ITIL Through the Times

In the beginning

ITIL has existed for a long time, the first books went on sale during 1989. Both ITIL and the world have changed a bit since then. Just for reference, during 1989:

  • Timothy Dalton was James Bond
  • Nelson Mandela was in jail
  • The Berlin Wall fell

We live in a very different world now, one IT innovations largely shaped: from mainframes to the cloud, from arms-length IT specialists to IT as a fully integrated part of a business (well…almost). The ITIL that was right for 1989 wouldn’t be right now, so ITIL has also changed considerably: into a very different kind of product than its first incarnation. 

This hasn’t been an evolution: changes that occur through accidental variation. Climate change reveals natural evolution leaves species unable to cope with rapid environmental change. Intelligent design gave us domesticated animals (dogs, horses and more) suited to specific tasks: racehorses go fast, cart horses are strong. ITIL’s successful changes are built from intelligent (re-) design. We’ll look at those redesign steps in a bit, but let’s start at the beginning.


The UK government created ITIL, driven by the appalling waste of money building expensive IT applications without them delivering long-term (or sometimes not even short-term) value. The UK government had built an excellent method for IT analysis and design (SSADM) and it was Pete Skinner of CCTA (UK Government’s Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency) who had the idea of building an equivalent approach to improve the operations of IT services. 

ITIL was written in Norwich, England: version 1 (or ITIL as it was known) drip-fed its way into the market, producing more than 30 books, starting with Service Level Management and ending with more generic topics: a book of case studies and guidance on business and management skills. Interest increased rapidly and generated a re-focus. CCTA had been right that the UK government was abysmal at actually running and supporting services. What it failed to spot was that so was just about everyone else. Therefore, the private sector, as well as the original public sector target audience, were soon buying books. Shortly thereafter, the books were selling in other countries. 

In addition to the guidance itself, in the books, interest emerged for supporting products:

  • Consultancy to help organizations implement the new ideas and practices
  • Training to help them understand and apply the ideas
  • Qualifications to prove people did understand them
  • Software tools to make it all easier and reliable
  • A forum for those interested to discuss these ideas – and, hence, ITIMF (later itSMF) was born.

Together, these generated an overall ITIL market some 100 times larger than the actual ITIL best practice itself and for which it was responsible. It was this wider market that sustained and drove the ITIL phenomenon ever since. The enormous community that big market created has also been instrumental in how ITIL developed. The content has always been largely shaped and certainly perfected via scoping and Quality Assurance input from literally thousands of interested members of the ITSM community. Now let’s take a very condensed look at that 30-year journey and the design stages that drove it.

Image by Sharmila

Design steps

Given that all the current hype is focused on ITIL4, you’ll realize there have been four versions, and, thus, four ITIL design exercises. Each exercise has been very different, with the control of ITIL – and, therefore, the ultimate drivers – changing several times during the years. A pattern of sorts is revealed, however, in how ITIL has changed. Most noticeable is the change in the basic building blocks of ITIL. At its simplest, this has progressed through each of the four versions:

  1. Function-based – Based on operational teams
  2. Process-based – Based on required tasks and actions
  3. Service-based – Recognizing that services are the product we build, deliver and support
  4. Value-based – Seeing that creating and delivering value for all stakeholders is the purpose of our work

Let’s be clear though, while each version laid a foundation for the next to develop, these characteristics are not a simple staircase of progress. Each basis is a valid way of looking at how we build, maintain and deliver IT Service management. All four must still be considered all the time. Just because you now build your goals and targets around co-creating value, doesn’t mean you don’t need to build an organization with teams and tools to do the work. That’s a separate blog to itself. 

ITIL – The Highlights 

Let’s move on to the ITIL history now and look briefly at some of the key changes and growth spurts that came along with those periodical redesigns.

  • ITIL – No Number Needed

I’ve written about how the surrounding community grew during the early days. As a function-based product, it generated teams of people with ITIL-like job titles. During that earlier time, ITIL was sold as a means to help address the IT skills shortage and benefit from the best use of people. One common encouragement was the new idea of creating a help desk, so users didn’t constantly interrupt support staff with phone calls, and as a part of a mechanism to record and prioritize issues. 

The first exams were held during March 1991 – manager’s level (the foundation came a few years later). The exam was two, three-hour, hand-written papers focused on understanding the issues and how to apply the guidance.

ITIL was outsourced to Exin (the Netherlands examination institute) for 3 years – from 1996 to 1998, and it initiated the first rewrite, which was finally completed and published during the early years of the century as ITIL V2 after CCTA took the reins directly again. By this time, ITIL had spread all around the world, was used in every market sector and translations into other languages had just started.

  • ITIL V2 – The Process Revolution

Actually, processes became the common currency for IT Service Management during the development of BS15000, the UK standard that later progressed into ISO/IEC20000. The development of the standard paralleled the scoping and design of ITIL’s first rewrite, with many shared authors across the ITIL and Standards projects; therefore, a process approach for ITIL V2 was inevitable. Focusing on processes was important because it shifted prime visibility from asking “who is doing this” to “what must be done.” That helped much to communicate the message of how best to use the ITIL guidance. While the packaging changed (a few big books rather than many small ones), much of the core content changed little because it was still very relevant and still focused tightly on IT operations.

  • ITIL V3 – Lifecycle and More

During 2004, when CCTA took a very deep breath and decided to look at ITIL as a fresh idea. Of course, it would carry over the best ideas, but a wider approach was needed in an IT world where conflict between development and operations caused friction and inefficiency. A major project was commenced, with focus groups across the industry, much consultation and considerable time and money invested. The result was an ITIL that looked to build service as the overarching concept that, just about, into which the rest of IT could fit. The positioning of Application development as a supplier to the service lifecycle was implicit. The result was five big books, published soon after APMG took control of the management of the ITIL product, during 2007, accompanied by an integrated set of examinations soon afterward. ITILV3 was a package deal, with years spent on its design and build, launched as an integrated unit – pure waterfall stuff.

During 2011, ITILV3 was tidied and called ITIL 2011, an indication of its minor nature is that the exams did not need to be changed! In addition to the core books, however, new ideas did develop, most notably the ITIL practitioner book and exam, which covered “how” to use all that good guidance. The V3 years was when ITIL begin to apply actual effort to its alignment with other frameworks and initiatives, such as COBIT, DevOps and more.

  • ITIL4 – The Future

I won’t write much about ITIL4 here, not least because it’s being written elsewhere – much! It does build upon ITIL’s history, however, and to make the best use of it, some idea of how we arrived where we are will help. If Winston Churchill was right with his assertion that “The best way to predict the future is to study the past,” then some knowledge of ITIL’s history will help us move forward.”