ITIL 4 vs ITIL V3: The Major Differences

We live in a world where evolution and progression is the norm. The car we drive might be a Mark IV; the software we run, version 8.6.2 and the evening TV is showing series 5. We expect additions, replacement and (hopefully) progress in most of the things that influence our environment. Those working in – or around – IT Service Management are aware that the ITIL guidance has just made such an evolution – from Version 3 to ITIL 4. That raises some immediate questions in our mind, such as:

  • What’s different in the new version – is it a minor facelift or a total rebuild?
  • Is it better or worse: should I move on, or wait a while with the old version?

With the TV and movies, we still have the old stuff to see and enjoy, and even if you are just starting, then you will move from the first episode through to the new stuff. With cars and software, it’s different: start from scratch and you come straight to the new stuff, but if you already own or use a version, you need to decide whether to stay with what you have or spend effort and money moving on to the new release. Of course, how you answer the second question depends, to a large degree, on the answer to the first. This blog concentrates on answering the first question, so you can answer the second in the context of your particular needs and situation.

ITIL 4 vs ITIL v3 – Total change or minor tweak?

While ITIL 4 has kept much of what folks liked about ITIL V3, this is a major rethink with some smart thinking, rearrangement, and re-pitching of the previous approach. We’ll talk about some of the substance a little later, but first, it’s worth looking at the new approach, attitude, and structure of ITIL: there is a discernibly different nature to this new version of ITIL that manifests in several ways.

  • More conform than control?

ITIL V3 took a confident, arguably even arrogant, approach to its scope and applicability. That’s neither a complaint nor an accusation: V3 made a deliberate attempt to expand ITSM applicability by introducing a service lifecycle, covering every part of a service’s life, from cradle to grave – from demand or opportunity through to termination and withdrawal of the service. That was a fair enough reaction to the best practice ecosystem back in 2006, but it isn’t the way the world looks now. ITIL 4 has recognized that, and instead of trying to deliver a framework that addresses and subsumes other approaches, ITIL 4 sets out to integrate, support and complement other frameworks. Concessions are made in terms of changed definitions and structures, some key ideas are presented in ways relevant to the application of any best practice, not just ITIL. And crucially, ITIL doesn’t repeat or contradict what’s already commonly used, instead – like Devops – it signals its relevance to the ITSM space. The end result is a supportive and constructive set of advice that works much better in the current environment of multiple frameworks integrated across an ever more complicated service. 

  • Start at the beginning this time

Axelos has recognized that people tend to start at the beginning. Agile advocates starting with a minimum viable product – something usable that delivers initial real value. ITIL 4 has reflected this by starting with the Foundations (sensible building for houses or best practice frameworks). The initial release was the foundation book and examination combo – much more is to come, but this has allowed feedback to adjust those foundations and make it more likely that the subsequent, more detailed, and advanced guidance is consistent and useful. 

  • Bringing the best parts together

Just like a car company bringing successful features from one model into new versions of a different model, ITIL 4 has brought together successful ideas from across the broadest range of existing ITIL frameworks. Most notable is how the guiding principles from ITIL practitioner have been tidied, spruced off and shaped to be made a key aspect of ITIL 4 Foundation. It will bring what have always been good ideas to a wider audience, and that must make sense. 

Changes and innovations

But it isn’t all attitude and recycling. There are differences and additions that make ITIL 4 fit into the ‘IT Best Practices’ space better. Most notable are the relabelling of processes and functions as ‘practices’, and the introduction of value streams and the service value system. They are important enough to justify blogs of their own, and they will get them too. But it’s worth setting out the changes here at a high level.

  • Several things with value

The most noteworthy change in ITIL 4 is the disappearance of the service lifecycle. Instead, we have the Service Value System, a flexible illustration of the component concepts available and required to deliver efficient ITSM. Unlike the service lifecycle, there is no single, fixed path, rather, it sets a landscape through which organizations can work with stakeholders to create value to their customers. These are new concepts for many in ITSM, and they will probably be the most challenging part of the new material and examinations – but a little effort will deliver understanding and recognition of their usefulness.

Also on the value front, ITIL 4 points out that value isn’t just created by one party and passed on to another. If we are to succeed, then every stakeholder should see value for them in every action and service. That means value is ‘co-created’ by all parties: everyone involved should contribute and receive value.

  • Fitting into the DevOps world

As I mentioned above, ITIL 4 seeks to set a consistent tone with its surroundings, and prime amongst those surroundings are the immensely popular DevOps and Agile approaches to IT. Some of these will require adjustment from experienced ITIL folks, but they do all make sense, especially to the many ITSM people with knowledge of the DevOps and Agile concepts. Let’s look specifically at a few to let you get a feel for the situation:

  • Incident & Problem: In ITIL 4 an incident is something that actually affects a user, detracting from the service they receive. An issue which has the potential to impact a service, but isn’t actually doing so yet, is a problem – something to be investigated and (hopefully) prevented before it does damage. Not only does this bring ITIL’s usage of incident in line with other frameworks, but also brings it much nearer the English language meaning of ‘incident’.
  • Deployment and Release. Combined into a single process (release & deployment) in ITIL V3 these terms have been much more carefully defined, and separated, over recent years and ITIL 4 needs to reflect that. Now, deployment specifically means to put things in place, ready for use. Release is the term covering making something available for users to use.
  • Practices. In the V3 foundation exam, there was always a question designed to check the understanding of the difference between process and function. A little ironic really since ITIL V3 use of the terms was debatable at best. Now all these are bundled under a single term – ‘practice’. This makes easier something that never needed to be complicated in the first place and, more importantly, it frees up the word ‘process’ to be used when ITIL 4 needs to talk about things that actually are processes. 


There is much more to be written about ITIL 4: as the latest in the ITIL series, as a framework that integrates with others, and as a new set of ideas for those who are coming to it fresh. I am sure most of you will read much of it over the coming months. But I hope your main take away from this higher-level introduction is that it has changed, for good. From being a posture of overarching coverage, it has stepped down to fit in with our modern world and its diverse less-siloed approach.

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Blog cover by Saravana Kannan