Devoteam Middle East, a consultancy firm.

"First, a lack of exposure - users look at these frameworks as being the collected experience of so many people, and think: ‘I may as well use the exact same approach.'

Second, some users don't understand that technology is a business enabler, and the business has a major impact on decisions - but best practices may not reflect the challenges of the business.

So if people use it just like this, it's not going to give them the results they're looking for - but enterprises may use best practices just because they are the latest trend," he adds.

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