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ITIL 4 has finally arrived. Is it enough to bring the framework back to relevance?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

ITIL is one of the longest standing IT service frameworks, reaching the venerable age of 30 later this year. The standard began life as a collection of weighty guideline books under the name IT Infrastructure Library, launched by a UK governmental agency and supported by a variety of training and certifications. Most of ITIL’s core principles have become mainstays of IT Service Management (ITSM) over the years.

However, due to the rapid pace of developing technology, many have questioned ITIL’s ability to remain relevant. The latest version, ITIL v3, was released in 2007 and subsequently updated in 2011, and the world of IT has moved on significantly in the intervening years.

A common criticism is that the framework is too narrowly focused on operational processes. ITIL largely concerned itself with the operational aspect of IT while almost ignoring the details of developing and obtaining software applications. Several other sets of guidelines and principles have emerged to cover these points, such as DevOps, Lean and Agile. Other aspects of ITIL have effectively been replaced by the ISO 20000 series, which itself builds on the ITIL standard. This has led many to declare over the years that ITIL is either dying or already dead – an idea reinforced by the longstanding lack of any updates.

However, along with its 30th anniversary, 2019 has also marked the long-awaited arrival of ITIL 4. Rather than attempting to rewrite the ITSM playbook, the latest iteration of ITIL has instead been packaged as more an expansion on the previous generation, fixing mistakes and updating the standard to better suit modern practices and developments.

What were the biggest ITIL v3 challenges to address?

Aside from becoming increasingly outdated, the biggest issue cited for ITIL v3 is its narrow focus on operational process. ITIL originally set out to provide a guide on every aspect of service management, and indeed set out the Four Ps of service design – People, Products, Partners and Processes. However, the final P receives the lion’s share of the attention, and as a result the standard can seem very rigid. While not intended to be prescriptive, much of the guidance around processes leaves little room for deviation, which can be an issue if the process is not the best fit with the organisation’s particular structure and needs. This also meant v3 was often difficult to utilise alongside Lean, Agile, DevOps and other management processes.

As a result of this focus on operational processes, ITIL v3 paid too little mind to the value provided by an IT project, as well as the outcomes, costs and risks associated. In essence v3 concerned itself largely with the “how” of ITSM and overlooked the more important “why” – which can be a costly and wasteful way to run an operation.

The main priority for the development of ITIL 4 was therefore to establish a more holistic approach that included obtaining, building, transitioning, delivering and supporting IT projects in a single framework. 

What are the biggest changes in ITIL 4?

We still don’t know what the full measure of ITIL 4 will look like as only the initial foundation book is available so far. The in-depth guide books will be released over the next year to provide the full details. However, from this relatively slim 208-page foundation book, we can tell a great deal about the new focus on representing the entire IT lifecycle more fully.

One key change has been both the number and nature of the guidelines. ITIL v3 was made up of 26 processes, and ITIL 4 has built on this to establish a total of 34. Notably, the phrasing has also changed from processes to practices, perhaps reflecting criticism of previous ITIL guidelines being too focused on processes.

Most of the original 26 processes remain relatively unscathed, although some have been changed to be more relevant with modern IT practices. Points around change management have seen some of the most significant changes because it relates to DevOps.

Of the eight new practices, perhaps the most noteworthy are those relating to deployment management and software development management. This again reflects the focus on integrating ITSM operational processes with other key activity around acquiring and developing software and other IT resources.

ITIL 4 has also reorganised its practices and split them into three groups – general management, service management and technical management. As the name would suggest, the service management section is the most directly related to ITSM, and includes guidance around incident, change, problem and release, as well as adding new items in the form of service design and service desk.

The overall approach appears to be more pragmatic than previous ITIL iterations, hopefully making it easier for IT teams to adopt more practices and mesh them within their operations. It’s notable that while many previous ITIL processes are very widely used, there are almost no organisations fully making use of all 26. The new approach of ITIL 4 should hopefully address this and make the practices more accessible.

Why did ITIL 4 take so long to appear?

The long wait between ITIL v3 and ITIL 4 has raised a number of eyebrows. In the extremely fast-paced world of IT, eight years may as well be 50 in many respects. A number of factors contributed to the long delay.

One issue has been the complicated tale of ITIL’s ownership. ITIL was first developed by the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), a governmental agency for providing IT and telecoms support. The CCTA was later merged with the Office of Government Commerce, which was itself then merged with the Cabinet Office in 2011. In the wake of this convoluted serious of changes, as of 2013 ITIL has officially been owned by AXELOS, a joint venture between Capita and the UK Cabinet office.

Updating ITIL was also a massive undertaking even without being derailed by changes in ownership. The vast and growing complexity of the IT field means there were a huge number of factors to consider when choosing how to update, amend and add to the processes of ITIL 4. For example, ITIL v3 had not previously accounted for DevOps or the cloud, which has since become a fundamental part of the modern IT environment. This means that even getting started was a lengthy process.

What is the future of ITIL?

After such a long pause, many have asked whether ITIL 4 is too little, too late but we have so far seen a great deal of interest in the launch.

While most mature companies will already have reached the point where they have independently developed practices similar to those in ITIL 4, there are many companies that haven’t yet reached that point and will welcome more structure and guidance.

The IT world has become increasingly dense and complicated as technology has advanced. The cloud for example, while providing new opportunities to be efficient, has also added a new layer of complexity. ITIL 4’s new holistic approach will hopefully help organisations to unite their various siloed activities into a single stream that provides maximum value for the company.

While it’s too early to tell until the full guides are released, ITIL 4’s new refreshed approach so far shows every indication of bringing it back to the forefront of IT practices.

Matt Klassen, VP Product Marketing, Cherwell Software (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa

Matt Klassen, VP of Product at Cherwell Software.