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Leveraging Service Catalogs Throughout the Enterprise

Successful service catalogs meet the needs of users who are looking for a simple way to order services instead of a cumbersome, definition-heavy service catalog laden with extra steps. The real value to employees and customers is the ability of the service catalog software to deliver services, as well as define them. The steps of the delivery process should be transparent: meet user expectations; enable identification of problems; and identify opportunities for improvement.

Technology for Business Alignment:
Leveraging Service Catalogs Throughout the Enterprise

By John Sundberg

Business service requests have always been made, in one form or another. Every service group in an organization gets requests from its internal and/or external “customers.” Whether it’s a newly hired employee requesting a workstation assignment, a sales person requesting marketing materials, or an external customer with a support request, an organization needs to fulfill those requests as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

Service catalogs—the electronically available lists of products and services available to all of an organization’s or department’s customers are replacing paper forms and the myriad informal, one-off requests that bog down a service desk’s efficiency. The practice of service management through fulfillment of informal service requests—water cooler mentions of a downed Internet connection or random e-mails requesting a patch that’s available online—is rapidly disappearing.

Companies who strive to serve their customers in a timely, cost-effective manner increasingly use service catalog software to manage and fulfill service requests.

Traditionally, a service catalog has been defined as a collection of services offered to a set of clients that enables them to accomplish an objective through the delivery of the service(s). Think of a service catalog as your company’s internal version of; on the front end, a Web-based interface enables employees to “shop” for and request needed services (such as a new laptop or access to an enterprise application). On the back end, workflow processes ensure that required fulfillment tasks are completed, and that employees are kept apprised of the status of their requests. Today, just as the help desk has migrated to a service desk, service catalog software should manage business service delivery by receiving requests, automating approval processes, monitoring the status of required fulfillment tasks, and ensuring delivery within the parameters promised to users.

The Rationale for Service Catalogs

24x7 self-service is most efficient.
Every department in an organization has its own internal or external client base, and those clients expect their service and support needs to be met in a timely manner. Service catalog software is an excellent tool to improve service delivery by providing clients with a unified service request system.

Progressive companies are also using this method as a retention strategy to enhance employee satisfaction. By providing access 24x7 to policies and benefits and giving employees self-service capabilities, the service catalog improves departmental alignment and streamlines business processes.

Service Catalogs provide these tangible and intangible benefits:

  • Reduced call volumes improve client and departmental efficiency.
  • Lower demand on departmental staff reduces routine workload and permits focus on high-value strategic initiatives.
  • Automated tracking and documentation fulfills compliance requirements and reduces delivery errors.
  • Online forms, knowledge bases, and FAQs provide employees with up-to-date information and reduce paper, printing, and distribution costs.
  • Centralized electronic access to forms, procedures, and information contributes to business alignment objectives.
  • Access to information enables employees to make informed decisions and enhances job satisfaction.
  • Service catalog software metrics help pinpoint gaps in processes or documentation, highlighting additional opportunities for operational improvement.
  • Service catalogs integrated with existing help desk systems improve accuracy and efficiency, as well as increase ROI for system investments.

Leveraging IT makes it easier to meet business objectives.
IT is using service catalog software to help organizations meet strategic and tactical objectives by proactively defining and marketing services to the business. This role reversal from IT’s traditional reactionary posture is the start of a major shift in how IT will be viewed, from a cost center to an efficient, responsive business operation.

Successful service catalogs meet the needs of users who are looking for a simple way to order services instead of a cumbersome, definition-heavy service catalog laden with extra steps. The real value to employees and customers is the ability of the service catalog to deliver services, as well as define them. The steps of the delivery process should be transparent: meet user expectations; enable identification of problems; and identify opportunities for improvement.

Tips for Creating and Sustaining Successful Service Catalogs

Keep service catalog projects small, simple, and fast.
The six-month (or more) service catalog and related Web development project is fading away. Today, the technology is mature—there’s no need to re-invent the wheel to produce a functional and useful service catalog. Off-the-shelf service desk software now provides functionality that once had to be custom developed.

A grandiose, complex approach requires executive sponsorship and all the trappings of a major development project. But by starting small, you can provide real business value quickly. A service catalog doesn’t need hundreds of services in place immediately to be useful. Getting a modest service catalog operational quickly will generate support to build the next ten or twenty service items.

To make a service catalog actionable, parse service requests into tasks that can be completed in short time frames. The more complex the process, the more time-consuming the implementation will be. Complexity makes process measurement more difficult as well, limiting the use of metrics for improvement. The result of excessive complexity is frustrated users who abandon the service catalog process, impeding if not precluding service delivery measurement and improvement.

Don’t get hung up on service level agreements (SLAs).
To facilitate rapid service catalog implementation, avoid SLAs. They are often arbitrary (e.g., 24 hours to restore a file seems “reasonable”) and fail to differentiate among users, departments, or request time. In the end, SLAs are often ignored and largely unenforceable.

Instead, use service level expectations (SLEs), which are more accurate because they are based on a real-time history of the time required to fulfill specific types of requests. Users can see how long it has taken to fill similar requests, which creates realistic expectations. Most service catalog software makes it easy to run such reports.

Use measurement tools.
Since service catalogs are Web-driven, take advantage of the many analysis tools available that help measure the usability and effectiveness of web-based applications. Service owners can look at trends and spot problems early or target areas for improvement, as well as document and demonstrate these improvements. With data in hand, the IT department can run like a business.

Make service catalogs dynamic and knowledgeable.
The most valuable service catalog software identifies users by their logins and recommends services relevant to their respective roles and project assignments (just as recommends products to site visitors based on their past buying behavior). For instance, if you’re on a specific committee and the service catalog recognizes that agile software development can help you, it should be able to recommend that service.

In addition, service catalogs should provide real-time:

  • Request SLEs
  • Request status
  • Costs
  • Reporting for service managers

Avoid pre-built service content.
Since every organization has different communications processes, “one-size-fits-all” service definitions rarely fit any company. Yet, because the industry is focused on service definitions and SLAs rather than delivery, many vendors emphasize pre-built service content. Eventually, IT organizations realize that pre-built content—which forces them to modify their processes to fit arbitrary service definitions—has little real value and may even be counterproductive.

Help IT service owners become more business-focused.
Service catalogs require IT services owners to understand business issues and communicate with business managers. In addition to honing their business skills, educate IT staff to identify and market services to potential users and train them on different functions in an application.

Embed service catalogs into applications.
Make it easy for users to request a service by allowing them to do so while using an application. When users are required to exit the application they need help with, and to search within a separate catalog of services, they are forced to take extra, time-consuming steps in their quest for service. It’s feasible to have dozens of different types of contextual service catalogs embedded into specific applications (like SAP), functional areas (like Web services), and/or departmental applications (like HR applications).

Starting small with easily definable and easily deliverable services, and even using a service catalog software package that provides the flexibility to easily add services over time, eliminates the need to customize pre-built content.

Service Catalogs in IT and Beyond

Service catalog applications can be used throughout organizations to streamline business processes, as follows:

  • IT
    • Provision an employee desktop
    • Request application access
    • Request application configuration
    • Request application enhancement
    • Request new hardware or upgrades
  • Facilities
    • Report office temperature complaints
    • Report a broken window
    • Request sidewalk shoveling
    • Request a security escort
    • Schedule a meeting room
  • HR
    • Request benefits (e.g., vacation and health insurance)
    • Manage benefits (e.g., health insurance and health/childcare spending accounts)
    • Record status changes
    • Request temporary and permanent employees
    • Access the employee handbook
    • Access benefit enrollment forms
    • Access beneficiary forms
    • Access pension/retirement files
  • Financial
    • Request a purchase order (PO)
    • Request a check
    • Check invoice status
  • Training
    • Review training programs
    • Reserve training room facilities
    • Access a training calendar
    • Register for training
  • Marketing/Sales
    • Request literature
    • Request a product quote
    • Request a sample product
    • Request a demo
    • Access external product/service support
    • Request a Return Material Authorization (RMA)
    • Order a product

Starting with a definition of business needs that the service catalog will meet and the processes it will streamline, a service catalog should follow a typical improvement cycle: plan, model, manage, and measure. Just as important as the technology that provides the framework (portal) and built-in measurement tools, each service catalog project depends upon the commitment of its sponsors.


Translate business objectives into measurable services. Once defined, the services close the gap between what business managers need and expect—and what IT delivers. An ongoing dialog between IT and business managers will help IT create useful services and effectively allocate IT resources to maximize business value. As business needs change, services should be adapted and modified accordingly.


Every service catalog should be designed to optimize business value, and this phase identifies resources needed to deliver services at committed service levels. This involves mapping IT assets, processes, and resources back to IT services, then prioritizing and planning resources that support these business-critical services. Business alignment success means that IT is focused on the needs of business managers.


IT must have processes in place for prioritizing projects, tasks, and support based on predefined rules. To ensure service catalog effectiveness, there should be:

  • A method for prioritizing service requests based on business impact;
  • A disciplined change management process to facilitate continuous improvement;
  • An IT event management system to monitor and manage components that support business-critical services; and
  • The tools for measuring and tracking adherence to service level commitments.

Traditional IT management tools operate in functional silos that confine data collection and operational metrics to specific functional areas. They typically relate more to technology than to business objectives. Without a business context for interpreting metrics, isolated functional groups can’t get a holistic view of IT services that support business objectives.

The broader, critical business-focused issues for supporting real-time resource allocation decisions are:

  • Are commitments being met?
  • Have operations improved in terms of cost, timeliness, and accuracy?
  • How are improvements impacting other parts of the organization?

By committing to this improvement cycle and integrating and automating service activities through service catalogs, organizations can align processes to make systematic improvements that meet their business objectives.

John Sundberg, founder and president of Kinetic Data, has designed an managed more than 100 information systems for medium and large enterprises. He is president of the Minnesota Chapter of AFSMI (Association for Services Management International).

Published in SupportWorld magazine, September/October 2007, a publication of the Help Desk Institute,