In our many years working in this industry, we have found that ITSM as both a term and concept is one that is often misunderstood. To the layman, ITSM may only extend as far as its IT support or the ticketing component of the service desk. However, support is only a sliver of the pie that make up the broad scope of ITSM. In this guide, we will walk you through the basic foundations of ITSM and explore how it is being adopted today in the context of the modern digital enterprise.

What is ITSM?

ITSM (or IT Service Management) refers to the set of policies, processes, and supporting practices that govern the way IT is designed, delivered, and maintained in the organization. According to our own Frank App: “The goal of ITSM is to ensure that IT services are aligned with the needs of the business and that the right processes, people and technology are in place so that the organization can meet its business goals.” In short, ITSM encompasses all managerial components of IT as they align to the business.

“One of the things I think good service management delivers is that surety around your basic services. It helps you manage expectations and deliver to those expectations which is foundational to your credibility with the business to have any sort of value-add discussion thereafter.”

Brian Clark CIO, RMIT

ITSM in of itself, is made up of multiple tools, processes, workflows and frameworks put into place to facilitate the management and delivery of quality services. ITSM isn’t so much concerned with hardware or networking side of IT (although those still come into play), but instead aims to constantly improve the speed and quality of service delivery, maximize customer satisfaction, and meet business goals.

ITSM can be designed and implemented to address specific IT needs for industries like healthcare, education, finance, government and more. Many businesses also gain value by leveraging ITSM to broker and manage their end user-facing services, rather than just using it as an internal discipline to manage support and technologies.  

Brief Introduction to ITIL

Now that we understand what ITSM is, let’s dive into its core services and functions within the organization. For starters, ITSM must be built upon an organized set of best practices that defines its process framework. There are many to choose from (ISO/IEC, ISO 9000, Six Sigma, etc.), however, the most common framework used today is ITIL. Formally known as an acronym standing for the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, today ITIL is a stand-alone registered trademark of AXELOS. ITIL is published as a series of five volumes that address processes related to service strategy, service design, service transition, service operation and continual service improvement.

“The guiding principle of ITIL is that an alignment between IT and business strategy is critical and that effective ITSM is necessary to achieve that alignment.”

Frank App, SunView Software

Brief History of ITIL

ITIL was founded in the 1980's by the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency or CCTA (now known as the Office of Government Commerce or OGC), a UK-based government agency that was tasked with ensuring better, and more efficient use of its IT services and allocated resources. Throughout the rest of the decade and up through the 1990's, ITIL was adopted by large organizations in Europe and started catching on throughout the rest of the world.

The framework expanded, as dozens of book volumes were added to the library. In an attempt to refine and consolidate its best practices, ITIL went through a thorough revamp around the time of 2000 - 2001, reducing the number of books to 9 core volumes. By 2007, the library was cut down to just 5 volumes, which are still used as the basis for today’s most recent version of ITIL.

ITIL Processes

ITIL 2011 (the most current version of ITIL) defines 26 ITSM processes that are disseminated across the 5 books of the ITIL Service Lifecycle. Let’s examine these lifecycle stages and highlight the most common and widely used ITSM processes as according to ITIL.

  • Service Strategy – The first and center stage of the ITIL Service Lifecycle. This stage provides direction for aligning the delivery of IT services with business needs. It is the early planning stage that provides objectives, clarification, and prioritization for service investments defined in the service portfolio. It also helps to define the business value of the IT strategy and grow the organization long-term.
  • Service Design – This stage helps organizations to create and execute a plan of action. It focuses on the scope of the services that will be implemented, establishes best practices, coordinates IT activities, and sets the foundation for all of the functional and technological elements as they relate to service delivery. This stage also includes any necessary improvements or changes to existing services in order to better align with business or compliance requirements.
  • Service Transition – Once business objectives and strategy have been set, we move onto the Service Transition stage, which moves new or modified services established in stage two into operation. The goal of this stage is to put processes that manage the deployment of IT services into the live environment. Think of this stage as the quality control phase of the ITIL Service Lifecycle, as it works primarily to maintain the stability of services and integrated assets while making sure that IT operations run smoothly.
    Key Processes

    • Service Asset and Configuration Management – This process stores and maintains any data or information related to Configuration Items (CIs) that may have dependent relationships to the delivery and uptime of critical IT services. These CIs are usually stored in a central repository called a Configuration Management Database (CMDB).
    • Change Management – ITIL refers to change management as the process responsible for controlling the lifecycle of all IT-related changes while ensuring that standardized methods and procedures are met to minimize the impact on services.
    • Knowledge Management – The process of creating, storing, distributing and managing knowledge and information related to the IT organization. The goal is to improve efficiency by creating easily accessible and repeatable knowledge resources. Usually, organizations will store this information in a centralized database called a Knowledge Base.
  • Service Operation – This stage handles the daily operations associated with the delivery of IT services. This is the stage that is typically most visible to end users, as it encompasses processes that manage the interactions between IT and end user requests. It also features the ITIL processes that support the administration and business teams.
    Key Processes
    • Incident Management – The process that facilitates and resolves incident events, which are defined as the unplanned interruption to an IT Service or reduction in the quality of an IT service.
    • Problem Management – The process responsible for managing problems¸ which are the root causes of one of more incidents. They usually exist as Problem Records in a ticketing module.
    • Request Management – Also known as Request Fulfilment, this process manages Service Requests, which are categorized as needs sent in by end users. These generally include things like password resets, hardware installs, system access requests, etc.
  • Continual Service Improvement – The last stage in the lifecycle works alongside the other four stages to help in continuously improving and aligning IT services with business needs. As we’ve written before, it is here that process evaluation initiatives are executed such as the review of all business, IT and infrastructure services, evaluation of processes, and more.


Now that we understand the processes that make up ITIL, let’s discuss how it differentiates from ITSM itself. While it’s easy to mistake the terms as interchangeable, it would be a mistake to confuse or misconstrue the two when making reference to their meanings.

As guest author and ITSM expert Stephen Mann wrote on our blog:

“ITSM is a professional discipline used by IT teams to better manage the delivery of IT services. Whereas, the ITIL overview is a popular ITSM best practice framework. Using the medium of cheese to hopefully better explain the difference –cheddar is cheese, but not all cheese is cheddar. Thus, ITIL is ITSM but not all ITSM is ITIL.”

Additionally, ITIL, while widely considered the standard, is not the only ITSM framework out there. Other frameworks include ISO 20000, COBIT, MOF, USMBOK, and others. Some organizations may even incorporate multiple frameworks across their environment.

ITIL Certifications

Becoming ITIL certified is a great way for professionals to improve their knowledge, sharpen their skills, and bolster their resumes in the eyes of prospective employers. There are five key certification tiers of ITIL v3 (the latest version of ITIL), each representing increasingly higher levels of mastery of the material.

  • Level 1: ITIL Foundation – This entry level course is aimed at newcomers to ITIL, introducing the key concepts, elements, and terms they should be familiar with in the ITIL Service Lifecycle.
  • Level 2: ITIL Practitioner – The newest certification created just as recent as 2016, the ITIL Practitioner level focuses on how to start adapting and adopting the ITIL framework during everyday situations and scenarios.
  • Level 3: ITIL Intermediate – This level is broken up into various modules that take a fresh approach to ITSM by going more in-depth than the previous certification levels. This certification is considered a general industry-wide qualification for many prospective IT roles.
  • Level 4: ITIL Expert – This level takes a macro approach to the ITIL Scheme in full. This level is generally considered to be a highly esteemed certification for ITIL knowledge and best practices.
  • Level 5: ITIL Master – This fifth and final certification level demonstrates a complete and comprehensive knowledge of the principles, methods and advanced techniques of ITIL and its supporting management processes. Achieving this level of certification will puts those who complete it among the best and most valuable in your field of expertise.

ITIL vs. DevOps?

It’s easy to look at disruptive cultural philosophies and ideas and pit them against today’s standardized best practices. One of these debates happening right now is the concept of DevOps versus traditional ITIL-based IT Service Management. DevOps is defined as, “a cross-disciplinary community of practice dedicated to the study of building, evolving, and operating rapidly-changing resilient systems at scale.” To put it in simpler terms, DevOps promotes agility between development and operations to increase communication and collaboration within the organization.

So, seeing as DevOps is all about agility and breaking down structures, while ITIL is rooted in structure and process, it makes sense why so many are quick to take sides in this debate. However, it would be a mistake for DevOps shops to write-off ITIL altogether. While there are certain aspects of ITIL that may clash with DevOps ideology, there are many essentials of ITSM that still need to be managed, controlled, governed, etc. For many organizations employing DevOps and continuous development, ITIL can still serve as a framework for maintaining IT services and support.

"For many years, I’ve felt that I’ve been the official ITIL® apologist in the DevOps community, because I’ve always believed that DevOps and ITIL should be able to peacefully coexist. But these days, I feel that a more activist role in the DevOps community is necessary - we must reach out and form effective bridges with the ITIL community, because ITIL is the most powerful and entrenched orthodoxy in large, complex IT organizations."

Gene Kim author and noted DevOps Expert

ITSM Benefits & ROI

ITSM is more than just the framework its built upon and the processes it deploys. What really makes ITSM truly effective is the value it can deliver to the business. This is key, as the benefits organizations gain from implementing an ITSM solution is multi-faceted. Some are tied to the delivery of IT services, while others come from establishing standardized best-practices across a common platform. Here are some of the biggest high-level benefits an effective ITSM solution can provide to an organization.

  • Cost Efficiency – ITSM, if implemented correctly, can save the business on cost and resources by establishing processes, workflows, a common platform, automation, and notifications throughout the IT environment. Incident and problem management along with a knowledge base can help reduce issues and improve resolution times, which if unchecked, can make costs skyrocket. Additionally, by improving the efficiency of operations, minimizing routine tasks, proactively identifying and resolving potential issues, etc., the IT organization will inevitably see a positive return on investment.
  • Scalability – By deploying process automation that allows organizations to cut down on routine tasks and ticket volume, IT has more time and resources to take on more with less. This freed up support capacity can support growth efforts and allow smaller organizations to scale as they mature.
  • Flexibility – ITSM solutions today offers tons of customization and increased flexibility in how services can be licensed, deployed and structured. For instance, many solutions now offer options for both named and concurrent licensing along with delivery models that include both cloud and on-premise. No matter what is needed from the business, effective ITSM solutions are malleable enough to align to even the most stringent requirements.
  • Reporting/Visibility – ITSM provides the added benefit of better reporting into critical insights both in and around the service desk. This gives both IT staff and management a clearer picture of what is being achieved and what isn’t and allows for more strategic action to be taken along with more productive communication between IT and the business.
  • Downtime Reduction – ITSM with well governed change management is one of the most effective ways to prevent costly unplanned outages and save you headaches down the road. By tracking key IT or infrastructure changes and following carefully regulated procedures, you can make proactive changes, upgrades or replacements to your IT environment in order to prevent disruption in the future.
  • Improved Customer Experience – Through careful use of knowledge resources, portal systems, and end user tools, customers now have more ways than ever to engage with the service desk outside of the traditional ticketing systems. Self-service has evolved exponentially, providing more access, more robust support, and more tools directly to the end user. The result are benefits that help to keep customers happy, and reduce strain on the help desk.

ESM and the Future of ITSM

Where does IT Service Management go from here? There are many theories as organizations continue to evolve both in process and through technological innovation. In light of digital transformation, we’ve seen the demand for “service management” to grow beyond the scope of IT and has expanded to serve the needs of the entire enterprise.

This has been coined by Forrester as “Enterprise Service Management,” which defines ESM as:

“Extending IT Service Management capabilities beyond technology services to address business-centric use cases; managing service demand and supply through a common platform, portal, and service catalog; and speeding up innovation and workflow automation through PaaS/low-code development tooling.”

Charles Betz, Principal Analyst at Forrester

Some examples of ESM are HR utilizing a common ticketing system to onboard new employees or a Facilities department managing requests from end users submitted via a self-service portal.

ITSM Remains Critical...

As organizations shift and evolve, the need for strong governance of IT service management has remained constant throughout the years. While the technology, processes and theories around culture may change, the foundations that began with ITIL remain intact. It’s for these reasons why ITSM continues to be a core component of the IT organization and is critical in its ability to drive value for the business.