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27 January 2010 | Ian Clayton Blog
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ITIL - The ITSM Profession's Viagra
This week Ian looks at IT Service Management and the role ITIL plays within it...

In a recent article here at the ITP Report, my fellow contributor Aidan Lawes provided a timely and succinct reminder of why the true purpose of ITIL and its relationship to IT Service Management is important to understand, and why any misunderstandings likely result in the bad press both ITSM projects, and ITIL are receiving in management circles during the economic downtown.  In this article I would like to continue Aidan’s discussion and offer my insights and opinions as to the true role of ITIL in the IT Service Management space, and suggest that if ITIL doesn’t matter, why, and what does.

ITIL – The ITSM Professional’s Viagra?

It is easy to understand why ITIL has been deliberately positioned by many, as the source of all things good when it comes to IT processes and best practices, and the ‘solution’ against which all ITSM products and service should be measured.  The close association of ITIL and ITSM has happened because those who lead us have encouraged it.  It is allowed, because ITIL has been the ‘Trojan Horse’ for many marketing campaigns designed to sell us products and services, and that have created a worldwide market for ITSM and ITIL that is, “too big to fail”.

An old marketing principle is that if you don’t know what a customer’s problem is; it’s harder, more expensive, and takes longer to sell your product.  So the first tactic is to get inside the head of your prospective customer and convince them they have a problem you can solve.  In our daily lives we are immersed in marketing campaigns designed to persuade us we have one problem or another.  Just look at how Viagra is sold. 

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to persuade an IT professional they have a problem, that customers believe the IT department sucks, that practices are arcane and broken, and they should start hugging customers instead of servers.  Too many of my fellow professionals, who still work under fluorescent lights and only get to see daylight when let into exercise yard during lunchtime, feel they have a problem that only ITIL can solve.

Advertisements, articles and public statements at conferences have long trumpeted ITIL as the ‘wonder drug’ for dysfunctional IT organizations suffering from performance anxiety, and effectively positioned it as the ITSM profession’s ‘Viagra’ – some say the ‘blue pill’ (check out the blue pill, red pill metaphor used in the 1999 movie, the Matrix). 


As a good friend of mine shared with me recently, “The melding of ITSM and ITIL as one-and-the-same is most worrisome, and causes much of the pain I deal with daily.  Seems I spend most of my time correcting this belief, and trying to fix broken concepts, than actually ‘doing’ the work that needs to get done.  It doesn’t help that various ITIL vendors, trainers and even consultants seem to promote this erroneous view, and further confuse the market and the clients who were already struggling to understand ITSM and IT/Business integration.  The ITIL community may be its own worst enemy”.

Contrary to Aidan’s apportion of the blame on the unsuspecting, and always hopeful end user, I don’t think it’s all the problem of the people who attend ITIL classes as paying customers.   ITIL classes can be an exercise in learning and being tested on ritualistic jargon, and a fair proportion of the blame must go to the instructors of these classes, and even vendors and consultants who, whether ignorantly, accidentally, or deliberately, fail to explain the distinct difference between ITSM and ITIL. 

How else was the impression created that ITSM is ITIL and ITIL, ITSM.   Some in the ITIL community (you know who you are!) have not exactly been shrinking violets when it has come to positioning ITIL as the ‘definitive reference for ITSM’.  Its valuable, but the recent OGC Mandate for Change implies it’s not definitive – yet.  In fact it has been my experience that some in the ITSM community, including a few in positions of substantial influence, still frown upon and actively discourage any separation between ITIL and ITSM. 

Unfortunately, ITIL does not come with the warnings of the side effects we are now accustomed to hearing about in the Viagra ads.  Just imagine the reaction if the ITIL publications includes a publisher warning to the effect, “if your ITIL project last more than four months without delivering anything valuable to a customer seek medical help immediately”.

As someone who is fast approaching his 36th anniversary of working in the IT industry I will admit to being as dysfunctional as the next IT professional. Having worked in the US for the last 20 years its no surprise to me that many here readily accept ITIL as the ‘pill’ they need to pop to address their IT issues, and especially since its sold that way!  My point - it’s not right to pin the confusion between ITSM and ITIL all on the ignorance of the patient.


In 2006, I published a book on the subject, describing my view of what IT Service Management was, and positioning ITIL as a contribution.  I also (coincidentally) presented at the itSMF USA 2006 Annual Conference to a huge crowd of probably 500 or more on, “ITIL Doesn’t Matter…”.  The difference between what I said then, and what Aidan says in his article, was my hidden tagline, revealed to the audience at the start of the presentation, “… Results Do!”.

Ignore anyone trying to tell you ITIL doesn’t matter.  ITIL does matter.  A lot.  It’s just that many do not know the true reason why.  In my view it is because ITIL can play an important supporting role in helping you achieve the results you and your customers need.

Over its 20 years life, ITIL has helped coalesce and distill a view of IT Service Management that has focused IT professionals on the need to manage the provision of services and customer outcomes.  It put pre-existing and useful guidance on aspects of IT operations in a single, easy to reference set of publications.  It tried to give us a common language for IT Service Management so we could discuss and enhance the service management system and supporting organization we now all need to put in place. 

Frankly, ITIL deserves its position as a little blue pill.  But until IT Service Management is properly defined by the industry professionals that work within it, and ITIL properly positioned as one of many valuable contributors to the design of a service management system and service provider organization, ITIL will remain a solution looking for a problem, and ITIL dominated projects vulnerable.

The History of IT Service Management

There is a massive vacuum in our industry in the form of a consistent definition of IT Service Management and recognition of its genealogy.  ITSM did not begin with ITIL in 1988.  It existed long before as both a definition and a blueprint for successful IT operations based upon business management principles.  I recall using the term and striving for more customer and service driven operations when managing data centers in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Much of this was the result of exposure to the fruits of IBM research.

As far back as the 1970s, IBM embarked on a series of research projects to investigate if, and how their Business Systems Planning (BSP) methods could be applied to help major corporations develop IT strategic plans in support of business processes and ambitions – yes, how the business and IT methods could be ‘aligned’.  The question was posed, could, or should, IT be operated and managed as a “business within the business”, using a set of common methods to simplify the overall planning process.

The culmination of these efforts was a number of publications, including a series entitled, “A Management System for the Information System Business”, offered in a way to encourage IT organizations to compare themselves and discuss the sense and value of such an approach.   The author of the first book, Edward van Schaik, (who I had the good fortune to meet and invite as my guest to the itSMF USA 2004 Annual Conference in Boston), is truly in my view the “Grandfather of ITSM”.

Elsewhere, product managers struggled with the commoditization of services.  They developed the concept of the ‘goods-service continuum’ and developed specialized extensions to the management of product marketing that engulf us today, to manage the provision and support of services – initially nicknamed service management, and its more recently associated with the concept of ‘customer experience management’. 


Simply stated, service management is a systematic method for managing the provision of services to customers at a known quality and cost, to achieve successful customer outcomes (SCOs).

Service management is a means by which the customer experience and interaction with products and services is managed, and also a transformation method for any organization that wishes to operate as a service provider organization.  

Most importantly service management places the customer, not the processes and best practices, at the center of all decision making within the service provider organization.

The origin of service management is product (or marketing) management, where you can still find a wealth of universally applicable concepts and methods.


IT Service Management (ITSM) is the application of proven service management concepts and methods to the challenges of operating an IT organization as a service provider organization. IT Service Management is also the term commonly used to describe the effort of transforming an IT organization from one focused on managing the IT infrastructure, to one also managing the provision of information services to customers in support of defined successful customer outcomes (see service management).


There is nothing like the disinfecting sunlight of the economic perfect storm to remind us all what the enterprise expects of its IT organization as a Service Provider; and that is to simply provide information system services that help the customer communities served achieve their desired results.  In other words they are demanding (likely without knowing) that their IT organizations ‘do’ IT Service Management!

As for ITIL, in my opinion it will benefit greatly from being detached from the definition of ITSM and allow be positioned by the professional community it serves as a major contributor to the goal of building a service management system and supporting organization.  Its original role, that many felt included providing us with one common language for ITIL, has changed, largely due to its affinity with the vendor community, and as Aidan rightfully reminds us:

 #1 “ITIL is not prescriptive”

 So where is the prescription for IT Service Management and what industry efforts are under way to define and refine a source?

#2 “You Can’t Implement ITIL”

 So what do you implement, if anything?  Or, is it more a case of transformation (as I believe), where methods such as ‘outside-in thinking’, Lean and Six Sigma have a place as part of a continuous innovation program.

#3 “You need to adopt and adapt”

 The itSMF and Aidan has offered this advice since the get go.  ITIL, like any other worthwhile source of help, should be adopted and adapted, but adapted into what? (back to #1)

#4 “ITIL is not the solution”

Its not, on its own.  If the solution is ITSM, what is the problem and its impact upon various stakeholders?  If we can define this, we can more easily associate express the real value of a framework such as ITIL?

#5 And very importantly, “the goal is services that the business wants delivered in the way they want at the price they’re prepared to pay”.  Well put Aidan, ‘nuff said.

Any feedback and comments are always welcome!! 

(ITIL® is a Registered Trade Mark of the Office of Government Commerce in the United Kingdom and other countries.)

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