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What is ITIL®: Definitions, history and benefits of each version

Today, ITIL is the most successful set of best practices, and thanks to a recent update remains relevant to modern businesses even after 30 years. In the new series, we will introduce the basic concepts of the new edition and show how to put theory into practice without further ado.
Jan Škrabánek

20. 9. 2021

‘To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer,’ they used to say in Britain in the 1980s. The first computers were being put into wider operation, and the growing dependence on information technology brought its own specific problems. These circumstances gave rise to ITIL, a compendium or ‘library’ of IT management procedures proven in practice. Before we embark on the tasty topics from the new ITIL 4 edition, let’s take a short walk down memory lane. That will also give us a few choice items to take away.

What is ITIL?

Let’s start with the Wikipedia definition: “ITIL (formerly Information Technology Infrastructure Library) is a set of detailed practices for IT activities such as IT service management (ITSM) and IT asset management (ITAM) that focus on aligning IT services with the needs of business.”

Simply put, it is all about practical experience summarized in a comprehensive framework. The emphasis on business alignment is key. IT is strategically important for the success of any business today, so IT people need to understand how their department contributes to business goals. But more on that later. It was created in the 1980s in the UK at the instigation of the government, responding to the growing role of technology in business. Since then, ITIL has established itself as a proven and globally recognized framework for IT Service Management. 

ITIL history illustrates the evolution of our thinking about IT. From an obsession with technology and top-down cascaded ‘waterfall’ project management to Agile techniques and focus on value for the customer, ITIL’s history reflects changes in the thinking of real-world practitioners and the professional community. Understanding this development serves to improve our ability to manage IT in a modern way and help us pragmatically implement the best of ITIL for our situation. In today’s episode, we will present the respective editions of ITIL. We will show how they have moved IT management along and what their weaknesses were. We will complement each ITIL development phase with practical lessons that you can learn from that phase.

ITIL 1 – IT needs a common language and working technologies

In a typical 1980 office you’d only find a typewriter. By the end of the decade, however, much of the industry was already reliant on information technology. The British government responded to the rapid development in this field, by giving the initial impetus to writing up a methodology for IT management. They understood that IT service delivery differs in many aspects from the supply of anything else. ‘Imagine that at this time you were going out to tender for an ERP [Enterprise Resource Planning system] for a government organization,’ is how Jaroslav Rokyta of ITSMf Czech Republic illustrates the 1980s, ‘you’d get a bunch of completely incomparable bids. IT lacked a common language with to communicate with vendors. Everyone used their own terminology. Yet the customer simply wants to specify that the software should meet particular criteria, and be assured that the supplier will understand.’

‘The problem was that people started to take ITIL too seriously,’

Ivor McFarlane, ITIL co-author 

The same was true of hardware. Compared to its successors, ITIL 1 was most focused on technology and technological management. By today’s standards, the typical operational IT environment was not very complex. There were basic and functional technological silos – networks, hardware, software. If these three things were working, everything was fine. The fundamental issue of IT communication with users and the rest of the company was properly dealt with only by the second edition. Although 30 years have passed since the release of ITIL 1, the temptation to place excessive emphasis on technology is still a lively topic today. Hence our tip #1:

Tip 1: Don’t be blinded by technical problems and endless infrastructure tuning. Tools are just a means to an end.

Although the original assignment was intended to attain a comprehensive methodology, it soon became clear that this was not the best approach. One of its authors, Ivor McFarlane, gave us a behind-the-scenes look how ITIL 1 came about: ‘In the beginning, it was mainly about a community of people who wanted to help each other. The problem was that people started to take ITIL too seriously – as binding rules and instructions instead of good ideas. Yet already by the end of 1989 we were clear that we wanted to present ITIL as a library of good practices, not a binding methodology.’ This problem persists to this day and is to some extent responsible for negative reactions to ITIL. 

In the commercial environment, ITIL implementation often took place in a slavish manner without the involvement of common sense.

‘Too often, ITIL is a goal in itself, instead of helping us achieve our goals,’ cautioned Paul Wilkinson in our ITIL panel discussion. ITIL was never meant to be slavishly followed. ‘The natural goal of all people is simplification. The most common way to simplify is by copying. Unfortunately, in the case of ITIL, it is not a product to be copied to make a perfectly functional whole. ITIL is a set of rules and recommendations that must always take into account the setting in which they are to operate,’ says Jan Hospes, consultant and ITIL Expert. 

Tip 2: You can’t slavishly implement ITIL from the available books. Follow the ‘adopt and adapt’ principle.

smiling woman

ITIL 2 – Process debugging for functional IT

It turns out that the British government, with its initiative, hit the nail on the head. To the surprise of the creators themselves, ITIL quickly began to spread to the private sector. Even the commercial sector had not had much success with supplying IT services at a reasonable price and quality. But with its more than 40 volumes, ITIL 1 wasn’t exactly readily available and easily digestible material. The awkwardness of ITIL 1, together with industry developments and technological advances, led to the creation of the second edition of ITIL, which was released at the beginning of the new millennium. ITIL 2 revolved mainly around internal IT departmental processes. The second edition, then already being implemented in the Czech Republic, defined 10 basic processes and the Service Desk function. With its focus on processes, it showed what specifically you should do to improve IT process maturity and deliver stable services.

‘ITIL 2 was kind of self-absorbed,’ Rudolf Slaba, an expert who over his years of ITSM had trained hundreds of people in editions 2, 3 and even the latest ITIL 4, said to me, and continued ‘it was about the smooth operation of the IT department. This is shown among other things by the great focus given to database configuration – where to keep what information and which information to monitor. That has helped IT has to be more efficient. On the other hand, the customer may care far less about whether you have one or four configuration databases and far more about the functioning of their document printing or a computing task in the accounting application.’ IT may have taken some steps to improve communication with users and the Business, but this has been far from a completely customer-minded approach.

As Jaroslav Rokyta confirms: ‘On the one hand, ITIL 2 managed to connect two communities that don’t understand each other: IT and the rest of the company. Communication with users improved to a large extent, especially with the introduction of the Service Desk function that everyone could turn to with their questions and problems. On the other hand, IT was still more or less living in a world of its own. It had an exclusive position in the company and did not much care about the needs of business.’ As a result, IT became bloated and geared toward ‘fire-fighting’. Only version 3 put the customer at the forefront of ITIL.

Tip 3: Every process leads to a human being, with a particular need. The delivery of services is about the relationship with the service users.

ITIL 3 – Focus on the lifecycle of IT Services

‘With ITIL 3, we finally stopped talking about what IT manages and administers, and started telling customers what services IT could provide,’ explains Rudolf Slaba, ‘This was reflected, among other things, by the fact that the service catalogue became the main topic at conferences and in professional circles.’ Through the IT service catalogue the IT department lays out clearly to customers all the services that are on offer. You can think of it as a menu where you can find all the services IT provides and under what conditions. Crucially, this menu does not remain static. Over time, it changes. ITIL 3 began working with the term ‘service lifecycle’. The portfolio of services offered is not a random cluster of capabilities that have accumulated in IT over the years. IT should offer only services the customer needs in order to succeed in the market. To do this, the services are managed through a lifecycle.

You could finally begin to see a guiding thread from long-term planning to everyday activities.

Jan Hospes, ITIL expert  

The first phase of the cycle is Service Strategy. Based on an understanding of customer needs, IT determines the services to offer. Then comes Service Design, where the service is specified in full, and then Service Transition to address taking the service through to live production. Service Operations ensure the smooth running of services, incident resolution, etc. The final stage is Continual Service Improvement, which ensures that services meet the changing needs of the Business.

‘ITIL version 3 used the service lifecycle to combine the notional beginning and end of IT involvement from strategy to operation. You could finally begin to see a guiding thread from long-term planning to everyday activities. But it was too much for some companies, and ITIL was often faced with complete misunderstanding,’ says Jan Hospes. 

The problem is that even if you deliver the service exactly according to the agreed conditions, it does not itself mean that the customer will be satisfied. ‘Often the services delivered did not bring the benefit expected by the customer,’ explains Rudolf Slaba. ‘The service was overpriced, built on old technology or misaligned with customer expectations, albeit formally meeting the agreed parameters.’

For example, the IT manager could prove that the accounting system is available 98% of the time as agreed with the Business. However, this is not much use if the 2% of outages take place regularly at payroll time. In management meetings, the SLA (Service Level Agreement) is seldom on the agenda. The discussion revolves around live, operational problems. In professional circles, such situations came to be known as ‘watermelon SLA’. That describes a situation where in terms of all the quantifiable metrics IT supplies impeccable services (green on the surface), but for the Business the reality is pretty grim (red on the inside). Once again, we encounter the problem of mutual understanding between IT and the rest of the company. Does IT even know how to find out what the Business needs? Can that be provided within the necessary time and quality? Or will IT be swayed by technological enthusiasm and promote pointless services?

Tip 4: IT doesn’t work in a vacuum. To deliver the most value to a company you have to be able to respond to changing conditions.

ITIL 4 – The main thing is value is for the customer

A long 12 years have passed since the release of ITIL 3 and since then a number of changes have taken place in the sector. New approaches such as Agile, DevOps or LeanIT have gained popularity. More and more people have treated ITIL as too bureaucratic and outdated. Finally, this spring, we have received the awaited new edition that responds to this criticism. ‘ITIL was too focused on implementing the IT department’s agenda, instead of focusing on the value, outputs, costs, and risks for IT service users,’ as Stuart Rance one of the authors of ITIL 4 told us, ‘so we needed to explain how IT Service Management would fit in with digital transformation and how it interacted with other approaches like Agile, Lean, DevOps, etc.’

ITIL 4 primarily emphasizes the collaborative creation (co-creation) of value. ‘It is not enough to deliver the service, but I need to understand why the customer needs that service. What exactly is s/he finding helpful about it? We, the customer and I, are in the same boat and we create value for the company together,’ says colleague Jirka Janků. Take the example of CRM [Client Relationship Management] implementation. It is not enough to issue a tender and install new software. We need to understand that Sales and Marketing needs a tool to manage the entire business process. We need to understand how CRM will specifically help them increase sales. The role of today’s IT is changing. Its primary task is to understand the Business and help the company achieve business goals. ‘IT today is now one of the critical factors of Business success. Fail in IT = Fail in Business,’ says Jan Hospes when asked why ITIL 4 was created in the first place, adding ‘IT is no longer about infrastructure, it is no longer about processes, it is no longer about services – IT is the Business’.

Tip 5: IT is essential to the success of the company. IT needs to understand business goals and understand its own role in achieving those goals.