We need to talk about ITIL

We need to talk about ITIL

Summary: ITIL bashing doesn't work - but we continue to do it, writes Stephen Mann, who also wonders how the detractors, buyers, and sellers of ITIL can meet in the middle.


I need to say something about ITIL in light of all the “poking” I have done via various mediums (such as the What Next For ITIL? and Giving Back To The IT Service Management Community blogs). I have great admiration for the creators of ITIL (or the IT Infrastructure Library as was) even though I do think that ITIL v3 became bloated, and potentially confusing, misdirecting, and demotivating. And, having only dipped in to my digital copy of ITIL 2011 I can’t yet comment on the latest incarnation of the IT service management (ITSM) best practice framework.

ITIL-bashing doesn’t work but we continue to do it

This might be an overly-dramatic statement but a lot of us do it.

I’d like to think that most, if not all, of us do it for the right reasons: we want organizations to be better at managing IT service delivery and at enabling their parent businesses via technology. However, I can’t help think that we need to change as much as ITIL needs to change.

Let’s look at some “facts” (OK, “facts” might not be the right word):

  • ITIL is THE de facto ITSM best practice framework. There are also many other options such as ISO 20000, USMBOK, COBIT, and now Tipu from Rob England for continual service improvement amongst others.
  • Somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million people now have an ITIL qualification (yes, it’s a shocking stat).
  • Some people talk about ITIL as though it is the “master” and ITSM the “servant.”
  • ITSM tools have for many years been sold on their “ITIL-compliance” (hate that phrase). ITIL has driven ITSM tool adoption and vice versa.
  • ITIL is here to stay.


  • How many organizations actually achieved their desired future state for ITSM maturity? ITIL has definitely helped to improve ITSM maturity but there is still so much to do despite all of ITIL’s content and all the exam passes.
  • The ITIL books are like “War and Peace” to a comic-book reader when it comes to having the time to read them.
  • The ITIL books only ever take you part of the way.
  • ITIL training can potentially be seen as teaching people how to pass the exams (and understanding the processes) but it often changes little in terms service and customer-centric IT delivery “back at the ranch.”

I could keep going with both of the above bullet lists but see little value in doing so.

We all seem to be banging our heads against the proverbially brick wall; whether it is the purchasers of ITIL-related goods and services, or professional or part-time commentators on the “ITSM industry.” I think that we all need to stand back, take a breath, and say, mutter, or shout out that it’s not working. Is this not an “ITSM civil war” where no one wins? One side wastes time in a futile attempt to topple ITIL, the other continues to buy or sell ITIL-related products and services that never seem to fully deliver the anticipated benefits. The real casualties are the organizations and people that invest in ITIL but probably never fully get what they wanted or needed.

Looking forward

I truly wish I had the answer for everyone. A way in which ITIL could be better delivered (across publications, consultancy and advisory, software, training, and the sharing of experiences) such that we all get more out of it (other than qualifications).

The best I can do at the moment is think that there needs to be a “meeting in the middle,” where:

  • The detractors of ITIL recognize the good in it (thankfully most actually do). ITIL as a beast cannot be killed, it just needs to be “house trained.”
  • The sellers of ITIL-related products and services admit that there are ways in which ITIL can be better delivered and consumed; then start to address them.
  • The buyers of ITIL better understand its intended purpose, strengths, and weaknesses; AND proactively demand better offerings from the sellers of ITIL-related products and services.
  • Everyone works together for the collective good (yeh, somewhat idealistic and naïve I know but a boy has to ask).

ITIL is (or at least was) “documented common sense,” the real issue is that common sense isn’t as common as it ought to be. Is it possible for us all to work together for the collective good? I hope that Back2ITSM will help many but, longer term, we need to address the root cause: the disconnect between theory and reality when it comes to ITIL.

Topic: Enterprise Software

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  • Essence of the article

    We need to talk about Scrupts. Scrupts bashing doesn't work. Scrupts are very important. Even detractors recognize the good in them. We need to find a way in which Scrupts could be better delivered. Everybody buy Scrupts!
  • RE: We need to talk about ITIL

    First - I have a bias in that I was part of the team that developed ITIL V3. But I am also in teams working on ISO Standards. here is my take: I don''t think the problem is with ITIL but in what people mistakenly think ITIL is and inappropriately hold it out as. When anyone holds ITIL out as "a standard" or as "something to be implemented" - they have just created a huge problem that will cost a lot of money and time before its solved.

    ITIL is a library of books that contain a narrative description of many good and proven service management practices. But - It is not a standard. It is not something that can be implemented. (How could you objectively tell if it were implemented?).

    The ITIL certifications show that the person understands the language of ITIL which is now the "lingua franca" of IT but not that they know what to do with it. Certifying 8 times to the same set of books is odd in my view even though I have the expert certification. A college degree usually means the person has studied many points of view and understands the language and a set of professional concepts from multiple angles. If this concept were applied to other professions would it hold water? Instead of "I am a dentist", would it not be odd to hear "I am an XYZ Dentist Expert, I have 8 certifications to this one set of dentistry books. I have foundations, dentistry life cycle, dentistry capability and dentistry expert.". I think I would rather have a standard dentist with happy customers and a stable practice.

    ISO IEC 15504 series, or ISO IEC 20000 series or other ISO standards - are standards. They are written in a fundamentally different way - so that they can be used in an audit or assessment. You can use them to check your service management system to see if you have all the parts in place that should be there. You can do this objectively by way of an impartial third party or do it in house. But the key is that you can objectively know if you conform or don't conform. If you don't like the standard, you can adopt it for internal use and add or subtract the things that you need, or not, and use it in a modified form - but the end is the same - you can audit or assess against it because that is how it is written.

    Pretending ITIL is a standard sets up an organization for playing a game of football with no goal posts, sidelines or rules. Lots of activity and running around but not really getting anywhere fast. Typical efforts are marked by bickering between enthusiastic and naive pedants on the one side and experienced people on the other. Bickering usually beats results and the projects usually fail to deliver measurable or even discernible business value.

    I don't think the problem is with ITIL per se, but what naive but zealous people do with it once they have their sash filled with so many certifications to the same set of books.

    I think the problem would go away of ITIL were used, properly, as a library of books with narrative descriptions of many service management practices, and that they form a part of a larger ecosystem of information available in the industry including COBIT 5.0 (also a service management framework, actually auditable and assessable too), ISO Standards, eTOM, CMMI-SVC, ITSQC eSCM-CL and eSCM-SP and other sources like USMBOK and etc etc. This approach forces organizations to take the focus off ITIL as the thing to implement and back on to enterprise goals and objectives first, with a secondary consideration for leveraging the multiple available frameworks as appropriate to help them achieve their goals.
    • RE: We need to talk about ITIL

      @wdpowel@... great reply ... any chance you can also post this on the original posting at Forrester?


      Thanks :)
      • RE: We need to talk about ITIL

        @stephenmann Thanks for the link. I had just seen this article here. I just posted it there as well.
  • RE: We need to talk about ITIL

    The first place to start talking about ITIL and ITSM is to define these acronyms by putting the words that the capital letters stand for in parentheses at the start of the column so that novices in the industry have a clue about what the article is all about.
    • RE: We need to talk about ITIL


      Well put, I was just going to reply with a simple... huh?
      • RE: We need to talk about ITIL

        @yodatech it's in the first paragraph after the summary two-liner???
    • RE: We need to talk about ITIL

      @K4thwright it's in the first paragraph after the summary two-liner???
      • RE: We need to talk about ITIL

        @stephenmann Thank you for the follow-up, it can be attributed to my lack of abiltiy to read the Queen's english... 'or the IT Infrastructure Library as was'. ;-)
    • RE: We need to talk about ITIL


      You are suggesting ZDNet posters need to know about something before they bash it?

      You're obviously a new poster ;-)

      But yes totally agree. Lack of definition of terms is rife in ZDNET
  • RE: We need to talk about ITIL

    You mention the books being like 'War and Peace". There are intro guides, even pocket guides, that should be used first. I also feel that IT is complex and may take more than a 'comic book' to explain. The claim that ITIL is too complicated really does not hold water - ever ask a surgeon why his procedure is so complicated? Usually patients just want to know he is certified as a surgeon and using best practices - same with ITSM practitioners.

    I also want to mention how the impact, or follow through, is the responsibility of the practitioners. I hear a lot of comments about how ITIL does not effect the work place. If you send someone for SANS training it does not make your network safe, they have to set up policy and procedures to keep security standards in place. In fact, I can not think of many trainings that you can take and never have to perform any follow through. If this is a problem in your organization, get together with other ITIL trained or interested people and see what you can do meeting weekly for even an hour. Hint - start with Problem Management as it can list what other ITIL areas to improve.

    I like have a goal of higher ITIL maturity - if we were all there, there would be little need for training.

    Thanks for your time in reading!
    • RE: We need to talk about ITIL


      You wrote, " I can not think of many trainings that you can take and never have to perform any follow through."

      While that may be true, it is incumbent upon the trainer to *motivate* the students to implement what they are learning. Good training is not just an info-dump, it also includes "selling" the students on why internalizing the information, and implementing what they're being taught will help make them more successful, and make their life better in the long run. (And, really, if neither of these are true, then why bother in the first place?)

      That being said, I believe it's also incumbent upon the sponsor to ensure that their model/standard/etc. is being taught by qualified trainers in an effective manner. If you have a product that is extremely intuitive and very easy to understand, then you can get away with not having a focus on training. Otherwise, however, training is everything. Even a surgeon will be lost if his training is inadequate.

      So perhaps the ITIL folks need to go back and assess their marketing/training plan. Adults usually don't put forth extra effort for no good reason for free. If the ITIL information is just not very accessible (as I find is true for many models these days--which leads not only to poor adoption rates, but also to confusion among those who do take the plunge), and the requirements for ITIL certs are high (many contracts have stipulations regarding ITIL quals/certs), then you are going to continue getting what you have now: a bunch of people who learned how to pass the exam but were never properly educated and/or motivated to put the model to work for them.

      Again, there are those who would place this blame squarely on the trainers, but, honestly, it's not the trainers' product. If the ITIL sponsors want to make sure people are implementing the practices, then they must/MUST become actively involved in developing and delivering motivational education for practitioners.

      Someone has to show people where the rubber meets the road. Break it down for us, show us why we should be excited to have this new understanding and and this view of IT services. Show us how this will help us make more money, get and keep more clients, build a product or deliver a service we can be seriously proud of, and still be able to leave the office at a decent time. Surgeons--to use your example again--can see all of the above, and that's a big part of why they decided to become a doctor: they always knew and internalized the cost/benefit in a very personal and exciting way. (I will slug my way through 12-15 years of long days and sleepless nights at med school, because by the time I'm 35-40 I'll build a fat bank account, buy a Mercedes, live in a nice house, go on nice vacations, and--most importantly--I'll be able work on people and make them better, save their lives, and sometimes even be the hero--how cool is that??)

      If you're not showing me how ITIL makes my life way better, then I'm not interested. And, apparently, neither is anyone else.
      Big Daddy D
  • RE: We need to talk about ITIL


    Well stated article of the current state of the realm. My take involves decomposing the parts and understanding their trajectories. ITIL in its initial vision was a great idea and set down very common sense suggestions based on years of practice of the things one needs to do if you want to manage an infrastructure and its services to a business. I have always thought of it in the context of "So you've been appointed to manage an IT infrastructure. Here is what you need to know." The funny thing about ITIL is that it sat there for many years somewhat ignored. Then IT management software vendors latched onto it to help impress customers with why they needed to buy their products. Merely another spur for sales. After that, the IT training community kicked in with training courses and certification paths. These training people live in their own world and to me, have little or no value add to practice. You just pay someone a few thousand bucks and they tell you what's in the books. Its just a business model, and ultimately just background noise to actual practice. Certification means no more than you know what the books contain.

    Ultimately nothing replaces real world experience. Despite the fact that some companies think they can replace experience with certifications, we all know that approach fails.

    Another interesting fact is that the software vendors in this space really have no concept of best practices for management with their own tools. I have always found the advancement rate of tools in this space to be horrendously slow. As practitioners, we need to be more demanding on the vendors to provide functionality that actually helps us manage diverse, heterogeneous environments more effectively, particularly in providing higher level ease of use and business linkage.
  • RE: We Need to Talk About ITIL.

    This has been the most enlightening exchange of IT Service Management information I have experienced since I began my ITIL journey a couple of years ago. Okay, maybe most enlightening is a bit strong, but it was certainly an Ah-ha moment. It verified and confirmed what I think to reality looks like in the IT Service management world; and reality can be so elusive.

    Mr. Mann's article was a result of a search I made: "how to speak ITIL without speaking ITIL". I posed question as a result of my readings and observations of the relationships between the "ITIL Purists" (who quote book, line and sinker), perhaps a client who may know enough ITIL to be dangerous, and the "ITIL Implementers" who have actually made ITIL work (albeit NOT exactly as described by the core ITIL books... go figure).

    When I look at the work we are doing, I ask my self why? What is in it for them, the customer? An organization may have several reasons why they are embarking down the path to implementing a best practice. I would hazard a guess (read: I can not quote a social-scientific study) that MOST organizations do not try to implement IT Service Management because they are best practice philanthropists; that is, because it is "the right thing to do". Most best practice is done because of a regulation or a compliance reason; the result of an audit or the fear of one, or it has been mandated via regulation or direction.

    What I have come to realize is that what I use to make IT better for a an organization is dependent on what the organization actually wants to make better. Based on that, I can choose the right tools and apply them in the proper amount to achieve the organization's goals and objectives. I mean, really... isn't the whole point to make IT a better value for the organization, regardless of whether they are a revenue generator like the private industry, or budget-eater like the federal government?

    For instance, in the everyday world if a customer wants a certain color of red paint on a dining room wall, the painter needs to have that paint made to specifications so that it will look the way the customer wants at a particular time. (Most of you know paint will look different at various times of the day). The result will be a red dining room. However, if the customer wants a warm-feeling dining room, the painter will need to determine what warm means to the customer. Once that is accomplished, the choices from that point on would be much greater than the red paint option and could result in several instances where the customer could say, "Yes, that is of value to me, use that."

    Likewise, the IT Service Management customer is a unique entity in which no two customers are identical; similar perhaps, but not identical. This would require using whatever tools are available that will provide the customer with the best solution for their situation. Hence, Mr. Mann's point in stopping the deity-like worship of ITIL and its annihilative-style bashing, and a more pragmatic approach as suggested by wdpowell to use the tools; ITIL, COBIT, ISO 2000, CMMI, etc. make complete sense.

    I would like to thank both Mr. Mann and wdpowell for their insight on this matter. I do not know anything about Mr. Mann and I have not personally met wdpowell, but know of him via colleagues with whom I have worked. Some of these colleagues are the aforementioned ITIL purists, others are more aligned with the ideologies and tools of a company, and there are some who take a more pragmatic approach to solving the organizations dilemma.

    For myself, I have two intermediate ITIL certifications under my belt, a novice in this arena. My ITIL expert co-workers sometimes claim I have the luxury of not being too corrupted by ITIL and am therefore a viable resource with a different view. However, I tend to see how a person uses tools (and which ones) as an extension of their approach to solving problems. What am I trying to do and why? I often think back to the old Midas muffler commercial where the customer looks at an obviously oversized muffler and asks, "Is that going to fit on my car?", to which the mechanic replies, "I'll MAKE it fit." Not what I want to hear as a customer.