ITIL, once known as the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, forms the core of a popular framework by which some larger companies structure their internal IT services. Consisting of two dozen functions or processes and over 100 named "roles" for staff involved in running it, ITIL is complex in itself – and it is made more complex still by being surrounded by an overall set of principles known as IT service management (ITSM). Any student of ITIL will rapidly conclude that it is designed by and principally for internal IT providing services to its own users, chiefly in larger companies and public sector organisations. So is it relevant to the provider of external support or managed services?
The short answer is yes. That said, the reasons for its relevance in the channel are more commercial than organisational. A requirement that the supplier have ITIL qualifications is common on Invitations to Tender (ITT), so to increase ticks in boxes, some of your staff may need to have attended at least the foundation course.
Another reason stems from perhaps ITIL's greatest hit, namely the imposition of a common vocabulary on IT services provision. It is essential to know what an "incident" is, for example; and particularly that only under certain procedural circumstances may you use the word "problem" when referring to a difficulty with your computer (by the way, an "incident" means the computer won't work properly and a "problem" is repeated incidents requiring root-cause analysis).
Furthermore, ITIL has brought discipline to IT support provision where once only support staff reactivity and goodwill may have prevailed. I have no doubt, for instance, that change management is a great idea; and release management is so useful it should be compulsory.
But what about internally? If you are providing services to an ITIL-based customer, does that mean you too have to be operating under the ITIL framework? This is much less clear, because ITIL itself emphasises that its recommendations are strictly non-prescriptive. Deeper still, the question of how the ITIL-compliant company builds ITIL processes into its own way of working is a matter for the company itself. There are no ITIL police testing whether a company or its managed services provider are doing things the ITIL way (or at least not unless the ITIL instance has been enshrined under ISO 20000, which is rarely the case). It's up to you how you and your customers do ITIL. It may be enough that you both simply use the same service-management jargon.
This lack of prescription is one of ITIL's many Achilles' heels and as weaknesses go, it's a doozie. There is no measurement in ITIL whatsoever – you'd think that was essential for any form of informed management decision making, but it's not there. ITIL has no stated recommendations for performance. It says there should be service levels, but it does not and cannot say at what level they should be set. ITIL has no way even of benchmarking itself, so it cannot prove that it is better than any other way of running IT, despite its well-publicised claim to be best practice.
That claim is a potentially major let-down. Companies hoping that ITIL will tell them how to do their jobs better may be surprised to find that often, it doesn't. For example, according to figures gathered by my consultancy practice, ITIL has co-existed with a 35 per cent decline in second-line technical productivity over the past decade. And where ITIL does recommend, some of its ideas are dangerously out of date, such as having a mixed-skill-level call centre take all sorts of enquiries and spray them around IT specialists, wasting time and money while lengthening fix times.
Thoughtfully designed user support can always outperform mediocre structures by sizeable margins. ITIL does not cover how IT support should be run; does not deal with issues such as productivity, turnaround times, customer service and staff performance. You may run IT support your way, with or without ITIL being present. There is a lot of scope for the organised managed service provider to leave their customer's internal support provision in the dust.
The upshot is be aware of ITIL, for the sake of dovetailing with your customers.
Understand it so you can see how it might impede them and give you an opportunity for upselling services. But take its proclamations with caution and above all, don't chain yourself to its inherent inefficiencies and silo practices.
Noel Bruton is a UK-based consultant, trainer and bestselling author specialising in the management and delivery of IT user support. www.noelbruton.com
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