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What is ITIL? Here's What You Need to Know

The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) is a framework whose goal is to improve the efficiency and reliability of a business’ IT services. However, to truly unlock the power that ITIL can bring to your organization, you must possess a thorough understanding of its principles and how to apply them to your operations.

Jump to the main takeaways:

 Defining ITIL for Modern Businesses
 ITIL vs. ITSM: A Difference?
 Why ITIL is (Still) Important
 The Future of ITIL

Nearly 40 years after the concept of ITIL was first explored, its meaning has changed and evolved alongside the ever-growing importance of IT infrastructure and technological investment for businesses around the world.

In that sense, ITIL has become more of a lifestyle choice of sorts for many organizations and their IT departments. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone is using the same ITIL playbook–far from it.

As the framework itself becomes more and more complex, ITIL’s core concepts and principles have become increasingly malleable. How ITIL best practices are implemented will vary from business to business, but they’re not so much deviations as they are, like Hollywood’s seemingly endless stream of reboots, new interpretations of old source material.

In this blog post, I’m going to get to the heart of what ITIL means for modern organizations in the global digital marketplace, as well as outlining how integrating its best practices into your operations can help you get the most out of processes like ITSM, ITAM, DevOps, and more.

Let’s make like Fergie and get it started in here!


Defining ITIL for Modern Digital Businesses

First, let’s go a little bit deeper with a definition of ITIL and the IT-related aspects of a business that it touches.

Here’s one take on what ITIL encompasses, courtesy of CIO:

“ITIL’s systematic approach to IT service management can help businesses manage risk, strengthen customer relations, establish cost-effective practices, and build a stable IT environment that allows for growth, scale and change.”

Here’s another stab at an ITIL definition from Forbes’ Jason Bloomberg:

“ITIL [...] is a set of ITSM practices and procedures for core IT processes like change management, service-level management, incident management, and several others.”

Both of those delineations stray pretty far from what ITIL used to stand for. In fact, AXELOS, ITIL’s proprietors since 2013, have stated that the original, more literal definition of the framework is now more than a little antiquated:

“Today, [ITIL is] no longer treated as an abbreviation but a stand-alone name for a concept known, used and trusted by millions of people around the world. [...] As the IT Infrastructure Library matured, the library of books eventually reduced to five and the emphasis moved to service management and the lifecycle approach, with the infrastructure element all but disappearing over the past 10 years.”

The history of ITIL shows that the framework’s core principles have endured its fair share of changes just to get to its current form. Although widespread standardization of ITIL practices went public in the 1990s, a lifecycle approach to IT business integration didn’t become the norm until ITIL v3 was first published in 2007.

Cut to the ITIL in its current form and the focus continues to shift away from the minutiae of internal processes and, more than ever, towards how consumers engage with IT services:

“[Service management] value is co-created, not delivered. In other words, the activities that a service provider undertakes do not create value by themselves. Value is realized only when the consumer engages with the service provider through the means of a service relationship.”

That statement brings us back to the idea of ITIL transformation from a rigid information repository to a more abstract, almost zen-like guiding force for those looking to optimize their ITSM strategy. This is an important distinction, since ITIL and ITSM are often confused as the same concept or, worse still, pitted against each other in a duel for conceptual supremacy.


ITIL vs. ITSM: What’s the Difference?

One of the most common sticking points in the IT thought leadership space is the difference between ITIL and ITSM–if there even is one.

If we’re looking at the purpose they serve within your organization, ITIL and ITSM work in very different ways. Instead of being interchangeable, they’re closely interlinked when it comes to boosting a business’ IT-related productivity and overall revenue generation.

As we’ve established, ITIL is a conceptual framework, a set of best practices that coalesces into a blueprint for how you can manage your IT services with consistent efficiency. Conversely, ITSM encompasses the tools or methods that you use to implement those ideas in a practical setting.

Think of ITIL as the Pat Morita to ITSM’s Ralph Macchio. The former’s sage advice starts out just being about karate, but it later becomes about how the latter can better himself without needing to resort to violence. Wax on, wax off, amiright?



Like Daniel does with Mr. Miyagi’s doctrine, organizations must take the concepts from the ITIL framework and adapt them into practices that help them achieve their business goals. ITIL is the starting point for strong ITSM practices, yet you still need to make those concepts your own. Neither ITIL nor ITSM will do that for you.

From businesses who are thinking about or in the midst of a digital transformation project, nurturing the relationship between ITIL and ITSM becomes even more critical to success. Whether you’re focused on optimizing your change management, incident management, etc., you can’t really have one without the other.

As Gene Kim, author of “The Phoenix Project,” observes, this is even more true in the era of DevOps workflows:

“Although many people view DevOps as backlash to ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) or ITSM, I take a different view. ITIL and ITSM still are best codifications of the business processes that underpin IT Operations, and actually describe many of the capabilities needed into order for IT Operations to support a DevOps-style work stream.”

On its own, ITIL is only part of the puzzle, not the entire solution. However, contrary to some popular opinions that permeate the online IT community, the framework is still vitally important to the growth, scaling and productivity goals of modern businesses.


Why ITIL is Still Important to Your Business

If you ask 10 different IT professionals, business managers or tech executives if ITIL is still a necessary component of business success, you’ll likely get 10 different answers. This isn’t a bad thing, but it underscores the importance of understanding and appreciating what’s being said on both sides of the aisle.

Some, like Greg Ferro, have voiced their disdain for ITIL and how it holds back innovative IT initiatives (emphasis mine):

“ITIL contains nothing of value for the future. The fundamental ITIL premise is that technology work can be segmented like machines or work functions in a factory where each task can be assigned to a machine with fixed human resources applied to the task and funding applied to the machine. The concept is valid but simply doesn’t work in real life when the ‘factory machines and processes’ undergo transformation change every three to five years like steam to petrol engines.”

While your mileage may vary with that statement, Ferro points to the continued evolution of cloud technology as the movement that should be showing ITIL and ITSM the door:

“The cloud transformation destroys residual value in existing operational models. ITIL & ITSM are fundamentally about limiting scope, silos of functional separation and change prevention and cannot cope with the amount of change in the next few years that will be driven by convergence.”

Other IT and DevOps pundits, like ING’s Jan-Joost Bouwman, think that you shouldn’t “do everything the ITIL book says,” for many of the same reasons. However, if we’re talking about working towards a more innovative future, are ITIL and ITSM really limiting scope?

People like Kaimar Karu, a Strategic Advisory Partner at Mindbridge, doesn’t believe so–in fact, he agrees with Kim in the sense that ITIL’s best practices should enhance common sense in the IT sphere instead of replacing it:

“Processes don't remove the need for common sense [...] the logical next question is this: Considering that these great concepts have been a part of the ITSM world for a long time, is it reasonable to ask why some organizations fail to see IT as an integral part of the business, rather than a cost center? And why has the word process become something scary? There are two key concepts behind many successful ITSM initiatives. The first is ‘adopt and adapt.’”

And, with that, we’ve returned to the idea of ITIL as a starting point for ITSM practices, but one that needs to be adapted to an organization’s unique needs at multiple junctures. Perhaps common sense is the true methodology that’s used to turn ITIL concepts into a reliable, real-world ITSM strategy.

Depending on how those processes are set up, ITIL will carry different weight and have different implications on your operations and decision-making process than other companies–and that’s fine. The important thing is how you use ITIL to prioritize IT service efficiency and align with your overall business goals.


The Future of ITIL: Where is it Going?

Throughout it history, ITIL has been the conceptual force that has guided many organizations at large on how to manage and optimize their IT resources. Despite reports of ITIL’s demise, the framework is still alive and well–it’s just evolved with the times.

In the face of technological innovation that moves at such a fast clip these days, I’d argue that ITIL, especially when used in conjunction with ITSM, has never been more crucial for success in the digital marketplace.

What used to matter to ITIL observers–strict adherence to internal processes that benefited employees more than customers–has changed dramatically in recent years, giving way to a much more inclusive, accessible, customer-centric approach to IT services.



Adopting ITIL and executing different parts of the framework with the ITSM tools at your company’s disposal will allow you to grow and scale operations, facilitate your upcoming or ongoing digital transformation, and, most importantly, provide clients with reliable, powerful IT services.

Though it has pockets of detractors, ITIL is still a relevant blueprint for service and asset management success.

For more information on how you can use ITIL to implement lasting change management practices for your business, check out our blog!

Originally published Jul 22, 2019 12:00:00 PM

Topics: ITIL