IBM's recent PCTY (Pulse Comes to You) service management event in London reminded me that it's almost four years since it acquired MRO software. The products it acquired, along with the rest of the Tivoli IT management software portfolio represent a set of capabilities which are tightly linked into a much broader vision that IBM calls the Smarter Planet.

Chances are you have heard of this 'initiative', but its relevance to your business might not be obvious. Or, you might simply be wondering what ideas the vision is actually built on. Either way, here's a simple recap on what it all means, starting at the MRO acquisition.

IBM acquired MRO software in 2006. Its principal product line, Maximo, provided asset and service management capabilities to organisations in the utilities, manufacturing, energy, pharmaceutical, and telecommunications sectors to buy, maintain and retire assets such as production equipment, facilities, transportation and IT hardware and software.

The acquisition broadened IBM's reach from 'data centre' IT service management (with Tivoli management software) into 'rest of the world' service and asset management. A simple way of summing up the differences between the two domains served by Maximo and Tivoli respectively is to think of 'blue collar' (physical asset intensive) service management and 'white collar' (corporate IT and datacentre infrastructure) service management.

Traditionally, these domains have been operated, staffed and supported by technology entirely separately, despite them sharing a number of common requirements. Examples include the need to track assets throughout their lifecycle, to be able to carry out preventative maintenance, and the value of being able to capture individual component data or aggregate performance data to manage assets and collections of assets in the context of the service they are performing or supporting.

Each new generation of assets used in business tends to come with more and more technological components. For example, the ability to attach to a network, and the increasing levels of 'intelligence' that assets contain allow them to carry out routines such as self diagnostics, are all becoming common features of much of the equipment purchased for business use. This is as true for manufacturing systems and air conditioning units, as servers and storage.

With this in mind, the opportunity may exist to achieve economies of scale and better visibility and control over asset utilisation and lifecycle management by unifying the management of assets and services across the business as a whole. I say 'may' because clearly it's a lot more complicated than connecting everything up and throwing a few software tools at the problem.

IBM calls this opportunity 'Integrated Service Management'. It's a standalone strategy in itself, but is also an enabler of IBM's all-encompassing 'Smarter Planet' vision, a macro view of a world where 'billions of networked devices' are monitored and managed, enabling 'smart cities', 'smart transportation systems' and so on to be run with superior efficiency and effectiveness compared to how many of these things are run today.

So just what is the practical reality today of such a lofty goal? Well, we are still quite a long way from the grand vision. Most organisations have not yet got round, or are only just beginning, to address the basic building blocks. At events such as this one, it can be easy to forget that for every reference customer in any area, hundreds of thousands of equally 'mainstream' organisations are either not ready to make changes or investments, or will be still in the planning stages.

Specifically, we know from our research that most organisations still consider IT service management as a very separate domain from management of other physical assets. We have seen early success stories involving relatively simple areas, like getting service provisioning and change control working together in a co-ordinated way within the IT domain itself. The challenges involved in getting different parts of the IT organisation working together will not be that different from getting IT and non-IT staff collaborating.

So, where to start for more unified service management of assets? In considering elements such as quality of service, system and device monitoring and lifecycle management across datacentre and non datacentre assets and services, the trick is keep things firmly grounded in reality from the outset. In practice this means working out which assets and services would be most appropriate for a more unified management approach in terms of the operational benefits of managing them in a unified manner, balancing this against the inevitable costs associated with making such a thing possible. Some physical assets may require quite similar management, whether they are IT or non-IT, and these might offer a good hook for a first foray into unification.

The most important factor to be aware of is that it's important to try to solve individual issues in a manner which is consistent, repeatable and extensible – in other words, it's about getting the unified management structures and processes right, even if the things being unified initially are relatively trivial. Herein lies the secret of working towards a more co-ordinated set of management capabilities, so that cross-domain management becomes a natural evolution of the way things are done.

It is hard not to appreciate the lofty goals of the Smarter Planet. However, the reality for most organisations in the world today is somewhat less sexy than the macro vision. The 'journey' may not be of interest for every organisation. For those that appreciate the benefits however, getting started will have little to do with technology per se and everything to do with setting realistic, achievable goals, and putting in place the right structures from the outset. It is from identifying 'natural' opportunities to rationalise and streamline how assets and services are managed across a business that a sustainable and forward looking strategy can be formed and built upon over time.