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The University of Oxford and ITIL Case Study

Case Study

The University of Oxford and ITIL Case Study

Case Study

  • Case Study
  • IT Services
  • Service management
  • Value
  • ITIL

August 7, 2020 |

 10 min read

  • Case Study
  • IT Services
  • Service management
  • Value
  • ITIL

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The University of Oxford’s IT Services is responsible for a prodigious number of IT services. In 2015, the SMO realized that they were too project-focused, where they should have been service-oriented. The new SMO leader, Andrew Dixon, used ITIL® 4 to help evolve the team and their ways of working. This case study explains how.

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The University of Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Teaching began there in 1096, and today it hosts more than 24,000 students and receives, on average, over six applications for each available university place. It provides over 350 graduate degrees and hosts students from over 150 countries and territories.

The University of Oxford was ranked number one in the world in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings from 2017-2019 and has the largest volume of world-leading research in the UK.

The Service Management Office at the University of Oxford

The University of Oxford’s service management office (SMO), which has been led by Andrew Dixon since 2015, is a four-person team within the IT Services department, which itself is comprised of over 300 people.

Originally, the SMO was part of an amalgam of project and service management teams that had split into two separate functions in 2015 after a previous merger of several departments, each with individual cultures and ways of working.

Andrew said: ‘When I joined in 2015 to lead the new SMO, there was already a realization that the department had been too project-focused and not service- and customer-focused enough. I was brought in to help re-focus the department to be service orientated.’

The IT services provided to the university encompass three major categories:

  • business systems and administration support, for example finance, HR, and student records
  • teaching and learning, including virtual learning environments, lecture capture, and IT-training courses
  • research support, featuring high-performance computing and supporting researchers to get the most out of IT.

IT Services is also responsible for desktop/laptop support for central administration, as well as email and telephone.

Oxford University case-study team

2.1 The SMO and ITIL®  Teams

The University of Oxford’s SMO has an overriding responsibility for service quality assurance. It supports teams with the adoption of ITIL best practice to keep quality levels high.

Andrew said: ‘The bigger the IT organization, the more important it is to use ITIL. It is critical to have the right practices and processes to ensure everyone does things in the same way.

‘In 2015, IT Services was running ITIL courses and a new service tool, but it was really just dipping its toe in the water as people tried to understand what ITIL meant in an Oxford University context.’

For the next stage in the University’s IT service management journey, Andrew instigated several changes that prefigured what would arrive later in the shape of ITIL 4.

Designing the Service Catalogue and Defining Roles

When reviewing the University’s service catalogue, Andrew realized that it was just a list of services that was both shallow and out-of-date. A secondary issue was support; previously, gaps in support occurred because teams tended to shift responsibility for problems to other teams.

Therefore, the redesigned service catalogue needed to have greater clarity on the support structures in place for each service.

In addition, four key job roles were defined:

  • Business owner: responsible for articulating opportunities and demand and ensuring value is delivered
  • Service owner: responsible for governance, practices, and the service’s strategic direction
  • Service delivery manager: responsible for end-to-end services with a focus on applications (for example, ensuring that the telephone system is working and its software is available and configured)
  • Service operations manager: responsible for handling the servers and underlying hardware.

Andrew explained the rationales behind these definitions: ‘If you are the service delivery manager and there is a problem, you are responsible for the end-to-end service, regardless of whose fault it is.

‘Having service operations managers means there is a shared responsibility. This was important in our relatively new department at the time, where teams came from different parts of the organization.

‘Looking back, this fitted very nicely into what we see now in ITIL 4 and the four dimensions of service management.’

3.1 Reducing Major Incidents 

The shared responsibility approach that was instilled by the SMO’s new ways of working began to address the critical issue of major incidents. By 2015, the University had an average of eight major incidents per year. Some were resolved within one day, but others left the University with a seriously reduced IT service for three days. However, by 2019, IT Services had reduced the annual number of major incidents to only two.

Andrew explained: ‘We had some old, substandard data centres and needed collective responsibility to manage and outsource where necessary.

‘Also, projects were operating without any understanding of the support required for, or interaction between, services. When a team wanted to make a change, that change’s impact across all of the related services was unknown.’

Through collaboration, a better understanding of the configuration items, and simplified IT architecture, each service was optimized and rebuilt on generic hardware so that all teams understood how changes would affect all other services.

In turn, a new continual improvement process, which was based on a report and action plan to apply fixes following a major incident, made a significant impact. Andrew said: ‘It made a huge difference to the reliability of all IT services and increased the reputation of our department across the University.’

‘IT used to be a craft: today, it is a profession, and there are methods and frameworks to manage it professionally. ITIL 4 is one of those frameworks. ITIL provides fit-for-purpose solutions that co-create value not just some of the time, but all of the time.’
Andrew Dixon - SMO Lead University of Oxford

People and Culture

Part of creating an environment in which teams could deliver end-to-end services successfully involved an ongoing programme to create a collaborative ethos.

The scheme was about creating a culture that was open, supportive, collaborative, accountable, and respectful, so it was abbreviated to the acronym OSCAR. Workshops, coffee mornings, and quiz nights helped to bring the IT Services function together with one common objective, mitigating its history as separate departments.

Andrew said: ‘We were doing this even before ITIL 4, but it is good to have it confirmed now as best practice. None of the improvements could have been achieved without all teams working together effectively. It was very much a team effort.’

Oxford university Bodleian library

Introducing ITIL 4 to the University of Oxford

In late 2018, the University published a new strategy. It included initiatives that would need IT support, such as the digitization of teaching. Consequently, IT Services worked alongside the University’s IT Committee to devise a five-year IT strategy. This strategy was designed to align closely with ITIL 4 principles.

According to Andrew, this was important to help address one of the long-standing issues for universities. He said: ‘The business imperative for IT to deliver value and keep its funding, which is prominent in other industries, is a slightly broken link in universities. IT Services can sometimes deliver the services it thinks students and academics want, but it does not always have the feedback loop to understand if it is really delivering value. It can be difficult to hear real, unfiltered feedback.’

When he was introduced to ITIL 4, Andrew saw how the evolved ITIL guidance places much greater emphasis on creating value.

ITIL Foundation training began at the University in the summer of 2019. Eight people from the SMO and service desk achieved the certification. Andrew has now attained his Managing Professional Transition certification.

5.1 Combining Methods and Frameworks under ITIL 4

Andrew felt that ITIL 4 could provide a lot of support around the adoption of other frameworks in the IT Services department and the University as a whole. For example, the software development team was largely using Agile methods, so it was important to bring Agile methods into the overall structure. The University was also widely adopting Lean principles; using ITIL 4 ensured that this adoption was linked with IT.

Andrew explained: ‘From spring 2019, we started by taking the best bits of our existing practices and adapting them into ITIL 4. We were creating a new story with ITIL language, which gave us a clearer understanding of what we were doing.

‘Agile methods are focused on the process and Lean is very good at reducing waste, but ITIL 4 is aware of the whole picture. Because it is focused on service and value, ITIL reminds us of something essential: if IT services are not delivering value, they are wasting their time.’

Oxford University case study.jpg

5.2 Adopting ITIL 4: Objectives and Outcomes 

Since 2015, the University’s IT Services department has made steady improvements and is performing better as a service organization. Introducing ITIL 4 embedded best practice into the department and the minds of its people.

Andrew said: ‘This has given our teams a new understanding of why they are doing what they are doing. It helps us all to take a further step on the journey. We are talking about continual improvement for services across the entire service value system.’

For example, monthly reports, which were treated by some as ‘a bit of bureaucracy’, have become useful for identifying trends, providing early warnings, pinpointing problems, and providing fixes before customers are affected, because of ITIL 4.

Andrew said: ‘If there is ever a danger that different parts of the organization are going in separate directions, ITIL 4 is there to ensure that everyone is moving together.’

In particular, he references the ITIL 4 guiding principles as a way of building bridges between people using Agile, Lean, and ITIL. That includes recognizing the partnership that exists between them rather than letting any one take precedence.

Andrew said: ‘The principle of collaborate and promote visibility is happening on even the smallest things, which means we are working so much better than before and focusing on value. ‘Five years ago, we were not keeping things simple. Now, that has changed, and we are also thinking and working holistically.’

5.3 ITIL 4 Training and Certification 

Andrew is keen to see a relatively new team in the SMO undergo ITIL 4 training, including the more advanced Managing Professional modules. This will support his ultimate aim: each member of the team having a portfolio of services and a comprehensive understanding of the ITIL 4 approach.

‘I have attended training sessions and really appreciate the holistic view to ITIL 4. It has really opened my eyes to the depth of the material and how it all joins up, which is very powerful.’

IT Services: Providing Business Continuity in Real Time

At the time of writing, the context of the Covid-19 global pandemic and its impact on the entire economy and UK education system has brought organizations’ IT services functions into the spotlight.

The University of Oxford’s IT Services teams enabled the entire University to move to a homeworking environment, facilitate online teaching, and deliver online exams for the first time in its history.

Andrew said: ‘The University’s leadership realizes that our IT Services function has moved with the times, not least because of how quickly we shifted the University to working from home. In fact, one of our Pro-Vice Chancellors said that ‘staff in IT Services were working wonders’.’

‘Today, we are Agile and able to respond very quickly to a changing environment in a way that was impossible five years ago.’

Supporting the IT Profession

Andrew said: ‘IT never stands still. We have to keep moving forwards and ITIL 4 is the right framework to help.

‘For example, much of what we do will move into the cloud. ITIL 4 is a useful foundation for engaging suppliers effectively and understanding how to manage an IT infrastructure not physically under our control. It means looking at all the services we are responsible for, making improvements, recognizing how they are interdependent, and moving them to maturity together.

‘IT used to be a craft: today, it is a profession, and there are methods and frameworks to manage it professionally. ITIL 4 is one of those frameworks. ITIL provides fit-for-purpose solutions that co-create value not just some of the time, but all of the time.’

The University of Oxford and ITIL Case Study