This content is part of the Essential Guide: ITIL and ITSM best practices for process improvement

Building a service catalog management strategy: Where to start?

The IT service catalog is the foundation of an effective ITSM program, but it's a complicated tool and hard to get right. Here's some expert advice on how to get started.

IT service catalogs play a vital role in IT service management. They function as the face of the IT department -- a curated collection of all the business- and IT-related services available to the enterprise.

But CIOs often struggle with how to define and communicate these services in a way that reduces IT's burdens and provides the most long-term business value. It may be tempting to start with the technical details around defining these services. However, experts advocate that a better approach to service catalog management starts with identifying and prioritizing business goals.

"Most senior people in IT see the value of improving process effectiveness, and that usually translates into a focus on point solutions that make the [IT] monthly reports look better," said Dan McCarthy, principal consultant at Verax Consulting and CEO of Zeno Assessment Software.

But a focus on making IT metrics look good typically doesn't improve overall workflow and inflates the cost of IT services. Indeed, McCarthy said a focus on IT metrics can encourage CIOs to prioritize service design (building services) and operations (running services) over service strategy (planning services).

Dan McCarthy is principal consultant at Verax Consulting and CEO of Zeno Assessment Software Dan McCarthy

"When things go wrong and money is wasted, it always looks like an implementation issue. But, in my experience, the root causes can usually be traced back to poor planning and lack of a clear strategy," McCarthy said.

An ill-conceived service catalog management strategy can have a negative effect on an organization's IT service management (ITSM) program. The service catalog is the biggest subsection of the overall service portfolio and it plays an important role in managing the portfolio when it is used in the right way.

CIOs should be the key players in ensuring that economies of scale are exploited in large organizations, and the catalog is an important part of doing that.
Dan McCarthyVerax Consulting

This is a straightforward point, but many organizations still buy or build apps to get functionality that is already in the service catalog. This is sometimes justified by the fact that different business units have different requirements, but it is more often due to poor service catalog management.

"CIOs should be the key players in ensuring that economies of scale are exploited in large organizations, and the catalog is an important part of doing that," McCarthy said.

Service catalog management 101: Relevance to the business

IT service catalogs have been under pressure in recent years to meet the demands of a more challenging and sophisticated user population. IT consumerization has created an audience accustomed to well-designed, personalized user interfaces that are intuitive and easy to navigate and use.

"The expectation is no longer that users will work around the system -- systems need to anticipate and adapt to the needs of the users," said John Peluso, CTO of AvePoint Public Sector, a governance, risk, and compliance and management provider for enterprise collaboration systems.

John Peluso is CTO at AvePoint Public Sector.John Peluso

Having a person with a strong background in service design -- and who works closely with the business -- is key to keeping the service catalog and portfolio relevant and aligned, Peluso said.

One challenge CIOs face is finding the appropriate balance between the value of commercial service catalog features and internal enterprise needs. Service catalog software vendors tend to market these tools by comparing them to consumer catalogs, such as the AWS Service Catalog.

"But corporate purchasing is subject to different constraints and patterns of behavior when compared to online consumer purchasing," McCarthy said.

The shortcomings of a consumer-like service catalog may discourage some enterprises from using catalogs altogether rather than figuring out faster, better or safer ways to use them. Additionally, service design experts believe there could be value in borrowing some techniques used in consumer catalogs.

One example is using profile-based targeting to advertise IT services. If IT, for instance, detects that a user relies heavily on an application that is about to reach its end of life, the service catalog can suggest options to replace it. The targeted service may be enhanced by making those options easy to understand and use -- and by making the delivery of the replacement automatic.

Service catalog management touchstone: Value the business

CIOs who start a service catalog by mapping all the components of the IT infrastructure required to deliver a service may find themselves in a vicious cycle. Service requests from users can't be defined until the services themselves are clearly defined, and the services can't be automated until all the infrastructure required to do that is captured and mapped in the configuration management database (CMDB). The result is that huge amounts of time and effort are expended trying to unravel it all.

McCarthy worked with one large financial services company that undertook the biggest service management deployment he had ever seen. Rather than using a service catalog management strategy that started with identifying which services would create value for the business and IT, the company focused on the IT side, trying to relate every incident or change that came up to a service in the catalog.

"They got bogged down in a patchwork of approaches to component discovery protocols that could never catch up with the changes in their enormous IT estate and were unable to implement a practical impact analysis process because everything in the CMDB was connected with everything else," McCarthy said.

Subtle questions like whether to have cart abandonment procedures in the service catalog -- a feature commonly found in consumer catalogs -- became academic because the financial services company lacked a basic understanding of both the service provided and the technology and processes required to deliver it. When the initiative failed, the company turned to a new ITSM vendor. Until the company developed a much better set of business requirements, however, a switch in ITSM software was not likely to bring about a different result, McCarthy said.

CIOs need to focus on the costs and benefits of using the catalog itself and the services that are managed in the catalog. This can enable them to prioritize work on the catalog and manage expectations. Unfortunately, this kind of planning often takes place much later in the service catalog lifecycle when making changes becomes very expensive.

Prioritize enterprise requirements

The bottom line: A smart service catalog management strategy includes understanding and prioritizing what is really required from a catalog and the technologies that support it.

"Without choosing between and prioritizing these items, service catalogs and the ITSM suites within which they sit attempt to be all things to all people and can get a bad reputation for not making a positive difference and failing to meet business needs," McCarthy said.

CIOs should evaluate the relative importance of factors and features such as:

  • Preferred financial model -- is chargeback the way to go? Based on what?
  • Request automation -- what are the likely lifetime costs and benefits of request automation?
  • Portal services -- for example, should users be able to log an incident through the service catalog?
  • The benefits and costs of the service derived from a change impact analysis and an incident impact analysis.

CIOs who start with these features in mind are likely to see better results around automation of the request catalog, integration of the catalog with software compliance management and the provisioning of basic self-service, McCarthy said.

"The key to the success stories is to address specific business functionality, such as 'How do we make the joiner's process [used for managing new hires] more efficient?' rather than more ambitious and ambiguous objectives, such as 'How do we automate service management?'

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