What’s the Difference Between ITIL and ITSM?

January 18, 2019
Written by Geoff Rees

Let’s be honest, the IT world is never short of acronyms. And unfortunately, while they can be useful, acronyms also bring with them an inevitable degree of confusion.

The trouble is, once you’ve sat through a few meetings listening to people throw around terms like ITIL and ITSM, it becomes embarrassing to admit that you aren’t quite sure what they actually mean.

To add to the confusion even further, ITSM and ITIL are often (wrongly) used interchangeably, making it extremely difficult for people new to service management to get to grips with these basic terms.

In this post we’ll do our best to clear up any lingering confusion.

Defining ITSM and ITIL

To help you understand the difference between ITSM and ITIL, here are some simple definitions:

ITSM, or IT Service Management, refers to all of the activities, processes, policies, and procedures performed by an organisation to design, implement, improve, and support IT services.

Note that ITSM focuses on the delivery of services, rather than technologies, in recognition of the fact that IT is only useful in as much as it enables business functions. It’s no good having state-of-the-art IT systems in place if nobody has a use for them, and equally, the most valuable IT system in the world is useless if can’t be accessed consistently.

For the most part, ITSM is about delivering IT services to internal customers, meaning everybody from HR and finance to procurement and sales. Each set of internal customers will have their own specific needs — both in terms of which technologies they rely on and what level of support they require — so a big part of ITSM is about designing, maintaining, and improving an IT ecosystem that can accommodate everybody’s needs.

ITIL, formerly the IT Infrastructure Library, is the world’s most widely used framework for delivering ITSM. Originally developed by the UK Government, ITIL provides a unified set of best practices for ITSM which have been drawn from both the public and private sectors over the past three decades.

The ITIL framework is divided into five volumes (literally, there’s an entire book dedicated to each):

  1. Strategy — Understanding business objectives and customer needs
  2. Design — Creating a plan for delivering business objectives through IT
  3. Transition — Introducing new IT services and retiring old ones
  4. Operation — Delivering, managing, and supporting IT services
  5. Continual Service Improvement — Incrementally improving existing IT services and delivery

Service managers can use the ITIL framework to ensure IT services are properly aligned with the needs of the business, and to ensure IT services facilitate business change and growth.

Do I Have To Do Both?

The short answer is no.

ITIL is one of many frameworks for delivering ITSM, which means that if you’re “doing ITIL”, you are also by definition “doing ITSM”. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to “do ITSM” without using the ITIL framework. There is absolutely no requirement to follow a predetermined set of rules or guidelines when managing IT service delivery.

Equally, you could choose to adopt a different ITSM framework. Some common alternatives to ITIL include:

  • – COBIT (Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies) — An IT Governance framework
  • – FitSM — A lightweight ITSM framework
  • – ISO/IEC 20000 — An international standard for managing and delivering IT services
  • – MOF (Microsoft Operations Framework) — A general framework for ITSM that includes guidance for managing Microsoft-based technologies.

Many organisations have developed their own operating parameters — sometimes based on existing frameworks, sometimes not — and even more utilise only those aspects of an existing framework that they find useful.

ITIL is comfortably the most widely utilised ITSM framework globally, but only a small proportion of organisations choose to follow ITIL to the letter. A much larger proportion incorporate certain aspects and principles of ITIL into their ITSM function, while leaving out anything that isn’t of use to them.

What Are Your Needs?

Now that you understand the distinction between ITSM and ITIL, it’s up to you to decide how to proceed.

If you have no idea where to start, frameworks like ITIL can be tremendously valuable, because they’ll help you understand how other organisations have tackled ITSM problems over the past several decades. There’s nothing at all wrong with innovation, but there’s really no need for each individual organisation to reinvent the wheel.

Equally, though, blindly following a framework can lead to unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape, particularly for smaller organisations. Keep in mind that ITIL and other ITSM frameworks are designed to work for huge corporations and Government entities, which naturally require a higher degree of process and documentation than a smaller, more agile company.

Ultimately, while ITSM is an essential function for pretty much every organisation on the planet, the nuts and bolts of how ITSM is delivered in your organisation will depend on your specific needs. So take the time to really understand what your organisation needs from its IT service, and keep those needs in mind throughout all stages of the IT delivery process.

Case Study: ITIL guidance in ITSM

Utilita, a mid-sized energy provider specialising in pre-paid smart meters, took this challenge to the extreme when they set out to achieve an incredible 600% growth.

“At Utilita we have ambitious goals and it is therefore critical that IT and the service desk are effectively supporting the business. The key to our success has been knowing what we wanted to achieve – and Sunrise has responded to our needs admirably, providing us with a practical and adaptable SaaS based platform to deliver on our plans, fast, now and in the future.” — Dave Woods, IT Support Manager at Utilita

Read the full Utilita case study here.