What’s IT service management?–and what’s ITIL?

Devious: …in your policy…it states quite clearly that no claim you make will be paid.
Vicar: Oh dear.
Devious: You see, you unfortunately plumped for our ‘Never pay’ policy, which, you know, if you never claim is very worthwhile…but you had to claim, and, well, there it is.
-Monty Python’s “Motor Insurance Sketch”

“IT service management” (ITSM) is an IT management capability that’s grown in popularity over the last 30 years. In my mind, the core things ITSM provides are

  • a way of thinking about what Information Technology does: IT provides services.
  • a common language for customers and IT people to use.
  • a rallying point for technical people in different IT areas to understand how they can work together delivering services customers want.
  • a process-oriented lens to understand good ways of developing, implementing, and maintaining services.

IT is very complex, and it’s easy for users to feel like the Vicar in the Monty Python sketch quoted above. Let’s say that a user was saving their research on a file share, and then one day their research assistant accidentally deletes the files. They call the Help Desk but are told the files can’t be restored. From IT’s perspective, the user’s file share wasn’t backed up because IT was never told the file share was important. From the user’s perspective, their reason for using IT’s file shares (vs. using, say, a flash drive) was so their files are backed up and can be restored. A critical expectation was missed.

(Note for the advanced reader: ITSM is not the end-all be-all of IT management. Project management, application development, IT governance, additional approaches to process improvement, IT security, and a host of other complementary capabilities exist and can work well together with ITSM.)

What’s ITIL?

“ITIL” is a framework for service management. It’s one way of approaching service management. Other approaches exist, but ITIL is widely used. ITIL stands for Information Technology Infrastructure Library, and is literally a library of five core books:

  • Service Strategy
  • Service Design
  • Service Transition
  • Service Operation
  • Continual Service Improvement

Each of these books represents a phase in the “service lifecycle,” from the initial thoughts about offering a new service, to building it, implementing it, maintaining it, and improving it. As I mentioned above, ITSM is process-oriented; much of the five ITIL books talks about the processes needed for each phase of the lifecycle and how those processes could be designed, implemented, measured, and improved, and how those processes can work together across the entire service lifecycle. I’d argue the core of ITIL is its definition of a service:

A service is a means of delivering value to customers by facilitating outcomes customers want to achieve without the ownership of specific costs and risks. [Emphasis added.]

Throughout the five books, ITIL then discusses how you understand and influence value, how you understand and build quality into the outcomes delivered, and how you define and appropriately manage the costs and risks associated with a service. If I can take the liberty, here’s my short summary for a person without ITIL background of each of these books:

  • Service Strategy: What do customers really want? How is IT currently best positioned to help, and how should IT better position itself to help?
  • Service Design: What will this service do, how do we manage the risks that come with the service, and how can we identify and discuss our assumptions about the service with the customer?
  • Service Transition: How can this service be put into production so that it works the first time and people know what to do if there are issues in the future?
  • Service Operation: How can we be prepared for the operational demands placed on us by this service? How can we react quickly to minimize the impact of realized risks?
  • Continual Service Improvement: How can we use the Deming Cycle (Plan/Do/Check/Act) to get better at things? What should we measure to support our strategy and plans? How do we get “back on track” when things don’t go as planned?

How to Learn More

At this point, interested people tend to take the ITIL Foundation class. The class requires no ITIL background, and the purpose of this class is to go through the highlights of ITIL. However, the three-day class is overwhelming due to the content, format, and exam at the end, and there is very little room for reflecting on how service management would work in your particular organization. (Note: if you’re considering the ITIL Foundations class, set up a coaching call with us! We can help identify opportunities for learning about ITIL as well as how to use ITIL education to prepare your organization for developing an ITSM capability.)

Common Starting Points

There are over 25 ITIL processes. Upon reflection, organizations tend to begin with looking at one or more of these four ITIL processes:

  • Incident management: the process of getting customers working again when there is a disruption to IT service (e.g. what happens when someone calls your Help Desk/Service Desk because their computer is broken)
  • Service request management: the process of defining and streamlining how customers order services (e.g. how customers can ensure a computer is ready for their new employee’s first day of work)
  • Change management: the process of learning about, reviewing, building, implementing, and communicating any changes (emergency or planned) that may affect IT services
  • Service catalog management: the process of building an IT service catalog that makes sense to customers and can be used as the basis for conversations about value, outcomes, costs, and risks. (See also the Campus Technology article, “Secrets of the Service Catalog”.)

I think of these processes as “starter” processes because they don’t require other ITIL processes be set up. It’s certainly not required that you start with these four, but they tend to come up the most. After that, it’s a mix of problem management, service level management, service portfolio management, or other processes depending on the organization’s focus at the moment. However, if you are serious about building your ITSM capability, I’d argue you should develop your Continual Service Improvement process early, because it will help you with all the other improvements you’ll be pursuing. Organizations also tend to build an ongoing ITSM program to identify a roadmap for developing service management, and they identify people within IT who are natural ITSM “champions.”