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16 July 2010 | Aidan Lawes Blog
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Qualifications, Once More
This week Aidan looks at the varying degrees of concern surrounding the ITIL qualification scheme...

The question marks surrounding the ITIL qualification scheme just won’t seem to go away. In my work I review a lot of course material, audit many course deliveries, and talk to many trainers, trainees and other industry colleagues. I think I can truthfully say that I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who haven’t expressed varying degrees of concern about the scheme. Intriguingly not all are concerned about the same things and, indeed, some groups’ concerns possibly relate to other groups’ perceived shortcomings rather than to the scheme per se.

One common view is that the complex mish-mash that represents the Intermediate qualifications is just crazy. Many training organizations have avoided becoming involved with them simply because they are so hard to market and consume so much resource that it is not worth their while. Why are they hard to market?

The biggest issue appears to lie with the lifecycle stream. They are each focused on a book, but the books bear little relation to the real world and are really just one way of carving up a large, complex subject into manageable chunks. In reality there are multiple lifecycles within service management, many of which are far more in evidence on a regular basis than the cycle in which the books are written. Few people work in any sort of structure that equates to this and so a book-focused course and exam is incredibly academic and largely meaningless. Although the courses are supposed to focus on the “managerial” perspective on the subject, the topics still need to be set in a meaningful context to provide value and these courses just don’t seem to do that. Each “process” is treated pretty autonomously and there is little focus on inter-process integration or the alignment of functional groupings and activities. One struggles to find many tutors who really understand and teach that many of these “processes” are just as much functions or activities and that ITIL actually describes relatively few processes in the sense that it defines a process.

The Capability stream is a little better in theory, with a grouping of “processes” that in some organizations are actually organized together. There is much evidence however that there is an equally large, if not larger, appetite for courses that focus on just one or two process areas and for courses that are truly practical, i.e. that teach candidates skills and techniques rather than just the theory of what’s written in a book. Also each course is still pretty aligned with just a single volume. As things stand, there is an enormous similarity between the material that many course providers have generated for the Lifecycle event and its nearest equivalent Capability one, which makes it very difficult to see the difference between the two.

Not surprisingly, the market doesn’t really know which route to follow or indeed understand why they should want to follow either of them. The Holy Grail seems to become an “ITIL Expert” and, maybe in time, an “ITIL Master”, though as I’ve written about before I don’t see the relevance of this to most people – trainers and perhaps some consultants aside. Organizations need competent service management personnel at differing levels and with differing specialist skills. There will be a trivial number engaged in strategic work compared to the number working at operational levels. The number of people requiring a common (high) level of knowledge and capability across the whole service management spectrum is infinitesimally small compared to the number of specialists (experts?) that are needed.

There is also much disquiet at the concept of MCQ exams at all levels of the scheme. I’m afraid that you will never convince me that it is possible to test real understanding and the ability to apply the concepts in a logical and practical manner simply through MCQs. At the end of the day, the answer is always being provided for you - what you are asked to do is to identify which one it is. Firstly, the answer is always as things are described in the book – which isn’t synonymous which the right thing to do in the real world – and secondly, this is testing something completely different from the ability to truly apply knowledge in a sensible manner – it relies upon memorizing facts (the book words) and a technique for analyzing the provided answers. And how this equates to Bloom’s upper levels completely escapes me.

I have heard APMG’s arguments about the ease with which MCQ exams can be managed, translated and globalised compared to essay style exams requiring subject matter experts to mark the scripts, and how this is an important part of their remit. I remain profoundly skeptical about the validity of this argument. Following route A rather than route B because A is easier rarely goes hand-in-hand with a quality solution.

In addition, having seen and heard some of the “teaching” delivered by people who hold all of the relevant certificates, I question the value of these qualifications, because I have heard an enormous amount of misleading and downright wrong information being given. It is hardly surprising that some individuals come away from training courses with all sorts of peculiar ideas about service management.

What real value is there in spreading imperfect knowledge and understanding to an ever-wider audience  and dishing out certificates that proclaim the holder as having achieved something meaningful when the evidence increasingly points another way?

I am also becoming increasingly worried about the Foundation certificate. Despite the tinkering that has occurred with it since its launch, it still seems to fall between several stools. Many people place enormous value on holding the certificate – not as a stepping stone to something else, since they are querying where to go next, but as something of value in its own right. But the scope of the syllabus is so wide and the depth of information given so shallow that successful candidates are in many cases equipped to do almost nothing extra or different following the course than they could beforehand. Chuck in the quality of some of the training as judged by the questions that appear in “ask the expert” forums or on discussion groups like Linked-in and one really becomes skeptical that it signifies anything at all.

In concluding I’d also like to take a side-swipe at the many training organizations that take the easy route to course development in two key areas. First, many providers simply reproduce diagrams and bullet-lists from the books in the form of slides. In many cases, this is irrespective of whether the diagram is legible in the first place, relevant to the subject or an aid to understanding the specific learning points that are supposedly being addressed. When I first became involved in training (admittedly at a technical level), the technical manuals were the definitive source of complete and accurate information about the subject – but they certainly weren’t written as easily-read tomes for a novice to be able to digest if they wished to learn about the subject. Our role as trainers was to develop learning programmes that distilled the essential information into understandable chunks and presented it in an appropriate way for the delegates to assimilate. I don’t believe the trainer’s role has changed. And in the case of ITIL, the “facts” aren’t even always facts! There are an enormous number of situations where the real answer to a question is “it depends”, rather than it simply being a case of what the book says – after all ITIL is only guidance, not immutable truth.

Second, many organizations seem reluctant to produce proper session plans, that clearly articulate how the course is intended to be delivered. These aren’t scripts that have to be religiously followed, but a description of the designer’s intent about what topics to cover, at what level, by which means and in which sequence. They should provide some insight into areas might require more attention, which exercises are more important and general hints and tips about running a successful event. Producing session plans is second-nature to anyone who has been trained to teach.

A frequent refrain from those who are reluctant to produce such plans is “Why do we need these. The syllabus says what has to be covered and our tutors are accredited. They know what to teach because they know the subject.” Well, for a start the session plans are the course documentation - and we know how good IT folk are about documenting anything! – so they are the real item that a reviewer should be assessing when accrediting the course. Simply seeing a set of slides containing the regurgitated information from the books (see above) enables the reviewer to do little more than check that the information has been transcribed correctly – which proves what? Second, just because someone holds a certificate doesn’t mean that they understand a subject completely – even a 100% pass mark hasn’t tested every aspect! Third, without a standard description of the course, how can any semblance of consistency be maintained? Merely lobbing a set of slides at an “accredited” tutor is not a recipe for quality, but of anarchy.

In my humble opinion, the commoditization of ITIL training and a decline in the quality of some training together with the muddled scheme have led to an inexorable decline in real understanding of service management. My mate, the IT Skeptic, refers to “Castle ITIL” in relation to the powers that be with respect to ITIL and the qualification scheme. My plea to the inhabitants of the castle is to listen to what many in the community are saying before the ITIL brand is damaged irreparably. It’s not that I’m wedded to ITIL per se, but there is a concomitant danger that service management, which IS critically important, also will be damaged and that organizations won’t make the improvements that are within their grasp. 

All views in this blog are the personal opinion of the author and should not be construed as representing the views of any organization with which he may be associated or for whom he may perform any work.

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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