The Unified IT Service Catalog: Your One-Stop Shop

min read

Key Takeaways

  • As IT becomes more pervasive in all aspects of higher education, IT's customers need a user-friendly way of learning about and requesting IT services.
  • A unified service catalog provides a single common framework and approach for delivering services across the institution — a one-stop-shopping approach that enables customers to efficiently submit their requests.
  • While a unified IT service catalog involves more governance, it also provides greater efficiency during the design and build process and delivers a greater value to your institution.

Tamara Adižes is ITS portfolio communications officer at the University of Toronto. Mark Katsouros is director of Network Planning and Integration at the Pennsylvania State University. Reginald Lo is director of Service Management at VMware. Simon Pride is IT service manager, Service Catalog, Harvard University. Karalee A. Woody is executive director, Customer Service and Support, UW Information Technology, University of Washington.

A service catalog provides an easy-to-use online portal for faculty, staff, students, and others — the customers — to learn about, and request, the services the institution provides. These services may range from academic, administrative, human resources, and finance to those associated with student life, but many service catalogs start out as an IT service catalog. As IT becomes more pervasive in all aspects of higher education, customers need a user-friendly way of navigating IT services. For this reason, institutional leaders, CIOs, IT leaders, or anyone interested in delivering exceptional service should understand what defines a unified IT service catalog, the benefits of the service catalog, and how to establish one.

While this article explores the benefits, challenges, and steps to creating a unified IT service catalog that spans multiple IT service providers, leading institutions are taking this concept further because IT departments are no longer the sole technology experts on campus. Across the institution, faculty have cracked the code for creating engaging online courses, and researchers have solved big data issues. The unified IT service catalog can become the one place to go, not just for formal technology help from IT departments but also to gain access to the institution's technology expertise regardless of where it resides.

"Today's Specials" – The Restaurant Menu as Metaphor for the IT Service Catalog

As a customer of IT Services at my institution, I have a dream — that I can easily find whatever IT services I need, both for acquiring the services themselves and for seeking expert support for them, regardless of who actually provides the service. I want to see what applies to me as a student, faculty member, staff member, researcher, graduate, guest, other IT service provider, etc., and specific to my college, department, campus, etc. As a metaphoric "diner," I want a "menu" of choices, but I want it to be magic. Wheat allergy? Show me only gluten-free options. Vegetarian? Don't show me dishes that contain meat. And I want to see choices from all of the neighborhood restaurants and food suppliers.

Essentially, I want the restaurants/suppliers to recognize me and my current circumstances and give me a custom, streamlined view of what's available to me, how and where to get it, and how and where to get help with it. Further, I may be a diner (consumer) or a cook (service provider). Or both. As a diner, I might want to order the fettuccine Alfredo, but, as a cook, I might simply want to buy a jar of the restaurant's Alfredo sauce to use in a dish at home I create for my customers/family. And, finally, I may need to be able to specify which role I'm currently playing when I have multiple roles.

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Imagine if your customers (from various end consumers to other service providers) could go to one place — like a restaurant menu — to learn about all the services they might need, and then request those services through an easy-to-use portal. This is the IT service catalog. We have the technology and applications to provide an IT service catalog today, but service definition, design, provisioning, and support remain as challenges in terms of identifying all of the institution's IT services, identifying people accountable for each service, ensuring that they align with the institution's business mission, documenting processes around them, and establishing an easy way for customers to get what they need.

The Benefits of a Unified IT Service Catalog

A unified IT service catalog is a single place to go to see all available services, regardless of who provides them. Behind the scenes, a request is routed to the team responsible for providing the service. The requestor doesn't need to know who offers the service or how to contact them. The unified IT service catalog is a one-stop place to shop for IT services.

Most higher-education institutions have a decentralized approach to providing IT services. The central IT unit typically provides a suite of enterprise solutions. Some services, such as the campus network, are used by all customers. Other services, such as server management, may be available through both central and local IT. However, the customer may be unaware of the options available. Herein lies the value of the unified IT service catalog. The customer, either as an individual or as a department, can select the optimal solution regardless of how centralized or decentralized the IT service providers are.

Imagine a new faculty member preparing to teach a course. She needs access to the learning management system, a lecture capture system, etc. The department's IT support person responds, "You need to contact central IT for lecture capture, the libraries for the LMS, and I will get you a new workstation." The look in her eyes lets you know she has neither the time nor the desire to learn and remember this maze. She wants to focus on preparing her course, and the necessary technology resources should be easily accessible.

Returning to the dining analogy, when you go out to eat, you don't expect to get an appetizer from one restaurant and then have to go down the street for salad, and to a third restaurant for the main course. Yet, without a unified IT service catalog, this is exactly what students, staff, faculty, and other customers must do. A unified IT service catalog serves as the portal to fulfilling requests for all IT services available at an institution. Think of it as "food court" for all IT services. The (combined) menu of services may be presented in ways to appeal to every user and their specific needs at that moment. Views may include an alphabetical listing of services, a listing by category (teaching and learning, research, infrastructure, etc.), a listing by role (faculty, student, etc.), as well as a general search option. Customers do not need to know acronyms or product names, they can simply search by a term that makes sense to them, and the IT service catalog will display options matching their search. The process of acquiring the IT resources declines from hours of frustration to mere minutes of ease.

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The unified IT service catalog may also be "intelligent" and understand the needs of a specific customer. When customers authenticate to the IT service catalog, the catalog should know their role (faculty, staff, student) as well as their department affiliation and only present the services available to them. Business school faculty will see the IT services offered within their school, those offered by central IT, and any other services for which they are eligible. However, they won't see services offered only to faculty in the college of engineering, for instance, just the information needed at the moment, simple and clear.

And, this is just the beginning. Many institutions have a labyrinth of methods for acquiring services. Perhaps central IT requires customers to fill in a web form, and facilities requires customers to e-mail requests, and yet another department requires customers to visit the help desk. Following the varied and complex methods for each organization is time consuming and confusing, and delays customers from doing their work. A unified service catalog provides a single common framework and approach for delivering services across the institution. The one-stop-shopping approach enables customers to efficiently submit their requests and swiftly return to their work.

The unified IT service catalog offers additional organizational efficiencies. Building a unified catalog will expose duplicate services, for example. Perhaps central IT offers an enterprise solution, and a few schools or colleges in the institution offer another option. This duplication occurs with data centers, teaching and learning solutions, and sometimes even e-mail options. In building the catalog, the institutional leadership might elect to eliminate some of these redundancies, or justify why they should remain.

The Challenges of Establishing a Unified IT Service Catalog

Creating an IT service catalog involves a significant effort for any organization. Each of us — the authors of this article — is at a different stage in our journey toward developing a service catalog and keenly aware of the challenges, pitfalls, and joys of this journey. Even so, we feel passionate about the value of recommending the unified IT service catalog as a strategic goal. Service management, process management, and becoming service-oriented — all go into the journey. Throughout, the service owners, process owners, and entire organization will mature in their understanding of the service catalog as well as how they use it. We recommend you honor that journey and where you are in it. Know that you will make decisions with the knowledge you have at a given time, and then will revise your decisions when you know more. As IT professionals we are comfortable with change and ambiguity. You will experience both, and more, along your service catalog journey.

Getting Started

The most important principle to follow when establishing an IT service catalog is to envision a flexible solution to meet the diverse needs of your organization. This does not mean you must include all the requirements in the first release. Start simple, with an approach that enables you to expand through subsequent improvements and releases.

In essence, think globally initially, but act locally. Begin with core services consumed by your customers and slowly expand to ancillary or supporting services. If your organization has a distributed IT model, begin with centrally provisioned services first and provide the available platform to the distributed IT departments to adopt on their own timeline.

Devise and publish the process to have a service added to the catalog or retired from it, and, if possible, workshop the process with service owners. Automate the process as much as possible using your IT service management (ITSM) tool; in the absence of a good place to put catalog descriptions while gathering content for your catalog, consider using collaboration tools such as Google Docs, SharePoint, or your local wiki.

Collecting the Information

Collecting service information is perhaps the most dynamic and time-consuming component of implementing a service catalog. It can also be the most informative and rewarding. You will want to start with the service owners, those individuals who are accountable for the end-to-end delivery of the services throughout their lifecycles. Essentially, the unified IT service catalog makes service owners visible to the organization, establishing accountability for the service.

The most effective method to collect information is to conduct focused one-on-one meetings with the service owners. You can complement this method with an online form to allow added input for any additional information that comes at a later date. Collecting information by simply requesting responses via e-mail with a set deadline generally does not succeed.

Engaging Service Owners

Service owner engagement is essential to the catalog's success. The service catalog manager is not the subject matter expert for services and cannot speak to the mission and value delivered by each service. The service owners ultimately own the description of their services in the catalog. The service catalog manager will likely create a template for service owners to populate. This provides the customer with a consistent view of each service.

If possible, create a core team of interested parties, service owners, and stakeholders to brainstorm, refine, and sign off on the form of the catalog. Publish and publicize your activities, so those who are not on the core team have a chance to review and comment on the catalog's development. Many organizations realize value by establishing a service owner community of practice to share lessons learned and realize the benefits of the service catalog.

Keeping Content Current

A service catalog organizes the information in clear categories and assigns predetermined attributes to services, giving the services owner guidance on the information required. The information should be succinct and clear, thus removing the need to think of how to structure content or what to include. Therefore, the review process should become a fairly simple task, which service owners can be prompted to complete on an annual basis through an automated e-mail request.

For simplicity, automate the service catalog content-renewal notification to maintain the integrity of information available to customers by regularly reminding service owners to make updates. Automation ensures reliable updates to the IT service catalog, along with periodic reviews of the content.


Designing and building a unified IT service catalog is a major endeavor. Many institutions will initially launch a catalog for central IT, then add other organizations later. Any approach requires coordination across the institution for this large strategic project. While a unified IT service catalog involves more governance, it also provides greater efficiency during the design and build process and delivers a greater value to your institution. This solution solves today's problems.

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Technology is now ubiquitous, and our customers are much more sophisticated. This shift means that we need to move away from focusing on technology to focusing on customers and the services we provide. If you want to provide your community with a single portal to all the IT services delivered across the institution, you need a unified IT service catalog. Your customers will love it. The proof will be in the proverbial pudding, and their delight will be the icing on your ITSM cake, both of which they will undoubtedly see on the dessert menu.

To Learn More

The ECAR IT Service Catalog Working Group (ECAR-SC) was formed in early 2014 to develop a model technology service catalog for higher education; the expected completion is late 2014/early 2015. If you are interested in the work of ECAR-SC, you can join the review group by sending a note to [email protected] or visiting us online.