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12 August 2009 | Aidan Lawes Blog
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What's wrong with ITIL?
This week Aidan explains why ITIL is just one tool in what should be a rich and varied toolkit...

I frequently come across articles, books and presentations that criticise ITIL. The criticisms tend to fall into 2 broad areas: what is in ITIL and what isn’t in it!

Constructive criticisms of the first type are healthy and valuable. The whole ethos of “best practice” as originally developed is of a dynamic set of principles that are based upon proven methods of working. By definition this means that they will continually evolve over time as experience and changing environments dictate.

Having known most of the authors of the core books for many years, I don’t think that (m)any of them believe that they are infallible. What they have tried to capture is the practical experience that they and a host of others have collectively gathered over many years. One of the aspects that has gained significant prominence in V3 is that of continual improvement – and this should apply equally to the published material.

Let me state that I am not uncritical of some of the current content: some of the “labels” are strange; some of the strategy book in particular is more “best theory” than “best practice”; some of the “processes” lack process definitions and are arguably more function than process; there is inconsistency in structure and a huge blurring between purpose, goals and objectives; and a host of other issues. But I have never viewed ITIL as being anything more than what it is – some useful and practical guidance on what needs to be done in order to manage services efficiently and effectively. The motto has always been adopt and adapt.

Criticisms of the second type are often as much bemoaning what ITIL isn’t as targeting real gaps. It is always difficult to place boundaries defining exactly what falls into one or other category. The reality is that most boundaries between different processes and functions are blurred even in an abstract sense, let alone in the way that organizations may choose, or need, to structure themselves. Ivor Macfarlane uses the analogy of country boundaries – look at a map and it’s crystal clear where the boundary is; but the closer you get to the ground, the harder it can be to identify the exact line. Extending the analogy, many of the lines have been arbitrarily drawn and do not reflect the reality of ethnic and tribal affiliations on the ground and the complex interrelationships that flow from this. So there will always be some who view the scope of ITIL as deficient in some way – to the extent of seeking a complete “shebang” that covers the entire spectrum of business management.

I call it a “shebang” because they appear to want a definition of what to do, how to do it (including a defined set of templates), standard tools to manage matters and how to measure it for conformance and/or capability & maturity. I’m not sure whether this stems from a rational understanding of the issues or a more visceral drive for certainty in an uncertain world.

We live in an incredibly diverse and complex world, with organizations facing a kaleidoscope of changing opportunities and threats. Management is about identifying and understanding all the challenges, defining and evaluating the response options (and attendant risks) and taking action to implement suitable solutions. It is irrelevant whether one is viewing the macro or micro level, it is impossible to devise a “shebang” that will remove the need for human decision making. With service management, ITIL is not the solution – it is simply one “tool” to help management handle the complex tasks of managing and delivering service.

In many ways, the problems aren’t really with ITIL per se, but with how human beings try to bend it to make it something it wasn’t designed to be, become focused on it as the solution, turn it into a money-making device or simply misunderstand and misuse it.

So, I’m all in favour of positive debate and constructive criticism that leads to better understanding and use of the guidance and ultimately to improvement, but I have less time for those who demonise it for shortcomings that are more to do with their view of what it should embrace.

Good managers and consultants shouldn’t be driven by a method or framework but by an understanding of what’s needed and being able to respond appropriately. ITIL is just one tool in what should be a rich and varied toolkit. Just as a builder needs a hammer or a screwdriver for different tasks, so we need a range of tools. The skill or art is in choosing the right tool at the right time. 

Any feedback and comments are always welcome!! 


13th August 2009

Hi Aidan
Great post.  What we often run across in the marketplace is that ITIL (or simply any fill-in-the-blank framework) is seen as something which can actually replace good IT management.  As you say, ITIL is a tool… to be used by competent IT professionals to effectively manage their IT organization to maximize service to the business and minimize costs.  Period.

George Spalding
co-author ITILv3 Continual Service Improvement
Executive VP, Pink Elephant


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