ITSM vs ITIL: Do All ITSM Organizations Need ITIL?

ITSM vs ITIL: Do All ITSM Organizations Need ITIL?
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ITIL and ITSM are two information technology (IT) industry terms that are often used in conjunction with one another — sometimes interchangeably. This conflation happens for a very good reason: the two terms are quite inter-related, precisely because ITIL is a work process framework that informs overall ITSM practices.

Understanding the distinction between ITSM vs ITIL can reveal why they are so intertwined. It can also allow IT service leaders to better understand the choices they make when guiding ITSM decisions, such as which processes to use in order to best-fit the overall business organization’s goals.

ITSM Defined

Information Technology Service Management, or ITSM, is a blanket term used to describe all of the practices and systems involved in delivering IT services that meet or exceed expected targets. The term ITSM collectively, ” positions IT services as the key means of delivering and obtaining value, where an internal or external IT service provider works with business customers, at the same time taking responsibility for the associated costs and risks.” reveals best practices leader AXELOS.

Goals of ITSM include:

  • Define performance expectations, such as through Service Level Agreements (SLAs)
  • Assign roles for accountability, decision-making, and taking action
  • Chart repeatable processes that can ensure IT performance goals are met
  • Determine the tools and technology needed to facilitate IT activities, processes, and performance goals
  • Improve productivity while reducing resource consumption, i.e. increasing efficiency
  • Identify challenges to reaching IT performance goals, and mitigate or remove them
  • Generate feedback through data and human input to continually improve upon existing methods, practices, and performance benchmarks

Each individual organization will implement its own idiomatic methods for enacting ITSM principles according to their own individual needs and preferences. They can use a system such as Agile or DevOps to guide them.

ITIL is such a system, and it was once the most popular and widely-used ITSM framework on the planet. Now, most organizations use a combination of ITIL and other ITSM frameworks, such as COBIT, eTOM, MOF, and others.

ITIL Defined

Information Technology Infrastructure Library, or ITIL, was created by the British Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) in the 1980s. It was developed as a set of best practices and well-defined roles with the intention to bring structure, control, and predictability to IT service outcomes. 

The Transition from ITIL v3 to the More Flexible ITIL 4

Originally, ITIL defined a rigid set of processes, step-by-step. Increasingly, rigid, process-focused ITSM frameworks are falling out of favor among organizations that use lean-focused principles, such as Agile, Scrum, or DevOps. These processes are tailored to the benefit of the individual functioning groups and teams. Traditional gatekeeping, such as the need for a Change Advisory Board approval on all software updates, is seen as a barrier to rapid value production.

With these modern demands in mind, global IT & tech best practice consultancy AXELOS decided to revise the entire approach of ITIL from its 2007 ITIL v3 iteration. ITIL 4 provides guidelines for the structure and workflow of ITSM, but it avoids recommending proscriptive processes. AXELOS made this revision with the intent to permit organizations to construct their own processes on a best-fit basis, while keeping in mind the precautions, responsibilities, and general priorities that ITIL 4 reveals.

“While ITIL v3 defined a set of processes organized around the service lifecycle, ITIL 4 describes principles, concepts and practices,” explains the IT Process Maps wiki, based upon literature obtained from AXELOS. “This includes key activities and essential inputs and outputs for each practice, but not detailed process specifications. This departure from the previous process-oriented approach is a fundamental change in ITIL 4 that enables service providers to adopt more flexible operating models.”

Notably, organizations still interested in receiving recommendations for prescriptive processes can still rely on ITIL v3. “AXELOS states that ITIL 4 does not invalidate earlier versions of ITIL,” says IT Process Maps, “and the processes as specified in ITIL v3 are therefore still valid guidance.”

The Primary Difference Between ITSM and ITIL

The difference between ITSM vs ITIL is one of categories. 

ITSM describes a general “bucket” of possible practices, without specifying any individual one. Yet, ITSM still remains goal-focused, so it should be viewed as a discipline-focused overview of IT thought that raises questions like, “what platform do we use to track service tickets?”, to which IT leaders should provide concrete answers.

ITIL is a specific discipline that can help IT leaders determine the ideal ways to satisfy ITSM goals. ITIL v3 and prior editions offer prescriptive processes and well-defined roles, whereas ITIL 4 describes guiding principles that organizations can use to determine their own optimal workflow and administrative hierarchy.

Other primary differences include the following (taken verbatim from an informative APM digest article):

  1. ITIL is one of several frameworks that teaches the best practices to implement ITSM while ITSM is combining the use of that framework aligned with the various business perspectives to deliver quality IT services.
  2. ITIL is micro focused internally to IT and ITSM is macro focused to the business.
  3. ITSM describes the “what”, while ITIL describes the “how.”
  4. ITSM is a set of methodologies that are applied to manage the services provided to the end user whereas ITIL is the best practice framework of ITSM. It helps in providing the necessary tools and techniques to provide those services effectively.
  5. ITSM is an overall organizational implementation whereas ITIL is a collection of process standards that guide the delivery and support of IT services.

Do All ITSM Organizations Need ITIL?

The obvious answer to the above question is that, no, organizations interested in a well-functioning ITSM domain do not necessarily need to use ITIL practices. However, a Forbes Insight survey from 2017 revealed that 47% of responding organizations either used ITIL or some combination of ITIL and another ITSM framework.

Whether looking at ITIL v3 or the more loosely-arranged ITIL 4, the guiding principles and specific processes described within them can help organizations strive for more accountability, better-defined goals, and a more attentive focus on specific performance benchmarks.

In fact, systems like ITIL and Agile can complement one another, allowing IT organizations to adopt the principles from ITIL and combine it with other systems in order to obtain the most benefit.

Because of the potential to intersperse ITIL’s lessons within other ITSM practices, the original, “classic” ITSM framework is still worth a look in this day and age. Every organization is unique, and compared to the 1980s, we’ve all learned a lot of lessons about different ways to approach IT. Picking and choosing aspects of each ITSM framework’s strengths while leaving out its apparent weaknesses is the modern “best approach” to satisfying each organization’s individual goals.

Learn how AI-backed analytics can propel ITSM goals and help organizations be leaner and more resilient than ever, whether they use ITIL or any other system, in our webinar: “Turbocharge ITSM with AI-powered IT Business Analytics

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