“We Need To Talk About ITIL”

I need to say something. 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). The fact that ITIL is an easy target; and that breaking something is far, far easier than creating something. Hopefully, we all appreciate that it isn’t really that difficult to pick fault with just about anything, even if it is nigh on perfect (oh, and that is not intended to be read as “ITIL is perfect”). But as the oft-quoted senior manager quote says: “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.”

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.

So what do I really want to say? Or “for heaven’s sake man, please cut to the chase.”

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 I&O 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 “housetrained.”
  • 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.

So what do you think? Do I need to return to Planet Earth? As always, your comments are not only appreciated but encouraged.

UPDATE: Two popular ITIL-related blogs:



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Great post Stephen! Nothing

Great post Stephen!

Nothing is perfect, and as you highlight there are issues with ITIL. However, I personally find it invaluable as a resource and common language.
The point you raise regarding certification is also a good one. Many people are sent on ITIL courses with the only result being paper certification (well, PDF certification) failing to bring what they learn into a practical environment.


Evidently, the easiest way to escape from commitment towards improvements, is to exaggerate the risks involved. I too believe that the misnomer of "compliance" needs to be clarified to the Management and the flexibility to achieve goals through the (optional) ITIL framework is highlighted. If there is a "justification" and not "process for the sake of process itself", the chances of good returns are there.

ITIL OK; Rednecks & Professional Critics not OK!

Great post, Stephen. You've actually covered a lot of ground here and I just want to pick up on one aspect ....

I posted a blog entry myself earlier today where I challenged people to think about how they use ITIL: http://blogs.pinkelephant.com/president

That's the problem, as I see it. Not what ITIL is, but how it's mis-used and mis-represented.

After reading your post, Stephen, I'm reminded it's not just the "ITIL rednecks" that irritate me. It's also the "Professional ITIL Critics". As you say, it's easy to criticize without being constructive.

At least the "ITIL Rednecks" are well intentioned - if just a tad naive. However the "Professional ITIL Critics" should know better. Usually they're consultants (you know who you are!) and they're not serving their customers when they dismiss ITIL out of hand. I say to them - "come on, show a bit of leadership and add some value!"

First - I have a bias in that

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.

So what we need is...

Hi Bill,

That is a massively informative comment - thank you.

So - maybe we need a community led set of ITIL corrections, appendixes, additions that people occupying different corners of the playground can look at and choose the ones they want.

Plus a method of certifications that is independent of framework that shows a level of competence, rather than trying to claim to be ITIL compliant.

I could see how that could work, given a lot of effort....

ITIL back to basics

I agree with Stephen's excellent blog and also with your observations. I have over 30 years experience in the ITSM arena and have deep knowledge of most of it. To me ITIL is a good reference point, albeit since V3, somewhat bloated. I suspect this has arisen as it is trying to be all things to everybody, and also that the editing has not been 'savage' enough. As for the certifications (I too am a V3 'expert' and also have a V2 Manager's certificate with distinction), I like you, see them as a 'paper chase'. Yes, people recognise the terminology but the nature of the courses and exams don't get to the 'understanding' cognitive state (Bloom's taxonomy).

"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand." An ancient quote by Confuscius but how true! I also think George Santayana had a quote which is also relevant to the development of ITIL. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This is my view of how ITIL2011 was produced ignoring the real issues with V3!

Where do we go from here? Recognise ITIL as a reference; seriously consider 'real world' ITSM training that gets to the 'understanding' level. Use/adapt techniques (including, Lean, Six Sigma) to build service management solutions (not just ITSM but holistically for the whole organisation); use relevant standards to confirm that the practices we have in place are effective now and at subsequent audits; think 'continuous improvement' not 'continual improvement'.

It seems to me standards are

It seems to me standards are your college professor while ITIL is your parent. Your parents teach you the basics in life in terms you understand. Your parents are, ideally, are the people you turn to when you know you've got no idea how to do something, or you know you've got it colossally wrong. The college professor comes along later, when you're a bit more mature. He uses bigger words and longer sentences. He demands measurement and conformity. He's the guy you turn to when you know you're doing most of it right but you want to refine it.

And so too, with ITIL and standards. I agree that ITIL is the common sense. It's for the people who can't see what theyre doing for the enormity of it. Maybe those who criticise it are expecting it should do more than its supposed to.

Funny how the ITIL bashers

Funny how the ITIL bashers are usually the least-informed people who don't bother to try to understand how ITIL is supposed to work and the books supposed to be used... Zzzz....

Hope your hungry

What amazes me as I look back at the last 10 years of ITIL, is the messaging. Until hyper connected people, the messaging was from the power brokers, mega consulting orgs, training orgs and software companies.
Now in 2012 you are NOT seeing cracks in ITIL, you are seeing people.
ITIL isn't the conversation, people are and you would not have a facebook group, an analysts who records a podcast or software vendors "avoiding openly" the ITIL question.
Again, this has nothing to do with ITIL.
Some may argue that we have "always" been connected. That's like saying we have always had language.
The democratization of messaging, both poor and good is what happened here.
Service Management is finally going through it’s own CSI and it’s about time.
You would not have PEOPLE of influence, if you didn't have a hyper connected collective to allow it.
Big business be damned, you may still have the purse in this game, but finally we have a seat at your table and dinner is a bit cold.

Education in ITIL

Bill Powell makes some valid points - Start at the beginning and make sure you know your organisations goals and objectives. Use of common language is also key, both in ITIL itself but also in industry. Higher education courses such as the MSc in ITSM offered by The University of Northampton will play a part in tackling these areas, as rather than churning out yet more people (to add to the 1.5 to 2 million already) who can say that have ITIL to level blah blah, they will have a good grasp of best practice concepts and principles in a way which they can apply them to their own organisation.

Great Post

Excellent post. There is far too much ITIL-bashing going on. No framework is perfect, none claim to be, but ITIL is judged as "not-perfect" and comes in for a lot of stick for this reason.

Look at other industries; Law, Medicine, Engineering - they all have many frameworks, views, practices etc. - there is less targeted criticism of those. Practicing professionals take what they need from a framework, leave what they don't. Adapt what they need to and improve what they can.

I have participated and observed hundreds of debates and discussion regarding ITIL. I have listened to two people strongly argue a point that "ITIL says..." when in fact, ITIL doesn't say; they do. And they say different. What is often referred to as poor explanation, in fact is poor understanding.

The Bottom Line For Me

Great comments thanks.

I always come back to the fact that the biggest issue is, and has always been, that ITIL is miss- or oversold. People are misguided into thinking ITIL is far more than it was ever intended. The blame lies almost everywhere so I won't pick out any group in particular.

If this didn't happen, the size of ITIL would be of lesser concern.

Maybe those selling ITIL-related products and services should review their messaging and even be more explicit about what can be achieved with ITIL (in the real world). Or would that affect revenues? ;)

I'm sure there is a good statement of what ITIL is and isn't out there on the internet.



Good posting - but like all

Good posting - but like all calls for common sense I fear it will be lauded and then ignored - I dearly hope I am wrong.

I have never had a problem with ITIL bashing - no one mounts hate campaigns against things that aren't successful - there simply isn't a need. Every widely adopted set of suggestions (and in the end that is all ITIL - at its best - ever really was) needs some checks and balances. Back in the 1990s it was a measure of our success that people were questioning and nagging for improvement. Even in the early days the nightmare were the ITIL zealots - the people who don't see the 'management' in service management.

Good practices grow by being tried and improved by through experience. ITIL - and/or COBIT etc - make a good core of advice that is usually relevant for most organisations in most circumstances. Very few industries need absolute rules (nuclear power, airlines railways, chemicals maybe - but then only in some areas and even there, those standards and legal requirements are being frequently updated by experience - often sad fatal experience).

By and large the bigger and more monolithic the guardians of guidance/rules are the more they need questioning. traditionally that is the job of a user group - to be the terrier nipping at the heels of the providers. I always felt that was a role itSMF should be taking on - for service management generally, not just ITIL.

I hope that the vast majority see ITIL as a useful. At either end of the extreme spectrum we have those who wish to destroy ITIL, and other who see it as perfect. Human nature will always give us extremists - we shouldn't take them too seriously. At least with ITIL is just words they attack with and that should generate some healthy debate.

For the company I work for

For the company I work for now, I think ITIL is working. We use CA Remedy which aligns with ITIL V3. We have bulit up a service desk, Incident and formal problem management over the past 3 years. ITIL doesn't have as much structure for the software development side. ITIL certs and the training provided is a little weak I agree. I think there is cost savings from effiiciency and reduction of duplicative services. IT metrics are critical to see where trends in the org are going.

Bashing ITIL

I have a feeling that I may have triggered this blog with my #unlearnITIL hashtag and some other tweets. I do not disagree with ITIL being valuable and successful. I can still remember how great it felt when I first time understood ITIL. I can also remember how I thought that nobody would fall for the ITIL V3 training program.

There are a few key things that have motivated me to write against ITIL.

1) People keep saying that ITIL is widely adopted best practice which is just not true. What we see is that companies keep implementing a few basic processes again and again. The problem here is that some people believe that all ITIL is actually tested and approved "science" or "theory". People are using ITIL books as reference material in university publications with absolutely no critical thought.

2) The usual reason for failed ITIL application is always the people who do it in the wrong way. Nearly no one admits that it could be the advice which is not sound.

3) People keep saying that ITIL provides a common language and terminology. Why then people have 200+ comment discussions on LinkedIn about incidents and other terms. One reason is that ITIL is so weak and unclear about terms and in some cases ITIL keeps changing them. For example the word "incident" has a different meaning in all versions and editions of ITIL.

I think it would be high time to move on from ITIL. Keep the good ideas and add new ones.

A good practice framework should have a community creating it, not the lowest bidder. I am willing to work for free to create a better framework. I'm sure a lot of people would be.

Aale - I may be

Aale - I may be misunderstanding you here - but it seems you are offering to create a replacement for ITIL. I am sure you - and the others you mention - would do a great job of creating a new version. But just because you might give it a different name, and just because it might be wiki based rather than books, and even because it is done by you and your friends rather than the original culprits - it will still be misunderstood, it will still be open to massive discussion and ongoing debate.

And that is exactly what should happen! The pursuit of one set of absolute guidance for people to adopt to do perfect service management is doomed - and so it should be. We are doing SM in different contexts, different cultures, different time frames and with different priorities. Centralised guidance is only a start. ITIL does that, COBIT does it, as do the other frameworks Stephen mentions.

A good cook reads several recipe books before they cook their own version of a dish - and good service managers do the same; reading a range of ideas and forming their own from what they read and what they know.

So - next phase of service management guidance? - yes! With a wide range of input?- yes! With lots of good stuff from Aale? - most certainly! Definitive answer to all our problems? no.

And one last point - you suggest that you would be willing to contribute for free - that's great, but it isn't new. The only people who made money out of ITIL publishing are the UK government and the publishers. 90+% of the people who contributed did it for free - and those who did get some money for their work gave up better paid consultancy work to make the time - so they actually lost money.

Oh - one exception, I confess I made a living out of ITIL for 3 years between 1996 and 1998, but I didn't get rich! And I fully expect to carry on contributing to the next generations of best practice in my own time and my own expense - BTW, this was written on a Saturday morning :)

ITIL change requests

Don't forget you can always submit a request for change to the ITIL "suggestion box". I did.

I did

Yes, I have submitted at least one change request and I think it was even approved.

When I started training ITIL I used to tell my class that ITIL was created by volunteers and itSMF maintains it. That's what my QWR slides told me. I wish it had been true.

Ivor: I'm not at all sure if recreating ITIL is a good idea. Maybe there will be something completely different.

The world of ITSM is not ready, practitioners have problems. The first step on the way to improvement is accepting current situation. I'm sure that the state of ITIL disturbs many but the thought of accepting the facts is painful. Shooting the messenger will not solve the problem.

I do not think this improvement should or can happen via a UK Government Office.

Maybe it's the company we keep

I think those of us who work within ITIL and live and breathe it can lose perspective sometimes. We move in a pretty small group of extremely ITIL aware folks who have the experience and knowledge to criticise (sometimes constructively, sometimes not).

We mustn't forget about the millions of people out there who have more limited ITIL knowledge and who are keen, passionate and enthusiastic about it.

Looking at linkedin, there are so many discussions based on simple questions about training and processes. Those of us who publicly comment on ITIL should be spreading some positive messages and help (Back2ITSM) as well as criticism.

I try and remember how excited I was when I finished my foundation course all those years ago. Not of all of ITIL was relevant to me, but I took away the good bits and ignored the rest.

ITIL is great input

A great article. Thank you.

At this time, after being responsible for hundreds of implementations of IT service management, I conceive that ITIL is great input for those working to adopt good service management practice.

As you point out, there are many other great inputs - USMBOK is my favorite, and TIPU is quite good. CobiT. Etc.

It seems to me from my surveys and interviews with past clients that the real issue is not any one of these quite good "practices", it is the management of their implementation that's both the problem and the opportunity. When companies set out to "do ITIL" they have their vision and goals askew. When companies set out to conform to any "good practice" without thoughtful implementation comparisons they are, already, headed in the wrong direction.

ITIL, just as the other practices like USMBOK, provides good guidance, good suggestions. But, there just is no substitute for good management and thoughtful continual improvement of services.

There's a good deal of truth from Machiavelli's, "A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it."

On the other hand, it seems to me that organizations get far better outcomes when they follow the advice of Larry Bossidy and Ram Charon, “Execution is a systematic process of rigorously discussing hows and whats, tenaciously following through, and ensuring accountability.”

I liked when you said: "ITIL v3 became bloated"

There are still organizations out there trying to implement the ITILv2 with plans to migrate to ITILv3. I think this article from Stephen illustrates and hit the nail on the head. I was one of the ITIL v3 reviewers (Continual Service Improvement) and it was nightmare. Although many concepts of the ITIL v2 still stands for itself, whoever was implementing the ITILv2 may feel lost now. If we consider the amount of ITIL professionals in the market plus the increasing number of ITIL consultancy companies and the new set of rules (in brackets 'ITILv3'), you will notice that many organizations are making the option to create their own best practice model, stealing with proud some good brains in the market to create their own internal blueprint. There are so many things around this topic, and I think Stephen hit the nail on the head with some of his comments here. How cheap is for an organization to make things work exactly the way they want without expending any more money on books? Bring on the experts and stop buying the books. Would this be a solution? Well, I am an ITIL strong follower but we need to use common sense, not all the truth about IT services management are on the books neither in any other methodology or framework. The mix of many frameworks, well put together, is what will bring competitive advantage to any organization. So I would have to para-phrase Stephen: 'is ITIL v3 bloated?'

Thank you, Daniel Ramalho