ITIL Best Practices

ITIL (formerly known as IT Infrastructure Library) is one of the most well known and widely adopted frameworks in the IT industry. It is used by organizations big and small, across industries and government organizations to provide essential IT capabilities needed to provide technology services to customers, employees, suppliers and business functions. With its popularity and diverse adoption scenarios, a lot of insights have been gained over the past few decades that are now available to others in the form of ITIL best practices.

ITIL as a Best Practices Framework

ITIL was developed as a library of best practices. It is also an evolving body of knowledge to support new ideas that will be identified in the future. Each of the ITIL volumes contains guidance on specific topics related to service management but underpinning all of ITIL are a set of core concepts that represent the basis of the ITIL perspective on how IT should operate. These form the backbone that connects the rest of the ITIL concepts together.

Service Orientation

Services are the core objects that ITIL proposes companies should use to model, implement, and operate the IT solutions and services their companies consume. ITIL describes services as building blocks that are assembled to meet the various needs of the organization. The company can acquire or develop new services, restructure and evolve existing services and manage services as part of a service portfolio. The reason the service orientation is so powerful is that it provides a structure for articulating the needs of the business and how information and technology are used to fulfill those needs. As the needs of the business change, services are evolved to ensure they remain in alignment.

Service Lifecycle

ITIL describes services as having a lifecycle – the series of events and activities that a service will encounter from the time it is conceived until the time it is retired. The ITIL volumes are structured to align with this service lifecycle:

  • Service Strategy - Figuring out what capabilities your users need and how to best provide them in the form of services. Service strategy also deals with managing your service portfolio to ensure resources are allocated effectively
  • Service Design – Determining how services will be constructed and configured to meet the user needs
  • Service Transition – Creation of new services, implementing changes to existing services and deploying them into production environments where they can be consumed by users
  • Service Operations – Operating live services including monitoring performance, responding to incidents and resolving problems
  • Continuous Service Improvement – Identifying opportunities to refine services to both perform better as well as enhance their functionality to better meet user needs
Operations Centric Perspective

Many IT frameworks focus on building new technology (technology frameworks), making management decisions about technology (governance frameworks), or improving how technology is used (implementation frameworks). ITIL’s best practices provide a perspective that highlights the activities needed to operate services. If you were to look at the overall service lifecycle, the time when a service is operating is the period when it is actively adding value to the organization. Costs are incurred throughout but Operations is when benefits are realized. ITIL outlines activities that a company can take throughout the service lifecycle to increase the value of services that it operates. From making architectural and design decisions to enabling effective change management, to increasing service resiliency through problem management, ITIL provides the methods needed for IT to effectively provide services to their clients.

Consistent and Comprehensive Guidance

Each of the ITIL volumes contains specific best practices for the lifecycle stage being covered. While the activities are different in each volume, ITIL is highly effective in outlining the components of each activity in a consistent and easy to understand way. This includes the ITIL process model, an explanation of the roles involved in the activity and description of the service related data that is involved in performing the activity. While this information makes the ITIL volumes quite lengthy and somewhat cumbersome to just casually read, the thorough and thoughtful details contained in the ITIL books removes ambiguity about what activities need to take place. Because of ITIL’s consistency and the comprehensiveness of the guidance it provides, ITIL best practices are the foundations of nearly all the commercially available ITSM software in the market today.

Just the Right Capabilities to Meet the Needs of the Business

This is an ITIL principle more than a concept, but it is both important and central to understanding why ITIL is so successful as a best practices framework and guides how to implement it within your organization. There is a lot of information and collective knowledge contained in the ITIL volumes and very few organizations will ever really be able to adopt all of it. That’s okay – ITIL is intended to be suggestive guidance that is tailored to the unique needs of your organization. You don’t have to implement all of ITIL, nor should you attempt to apply it literally. It is meant to be reference material, not a prescriptive blueprint, for implementing service management functions within your organization. ITIL experts will tell you that ITIL should be treated as a library of resources. The best way to implement ITIL is to first figure out what your business needs are - then implement just the right capabilities to meet those needs.

Best Practices for Implementing ITIL

Implementing ITIL within an organization can be a daunting task and one that should not be taken lightly. ITIL is full of powerful methods and valuable concepts that can be used to bring structure, scalability and increased efficiency to an IT organization. Those things can then in turn yield better quality, more dependable IT services that meet users’ expectations while managing organizational considerations like cost, security and risk. ITIL has been implemented tens of thousands of times since the initial version was published and the experiences have exposed a set of implementation best practices that can serve as helpful guidance for organizations seeking to adopt ITIL.

A note of caution… like any powerful tool, it is easy to get lost in all the things that ITIL could do for you and lose sight of the overall objective which is to improve the quality of products and services available to support your business and your users. As you implement ITIL and other frameworks, it is easy to over-do it. There is an infinite number of paths that can get you to your destination and the key is finding the best one for you.

Where to Start

ITIL experts won’t always agree on where to start with your company’s ITIL implementation journey. That is because each organization is different and the factors which make an approach favorable in one setting can make it inappropriate in another. For some companies, a lightweight ITIL implementation is all they need – some basic concepts and processes to address specific operational pain-points. For other companies, a more in-depth ITIL implementation is needed to help drive scalability and manage operational complexity.

What ITIL implementation experts can agree on is the best place to start with implementation planning is to define the problems you are trying to solve and articulate a clear goal for what you hope to achieve by implementing ITIL. What is most important to your organization – reducing cost, improving service performance, enabling agility, scaling your operations? These are the questions that can help frame the many decisions you will make as you progress on your ITIL implementation journey. There are two foundational components that are widely used to support other ITIL activities. Even if these aren’t the first parts of ITIL that you implement, they should be some of the first components that you discuss and design. Configuration management (and the CMDB) is the part of ITIL that deals with managing the connective tissue between all the various pieces of your IT environment. As your company evolves and your IT systems change, managing the assets and dependencies and making the information available to the functions that need to use this information is essential. The sooner you can put configuration management capabilities in place, the easier it will be to implement other ITIL functions.

Knowledge management is the other foundational component in ITIL. As your ITIL processes operate, your staff will begin collecting nuggets of information about how your services work, how they are used, and the various actions required to make them operate effectively. Knowledge management is all about capturing this information, organizing it and making it available to the various people who need to use it. Populating a knowledge management system takes time and the sooner you can get started, the faster you’ll be able to start harvesting value from it.

When to Customize vs When to Adhere to Standards

This is a topic where the consensus opinions and best practices have changed over the years. It was once thought that the best way to implement ITIL was to use it as a reference and heavily customize it to fit into the processes, organization structures and culture of your existing organization. Initially, this approach seemed to make sense as it lessened the change management effort and made early adoption of ITIL easier. Unfortunately, companies that took this approach found that their organizations were not able to fully benefit from the ITIL best practices because, although it looked like they were following ITIL, they were really executing the same processes and exhibiting the same behavior that they showed before ITIL implementation and just calling it ITIL. If behaviors and actions didn’t change, the benefits were hard to realize.

Companies also found that highly customized ITIL implementations required significant re-work and regression testing when new changes to the standard or new versions of ITSM software packages were released. This has led many companies to “reboot” their ITIL initiatives (a costly endeavor) multiple times to support the modernization of tools and thinking.

Over the past 10 years, best practices have evolved (primarily due to the proliferation of ITSM software) to recommend leveraging standard (out of the box) processes, roles and tool capabilities whenever possible. Most companies are now limiting customizations to only those that are deemed essential to creating competitive differentiation for the company. IT service management is an essential operational function but for most companies, it isn’t a source of competitive differentiation in the marketplace. As a result, leveraging standard processes and commercially available tooling enables the company to easily achieve similar results as their peers in the industry (without a lot of additional overhead customization costs).

ITSM Tools

It is difficult to imagine a modern-day implementation of ITIL that doesn’t include a large focus on tooling in the form of ITSM software. ITSM tooling provides the essential capabilities for managing the full lifecycle of a service from strategy and design through transition and into service operations. As a service progresses through its lifecycle, many people within your company (and often an ecosystem of IT suppliers) need to interact with it and a considerable amount of service related data is collected. ITSM software provides a consistent means of capturing data, orchestrating workflows and providing the information needed to make informed decisions about the services and operations that support them.

Most commercially available ITSM software platforms are designed to support ITIL processes. This makes them easier to implement in your existing ITIL based organization and easier for your employees to use. The key differences between ITSM tools are ease of use, integration capabilities, and the ability to effectively blend the ITSM solution into the rest of your company’s IT systems and brand it as your own.

Training & Change Management

Years of experience have shown that the most important activity in any ITIL implementation project (and most commonly neglected when planning the effort) is user training and change management. Implementing ITIL is a transformational change for most organizations – changing the way many IT employees will execute their daily job roles. Successful implementation requires shifting the entire organization over to new ways of working in a coordinated manner that achieves the intended outcomes without causing undue disruption to the business. One ITIL expert described the experience as “changing the tire on a bus as it’s rolling down the road”. Leveraging standard processes and out-of-box tools (without a lot of customization) can make the change management task easier, but it will not eliminate the need completely.

Change management and training shouldn’t be limited to IT support roles – it needs to include business users and other stakeholders as well. ITIL implementation will often involve changing how services are created, how users request them and the way they get help when their business activities are disrupted. A successful ITIL implementation should not be transparent to business users – they should see and feel a difference in the way they engage with IT. Even positive change can be difficult when individuals and teams are going through it. Effective change management is essential for helping users navigate through the changes and reach new levels of productivity.

Don’t wait for the perfect time to start

There is no perfect time to start your ITIL implementation project. There will always be other things going on within your business – new systems rolling out, financial close periods, reorganizations, growth, downsizing… the list is endless. The nature of IT is that it is constantly changing. So, don’t wait for things to slow down before you start your ITIL implementation project.

Rather than wait for a lull in the storm, best practices have shown that churn originating from other parts of your organization can be used as an effective catalyst and accelerant for achieving your ITIL implementation goals. For example, an increased focus on risk management can provide justification for implementing more robust asset and configuration management capabilities. A series of recent high-profile outages could be used to rationalize implementing a Major Incident Management process or conducting more formal problem management activities. Often the best time to implement ITIL capabilities is when things are busiest, not when they are slow.

80/20 Rule – Focus on impact & value

The most important ITIL implementation best practice is to not try and implement everything at once. Focus on implementing the ITIL capabilities that will have the greatest impact and create the most value for your organization. There are often a few capability areas that will address some specific and pressing needs. By focusing on these areas first, you will be able to demonstrate success and value that can be then be used as justification for further ITIL investments.

Integrating ITIL with other Frameworks

ITIL isn't the only framework or standard available to IT professionals. Often companies will need to integrate multiple frameworks together to meet their holistic IT management needs. Integrating frameworks can be tricky as they often overlap in some areas and have conflicting perspectives on certain issues. With ITIL being a mature standard, it has been integrated with many other frameworks and implementation practitioners have figured out what works and what doesn't.

Six Sigma

This quality standard brings a robust set of tools and methods for evaluating the performance of services, diagnosing problems and implementing changes that lead to more consistent service experiences for users. Six Sigma methods complement ITIL’s problem management and service monitoring capabilities quite well and are most easily applied in that context. A less common integration (but highly impactful if done successfully) is integrating six-sigma into Service Strategy and Service Design activities with an eye towards architecting and building services that are stable, scalable, and execute consistently under a variety of operating conditions.

Lean

This set of methods from the manufacturing discipline is often perceived to conflict with ITIL. Lean advocates for optimizing processes by eliminating waste, reducing the instances of queuing within workflows and achieving quality through simplification. One of the biggest criticisms of ITIL processes is they are perceived to be slow, expensive and resource intensive. Perhaps Lean can help? In many cases the criticism ITIL receives is a result of the organization over-implementing ITIL capabilities that they really don’t need – causing operations to be unnecessarily complex.

Agile

A discussion of IT frameworks wouldn’t be complete without mention of Agile – the most popular IT management trend over the past 5 years. Agile is the grass-roots response of IT professionals being frustrated with the pace of change being too slow – encumbered by heavy-weight processes and overhead. Modern technology and business environment change quickly, and IT organizations need to be able to quickly adapt to changes in the environment and respond with services that meet the evolving needs of business users. Many IT organizations have struggled with integrating Agile ambitions with the structure and governance processes of ITIL. Because the Agile trend is so prevalent, the latest revision of the ITIL standard (presently being developed) is seeking to directly address how to integrate Agile and ITIL best practices in a seamless and complementary way.

Using ITIL with new Technologies

One of the biggest questions that IT leaders have been asking over the past few years is “How will ITIL support the new technology that my company would like to adopt”? The technology market and the IT ecosystem that companies rely on is getting very complex and diverse. It seems like every day there is some sort of new emerging technology trend that business users want to leverage. ITIL has been in use for many years and has supported countless technology trends. Although some of the modern trends present some unique challenges, the best practices of ITIL are well positioned to support them.

Cloud Services

This modern trend in infrastructure and software delivery has had a tremendous impact on IT organizations. The proliferation of cloud services is causing companies to re-evaluate the boundaries of their ITSM ecosystem and processes – expanding it to include larger networks of service providers and external technology suppliers. Because cloud services are typically operated by suppliers, the service management processes of those suppliers must be integrated into the consuming company’s ITSM workflows. Negotiating and facilitating these integrations relies heavily on SLA management and integration of ITSM processes such as change management, incident management and problem management. Leveraging ITIL as a standard framework makes integrating processes across companies much easier.

Mobile & BYOD

Mobile devices are not a new trend. What is new (at least from the perspective of many IT departments) is the influx of employee-owned devices, software and other components making its way into the business-technology ecosystem. Increasingly, business users are leveraging services and service components outside of IT’s direct control to support critical business activities. This trend requires companies to revisit some of the core fundamentals of ITIL. Companies aren’t constrained to using ITIL only to support the services that they directly provide. ITIL processes should be applied to all the technology that the business and users consume, regardless of where it came from or who owns it.

IoT

Many companies are beginning to explore the use of simple connected devices known commonly as the Internet of Things to support a variety of business and operational activities. ITIL’s core capabilities around configuration management and service level management can be particularly helpful in supporting IoT deployments. Where many companies struggle to leverage ITIL with IoT is in change management. The volume of IoT devices is much greater than traditional IT components meaning when changes happen there are a lot more moving parts to manage. Automated discovery capabilities and self-registration of IoT devices are beginning to emerge as best practices to help companies address the change management challenge.

Leveraging ITIL Best Practices in your Organization

ITIL is a collection of best practices developed and refined by industry subject matter experts and practitioners from leading private sector and government organizations. It reflects their collective observations, experiences and debates about how IT organizations can best meet the business needs of their constituents as stewards of their organization’s technology and information resources.

No two organizations are the same, so the way ITIL is implemented varies widely across companies. ITIL is a descriptive standard (it doesn’t prescribe specific implementation details) so it is intended to be adapted to fit the organization’s unique needs. That doesn’t mean companies need to start from scratch when implementing ITIL, there are tens of thousands of other companies who have been through the process before you. They have made mistakes, tried a bunch of alternatives, learned some things and their experience is available to other companies in the form of best practices for implementing ITIL.

Leveraging ITIL Best Practices in your Organization