Tuesday, 2 February 2010

So what is ITIL?

What is ITIL?

I don't mean in an ITIL 101 type sense.

I don't mean in the glib way a consultant would sum it up on a .PPT slide.

I don't even mean what does ITIL claim to be.

I mean what is ITIL in reality.

I'm not an ITIL v3 expert so I cannot give you a text book answer. Instead here is my own interpretation.

To begin with - what ITIL isn't.

It isn't a standard
Yeah, we all know this. Those of us involved with developing ISO/IEC 20000 can tell you how different it would be if it was. But hey, since we have ISO 20000 so we don't need ITIL to be one

It isn't Proven Good/Best Practice
Perhaps this is less obvious.Once upon a time it was true. V1 was very much based on what good mainframe shops did as a matter of course.  There are still bits of ITIL v3 where this is true. In some areas though you are either getting blue sky thinking without any evidence to support the ITIL position, or you are getting ideas that are dated and basic. Which are which? Hmm not obviously signposted is it?

It isn't Proscriptive
Well it would have to tell you if it was, but it doesn't tell you which bits of it you HAVE to do to provide an adequate service to your customers.

It isn't a Menu from which you can Make Choices
I actually think this is the most dangerous misconception there is about ITIL, compounded by the failure to identify the things you must do to be successful. In reality there is a tendency to drop the difficult but essential bits. That's why ISO 20000 doesn't give you the option to do that. You can chose to miss out a stage of ITIL's change management process, but if you do there is a high probability  your change management process will be fatally flawed.

So What Is It?

Good question. It is neither fish nor fowl., and that I think is a major flaw.

A Compass?
Someone described it the other day as being a guide or a compass. I find that quite an attractive analogy, but one of the key things about a compass is you always know which way it is pointing. I don't think there is a clear North in ITIL.

A Philosophy?
Ivor Macfarlane used to say something along the lines of "The IT Infrastructure Libary is a set of books, but ITIL is a philosophy."

I find that quite an attractive view as well, and ten years ago it is the view that would probably have got my vote. But ten years ago the ITIL community was relatively small , relatively homogeneous and relatively self organising. Most of the people involved had an implicit understanding of that philosophy. Times have changed though, and that is no longer true. We can no longer liver with a disparity between the books and what we really mean

A Statement of Facts?
This is a view that has only really struck in recent weeks. I suspect it is in part my reaction to the view that you can chose the elements of ITIL to adopt, and that you change the meaning of what ITIL says to suit yourself.

It doesn't matter what I say or think, an incident is still  different from a problem. A change is a change, whether I like it or not, and I firmly believe there is only one overall change management process that can work. Marginal costing has a very precise meaning in accountancy. What makes something a contract isn't whether we call it a contract instead of an SLA.

Is ITIL a Map?
Slowly I'm coming to the conclusion that what ITIL is closest to being is a map of the ITSM world. There might be some areas of that world that we don't want to venture in to, but they are still there whether we chose to believe in them or not. There is a way of holding ITIL up against the real world that helps make sense of the real world, but we have to learn what the symbols on the map mean.

Being like a map isn't the same as actually being a map though, and most maps interpret the world through a political lens and can only be based on what we currently know allied to some more or less reasoned supposition.

What I am certain of though is that it ITIL is not to continue getting people lost in the ITSM world there needs to be absolute clarity about what ITIL actually is.


  1. Glad you are back :)

    I never thought about that, really, though it's a common question some friends who are not related to IT ask me quite often. What is ITIL?

    I think I'm more inclined to see it as a map and a set of directions to get "somewhere", name it achieving excellence on IT management, name it... well, what's ITIL supposed to be for?

    no, seriously, I think the map might be the closest definition of what ITIL is.


  2. I have used the analogy of ITIL being the guardrails on a road. It isn't the designed to be the road, material the road is made of, the destination or lines on the road, but the guardrails that keep you moving in a specific direction that is determined by the business strategy with regards to leveraging technology.