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What’s the Difference Between ITIL and ITSM?

by Katie Joll · Updated Mar 30 2020

Is your company building or expanding upon IT Service Management options?

If so, you’ll see the terms ITIL and ITSM come up with some frequency. Given that the acronyms sound so similar, there’s often confusion over what they really mean and how they function.

Here’s our breakdown:

Free download: The rundown on ITIL certification

What is ITSM?

The acronym ITSM stands for IT Service Management. This has been defined in ITIL guidelines as; "The implementation and management of quality IT services that meet the needs of the business. IT service management is performed by IT service providers through an appropriate mix of people, process and information technology." Under the definition of “service management” it reads: "A set of specialized organizational capabilities for providing value to customers in the form of services."

In other words, ITSM is an overarching strategic approach that is responsible for the design, delivery, management and improvements for how IT is used in an organization. It’s the umbrella under which your help desk and service desk sit.

ITSM has goals to ensure the right people, technology and processes are in place so that the organization is able to meet its business goals.

That idea of aligning with strategic objectives is a major shift from earlier, more “reactive” approaches to IT management. Now, the expectation is more that IT will be proactive and importantly, work to deliver value to the organization.

A large part of ITSM (as the name suggests) is to deliver great service to users. The umbrella is responsible for office applications, hardware like computers, monitors, and printers, additional software installation and licensing agreements, change management, and incident management are all part of the services provided by IT organizations. 

What is ITIL?

ITIL stands for IT Infrastructure Library. This refers to the group of documents that provide a framework and best practices for building an IT Service Management (ITSM) solution. Among the tasks of ITIL are to help businesses “manage risk, strengthen customer relations, establish cost-effective practices, and build a stable IT environment that allows for growth, scale and change.” (source)

ITIL has undergone multiple revisions over the years and currently covers five library volumes. It was first developed in the 1980s by the UK government’s Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA). Back then there were more than 30 books codifying best practices in information technology.

Since 2013, ITIL has been owned by Axelos and in the first quarter of 2019, a major overhaul was rolled out in the form of ITIL 4. The aim of this version was to offer a more agile and flexible framework that organizations could customize for their needs. It is also updated to accommodate changing technology, tools and software. Over its iterations, ITIL has maintained focus on automating processes, improving service management and integrating the IT department into the business.

The 7 guiding principles of ITIL 4

There are seven guiding principles of ITIL 4. These are a core part of ITIL architecture and anyone pursuing ITIL qualifications will study them. The principles are:

  1. Focus on value. This is the idea that everything the organization does should provide value for stakeholders. Those stakeholders could be anyone with a vested interest, including customers, employees, shareholders or even regulators.

    It’s important to remember that value is not just financial. It includes areas of IT such as UX (user experience) and CX (customer experience). How can you meet this focus on value? It starts by clearly understanding who your service is for and what it is that they need.
  2. Start where you are.  This means that before you decide to build from the ground up, you should look at what you already have and whether you can make improvements. If a replacement really is needed, then that’s the route to take.

    The recommendation is that you carry out an assessment for yourself, along with looking at metrics and reports to ascertain the current position.
  3. Progress iteratively with feedback. This principle suggests taking a stepped approach rather than trying to do everything at once. For example, tackling a multi-year project that promises to deliver value only at the end can result in less value than anticipated.

    When you divide a project into smaller, more manageable chunks, you can progressively deliver value over time. You can also gather more regular feedback and use it to inform your next phase.
  4. Collaborate and promise visibility. Everyone can benefit when a collaborative approach is taken, as opposed to everyone sticking to their small silos. This means that people are better-exposed to different ways of doing things or new technologies. They have the opportunity to be more adaptable and to better understand changes.

    Collaboration might include the different teams of the organization, as well as customers or other service providers. Basically, it covers anyone involved with your services.
  5. Think and work holistically. This is very much related to the collaboration principle. Rather than sticking to your piece of work in isolation, think about how what you do contributes to the overall delivery of value. This helps with decision-making that can benefit everyone.

    Consider how all the various parts of your IT department interact, including with external suppliers.
  6. Keep it simple and practical. People often get caught up in overly complicated systems and processes just because that’s what they’ve always done. It’s good to question, to re-examine these processes and ask why a complicated step needs to be that way.

    A golden rule is that if it isn’t creating value, it should go. Processes should cover the basic things needed while training people to recognize if something outside of the norm is needed.
  7. Optimize and automate. How will you use all of your resources as effectively and efficiently as possible? Included in this principle is the idea of automating wherever possible and considering which tasks really are only suitable for a person to do.

Any time you’re designing a process or looking at implementing a new solution under your ITSM, these are the guiding principles that should be followed. These provide useful and practical elements for decision making, system and process creation, and delivering value.

Download our quick guide to ITIL certification here

Final thoughts

ITIL and ITSM are often confused due to the similar-sounding acronyms – they’re part of the same family, but different.

While ITIL is the library of guiding principles for IT management, ITSM is the overarching function of IT service management, encompassing everything in your department, including help and service desks.

The most recent iteration of ITIL presents 7 principles for guiding your IT projects. Following these will help you to remain agile, promote solutions that are as simple as possible, and deliver value and help the organization achieve its goals.