An incident management process is a set of procedures and actions taken to respond to and resolve critical incidents: how incidents are detected and communicated, who is responsible, what tools are used, and what steps are taken to resolve the incident.
Incident management processes are used across many industries, and incidents can include anything from IT system failure, to events requiring the attention of healthcare professionals, to critical maintenance of physical infrastructure.
In this article, you will learn:
- Why Is Incident Management Important?
- What Is an Incident Management Process?
- The Five Steps of Incident Resolution
- Incident Identification, Logging, and Categorization
- Incident Notification & Escalation
- Investigation and Diagnosis
- Resolution and Recovery
- Incident Closure
- Tips for Improving Your Incident Management Process
- Train and Support Employees
- Set Alerts That Matter
- Prepare Your Team for On-Call
- Establishing Communication Guidelines
- Streamline Change Processes
- Improve Systems with Lessons Learned
- How to Use Alerting to Improve Your Incident Management Process
- Define Your Monitoring and Alerting Strategy
- Go Beyond Ticketing Systems
- Create a Minimal Runbook
Why Is Incident Management Important?
Incident management refers to a set of practices, processes, and solutions that enable teams to detect, investigate, and respond to incidents. It is a critical element for businesses of all sizes and a requirement for meeting most data compliance standards.
Incident management processes ensure that IT teams can quickly address vulnerabilities and issues. Faster responses help reduce the overall impact of incidents, mitigate damages, and ensure that systems and services continue to operate as planned.
Without incident management, you may lose valuable data, experience reduced productivity and revenues due to downtime, or be held liable for breach of service level agreements (SLAs). Even when incidents are minor with no lasting harm, IT teams must devote valuable time to investigating and correcting issues.
A few of the most important benefits of implementing an incident management strategy include:
- Prevention of incidents
- Improved mean time to resolution (MTTR)
- Reduction or elimination of downtime
- Increased data fidelity
- Improved customer experience
Another benefit of incident management practices is an overall reduction in costs. According to a study by Gartner, system or service downtime can cost organizations $300k per hour. Additionally, regulatory fines and loss of customer trust can have significant financial impacts. With incident management, organizations may have to invest more upfront but they can avoid significant costs later on.
What Is an Incident Management Process?
Incident management processes are the procedures and actions taken to respond to and resolve incidents. This includes who is responsible for response, how incidents are detected and communicated to IT teams, and what tools are used.
When designed well, incident management processes ensure that all incidents are addressed quickly and that a certain quality standard is maintained. Processes can also help teams improve their current operations to prevent future incidents.
The Five Steps of Incident Resolution
There are five standard steps to any incident resolution process. These steps ensure that no aspect of an incident is overlooked and help teams respond to incidents effectively.
1. Incident Identification, Logging, and Categorization
Incidents are identified through user reports, solution analyses, or manual identification. Once identified, the incident is logged and investigation and categorization can begin. Categorization is important to determining how incidents should be handled and for prioritizing response resources.
2. Incident Notification & Escalation
Incident alerting takes place in this step although the timing may vary according to how incidents are identified or categorized. Additionally, if incidents are minor, details may be logged or notifications sent without an official alert. Escalation is based on the categorization assigned to an incident and who is responsible for response procedures. If incidents can be automatically managed, escalation can occur transparently.
3. Investigation and Diagnosis
Once incident tasks are assigned, staff can begin investigating the type, cause, and possible solutions for an incident. After an incident is diagnosed, you can determine the appropriate remediation steps. This includes notifying any relevant staff, customers, or authorities about the incident and any expected disruption of services.
4. Resolution and Recovery
Resolution and recovery involve eliminating threats or root causes of issues and restoring systems to full functioning. Depending on incident type or severity, this may require multiple stages to ensure that incidents don’t reoccur.
For example, if the incident involves a malware infection, you often cannot simply delete the malicious files and continue operations. Instead, you need to create a clean copy of your infected systems, isolate the infected components, and fully replace systems to ensure that the infection doesn’t spread.
5. Incident Closure
Closing incidents typically involves finalizing documentation and evaluating the steps taken during response. This evaluation helps teams identify areas of improvement and proactive measures that can help prevent future incidents.
Incident closure may also involve providing a report or retrospective to administrative teams, board members, or customers. This information can help rebuild any trust that may have been lost and creates transparency regarding your operations.
Tips for Improving Your Incident Management Process
When defining your incident management processes, the following tips can help you ensure that your processes are effective. These tips can also help ensure that your team is able to adopt processes reliably.
Train and Support Employees
Properly training employees at all levels of your organization can significantly benefit incident management processes. When non-IT staff are aware of how to identify and report incidents, your IT teams can respond faster and need to spend less time interpreting reports. When IT staff are properly trained, they are more effective at working together and can use tools more efficiently.
Set Alerts That Matter
Avoiding alert overload is one of the most important aspects of incident management. If your teams are drowning in alerts, incidents are likely to be overlooked and response times are longer. To avoid this, you should carefully plan how events are categorized and what those categories mean for alerts.
When defining incident alerts you may find it helpful to start by defining your service level indicators. You can use these indicators to determine a hierarchy of functioning that prioritizes root causes over surface-level symptoms. An alert informing teams that a server went down is more useful and effective than 30 alerts, one for each service on that server.
Prepare Your Team for On-Call
With alert priorities determined, you also need to account for who is responding to those alerts. Defining an on-call schedule helps you ensure that a responder with the appropriate skills and permissions is always available. On-call procedures can also help you ensure that alerts are properly escalated.
After each shift, consider adjusting on-call duties according to the amount of effort that individual staff made. This can ensure your team members aren’t getting overwhelmed. For example, if one team member responds to multiple high-priority incidents in a shift, they should get more time off-call than someone who didn’t have to respond.
Establishing Communication Guidelines
Establishing effective communication is critical to team collaboration and effectiveness. One way to protect and ensure communication is to create guidelines. These guidelines can specify what channels staff should use, what content is expected in those channels, and how communications should be documented.
Clear guidelines can help diffuse tension and blame during stressful response periods by presenting a standard for how employees are expected to interact. Additionally, when communications are documented, teams can refer back to verify content and more easily pass on information without losing detail. This can reduce frustration overall, including the chance of misdirected stress.
Streamline Change Processes
Depending on the systems you are using and your responders’ expertise, you may need to verify or confirm changes required for response. You want to prevent responders from enacting harmful changes or from getting stuck waiting for unnecessary approval.
One option is to clearly identify what levels or types of changes individual staff can make and who they can go to for approval when needed.
If your system requires all changes to be approved by a change advisory board (CAB) you need to ensure that the board is readily available. If board members cannot give the same availability as your responders, you need to put emergency override procedures in place to prevent excess damage.
Improve Systems With Lessons Learned
Reviews should evaluate the reason for the incident and work to identify if any preventative measures can be taken against future incidents. If so, teams need to define and assign tasks to take those measures immediately. Additionally, reviews can help ensure that any remaining incident documentation is completed. This is necessary for liability and compliance auditing.
How to Use Alerting to Improve Your Incident Management Process
The quality of your incident management processes rely heavily on how you generate and manage alerts. If you do not have strong alerting practices or systems in place, your incident management is bound to be disorganized and slow. To avoid poor management and ensure high quality processes, keep the following tips in mind.
Define Your Monitoring and Alerting Strategy
Monitoring and alerting strategies define which system components you are monitoring, the importance of those components, and how issues with those components are conveyed. Your monitoring goal should be to create centralized, continuous visibility of your systems. Your alert goals should be to reduce false positives or negatives, and to ensure that alerts are meaningful.
When creating your strategies, it helps to start small and with the most critical components of your systems. Eventually you should be monitoring environments in their entirety but you need to ensure system stability before you can do this. If you focus on the most important components first, you ensure that systems remain operational and grant yourself time for optimizations.
Go Beyond Ticketing Systems
Ticketing systems can be useful for tracking issues and providing customer support but are often not the best tool for incident management. These systems typically require information to be manually filed before tasks can be addressed and can significantly slow response times.
This manual requirement is especially problematic for customer-facing systems, where users may simply abandon your service rather than reporting an issue. If you integrate your monitoring and response tools you can work to avoid this abandonment.
If you need to use a ticketing system, you should automate as much of the ticket creation process as possible to reduce delays. Otherwise, consider adopting tools that enable your teams to communicate about, investigate, and respond to alerts from a single platform. Even if tools can’t perform these capabilities inherently, there are options for integrations that automate the transfer of information or are able to trigger actions across tooling.
Create a Minimal Runbook
Runbooks are essentially collections of scripts or procedures that you can use to automate or outline processes. With runbooks you can standardize processes and create a shared knowledge base of actions for your team. Once runbooks are defined, you can assign books directly to alert details or specific events.
Alternatively, you can provide a library of runbooks to your responders with guidelines for when they should use specific books. This enables you to distribute skills and expertise across your response tiers, ensuring that even lower-level staff can perform required response actions with ease.
One caveat of runbooks is that the information contained can be time consuming to maintain. Detailed books need to be verified and updated with every system change to prevent books from becoming outdated or harmful. Creating minimal runbooks is one way to avoid this maintenance. With these guides, you can still share basic information across your team with minimal maintenance.