ITIL: Weighing the Pros and Cons (Part 1 of 2)

In the first article in our two-part series, we look at the promised benefits of adopting the IT Information Library in your organization.

Editor's note: The following article is adapted from Effective IT Service Management: To ITIL and Beyond!, copyright 2007 by Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg

by Rob Addy

ITIL was born in 1987 to modest critical acclaim and spent its formative years as the preserve of large government and corporate IT departments with equally large budgets. Nearly twenty years after its creation, ITIL is preparing (just as every other teenager/young adult does) to find its place in the world and make its presence felt.

The prior publication of BS 15000, and its internationalization with the publication of ISO 20000, looks set to catapult this set of IT best practices even further into the mainstream. Love it or hate it, you certainly can’t ignore it—ITIL is coming to an IT shop near you.

ITIL is now big business and is considered by some as the thing that will finally legitimize the IT function within the business world. Traditional references to nerdy back office geeks with beards and sandals have been replaced by talk of systematic incident management processes implemented by problem managers, solution engineers, change approvers and the like. The IT landscape is changing for sure, but is the brave new world of ITIL all that it is cracked up to be?

Before embarking on a project to embrace these standards, you might be advised to take a few moments to consider whether or not they are right for your particular organization and specific business requirements.

What is ITIL?

ITIL is a documented set of processes designed to define how a company’s IT functions can operate. It contains a series of statements defining the procedures, controls, and resources that should be applied to a variety of IT related processes.

ISO 9000 - A Lesson for the IT Industry

The similarities between ITIL’s latest incarnation as BS 15000 and the ISO 9000 family of standards for quality management are clear. This is hardly surprising since both sets of documents were drafted by the same standards organization. To put it simply, ITIL can be thought of ISO 9000 for the IT department.

Just as BS 5750 and latterly ISO 9000 attracted massive popular support within the business world during the 1980’s and 1990’s, ITIL looks ready to ride the wave of management popularity into the next decade. During its heyday, ISO 9000 became an industry of its own with consultants advising on how to implement the standard, certification bodies auditing to see that the standard had been implemented, and yet more consultants employed to rationalize the monolithic procedural manuals that were often created to gain certification so that they were usable. There were articles, training courses, text books, workshops, seminars, and even government assistance programs dedicated to the implementation of the standard.

Despite all of this, ISO 9000 is infamous for failing to deliver upon its hype and has since been abandoned by many of its former supporters and advocates. The common response to critics of the standard from the industry gurus of the time went something along the lines of “There’s nothing wrong with the standard – you must be implementing it wrong.” This helpful advice fueled the market for further consultancy services even more and perpetuated what some consider to be one of the worst episodes in the arena of quality management.

Some brave organizations resisted the overwhelming market pressures to adopt the standard because they did not see sufficient benefits from it – many of these companies are still in business today and have suffered no long-term effects from their decision not to ride the ISO 9000 gravy train.

The Case for ITIL

1. Structured approach: There is no disputing the fact that ITIL covers all the major areas of interest that concern today’s IT executive. Its structured and systematic approach means that it will allow managers responsible for a chaotic IT organization to implement the various processes step by step without absolute confidence that they will have hit the major bases.

2. Good foundation upon which to build: There is nothing in ITIL that is superfluous or unnecessary in the absence of a defined system. ITIL is an excellent starting point from which to build your IT service management system.

3. Analyst support/easy ride for the CIO: No one is going to be criticized openly for deciding to implement ITIL. The press coverage and popular management appeal of it mean that it is the safe decision for IT executives wishing to demonstrate that they are up-to-date with modern(ish) IT thinking.

4. Can be used to help prevent knowledge loss from the organization: The documented procedures and requirements for documenting activities undertaken by the IT organization mean that should your key personnel decide to leave, the void that results will be smaller.

5. Prescriptive nature means that you don’t have to think too much: Many people don’t like to think. Others claim that they don’t have the time to think. Some prefer not to expose themselves by revealing that they can’t think on their own. Either way, ITIL will relieve you of the need to use your own thoughts and judgment when determining how you want to run your organization.

6. Allows for job specialization: The demarcation of roles and responsibilities within ITIL will provide your HR department with many happy hours determining a whole series of role-based job titles. These, in turn, may help you retain staff longer by offering them a defined career path through your organization.

7. Requires IT management to formally review all processes delivered by their teams: When implementing ITIL, departmental managers will need to take time to map their current operations to those flows defined in the framework. This in-depth review can only serve to do good as it forces management to get down into the nuts and bolts of their business to reinforce their understanding of the issues facing their staff and the requirements of the business.

8. Encourages the use of flow charting techniques to map out business processes: Visualisation of business processes is often the first step to process improvement. Having documented and defined the process graphically, it becomes readily accessible to everyone within the organization and the diagrams can become an invaluable troubleshooting and improvement tool.

9. Consistent usage of defined terminology across the industry promotes understanding and simplifies communication: This is possibly the greatest benefit that ITIL brings to the industry. A common vocabulary allows us all to communicate more effectively and enables closer comparison of like with like than has ever been possible.

10. Traceability and accountability: With structured systems come the ability to formally trace and review what was done about any particular incident or problem. Such audit trails are an invaluable aid to piecing together a picture of what transpired and allow even those not directly involved with a case to get up to speed quickly and contribute as appropriate.

11. Ambiguities and vagueness in definitions give you flexibility: ITIL is a loose framework of guidance notes and as such has sufficient holes to allow you to operate in many different ways while remaining in alignment with ITIL's general direction.

While these benefits are certainly attractive, there are drawbacks to employing as well. We'll explore the downsides of ITIL next week.

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Rob Addy is an ITSM professional with over a decade of hands-on experience in the field with both enterprise and mid-size organizations. Rob’s 360-degree view of the market balances real-life scenarios, customer requirements, best-practice processes, and technical capabilities and limitations for insight into improving IT services. For more information about Effective IT Service Management: To ITIL and Beyond!, visit You can contact the author at