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What Is ITSM?

IT service management is the craft of implementing, managing, and delivering IT services to meet the needs of an organization. It ensures that the appropriate mix of people, processes, and technology are in place to provide value. In other words:

ITSM is the art of making a business run.

If you want to know what IT service management (ITSM) is, you have three options. First, you can Google it and be confused by all the corporate-speak and contradictory explanations. Second, you can ask a room of IT people. Don’t be alarmed when they start shouting back-and-forth about processes, incident management, and IT delivery. Or third, you can continue reading this guide.

ITSM is complicated, so we’re going to cut through the jargon, break ITSM into its elements, and address some common misconceptions. We did all the Googling and shouting for you.

Breaking Down ITSM

Defining ITSM

If ITSM is the art of making a business run, that begs somes questions. How does a business run? For whom? For what purpose? With what tools?

To begin answering those questions, let’s break down ITSM into five areas of concern:

  • End Users: Employees and customers who use IT services
  • Services: Applications, hardware, infrastructure, etc. provided by IT
  • Quality: Solving IT problems effectively and efficiently
  • Cost: Getting the most out of an IT budget
  • Business: Enabling a company to perform its core functions and achieve its goals

Benefits of ITSM

The Generic IT and Business Benefits from ITSM

Imagine an awkward party where two groups, who don’t always get along, are hanging out. One group includes the IT professionals who serve a company. The other group includes the end users who depend on IT for services. End users could be employees of the company, partners, or customers. The silence is painful. Someone asks about the weather. No one is having that much fun. Then ITSM arrives and fixes all the awkwardness. Done right, it achieves the following benefits:

Benefits for IT:

  • Better understanding of what the business needs and why (i.e. “business alignment”)
  • Repeatable and scalable processes
  • Defined roles and responsibilities
  • Increased productivity
  • Satisfied end users with realistic expectations
  • Shorter gaps between detecting incidents and solving them
  • Prevention of IT issues before they happen
  • Ability to identify and address repeat problems
  • Analytics to measure and improve IT’s performance

Benefits for the Business:

  • IT can react quickly to change and innovation in the market
  • Better IT availability and performance means employees get more done
  • IT issues are less common, less impactful, and less costly
  • Employees know what services are available and how to use them
  • IT provides better service at a lower cost
  • Business complies with regulatory requirements no one wants to think about

When ITSM runs smoothly, that once-awkward party becomes one of those epic evenings that ought to be memorialized with stone tablets (or impulsive tattoos). It’s that good.

Tip: You can use these lists of benefits to build your case for investing in ITSM.

ITSM Framework

ITIL - the ITSM Best Practice Framework

The difference between IT and formalized ITSM is the underlying set of processes. ITSM organizations obsess over consistency, best practices, and reducing manual labor with automation. ITSM is about optimizing IT, and that’s where ITIL comes into play.

ITIL, formerly known as the “IT Infrastructure Library,” is the most popular approach to ITSM. We consider it an “ITSM Best Practice Framework” – i.e. a set of values, processes, and strategies for executing ITSM.

ITIL is about managing IT as a service, not as a messy collection of IT components. Some IT departments focus on stuff – hardware, infrastructure, apps, etc. ITIL departments focus on the relationship between IT and end users.

ITIL 2011, the latest edition, contains 26 ITSM processes. You take what your business needs and ignore those that don’t apply.

The best practice framework is covered in five books: Service Transition, Service Design, Service Transition, Service Operation, and Continual Service Improvement. They are ITSM’s Five Books of Moses – the closest thing we have to a ITSM bible.

You guessed right: These are not beach reads. The five ITIL books map the entire IT service lifecycle and go well beyond what we can and should cover here. The ITIL 2011 Glossary of Terms is an essential companion for these books and is available in multiple languages.

To many people’s surprise, ITIL emerged from the UK government, which became disillusioned with the way IT was delivered in the latter half of the 1980s. The Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), now called the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), was tasked with developing a framework for the efficient, and financially-responsible, use of IT resources. Soon enough, ITIL morphed into an ecosystem with consultancies, software, training, examinations, and membership organizations. Over 2 million people worldwide now have ITIL qualifications.

Think of ITIL as accumulated common sense. If it’s in the book, it’s been proven. Rather than create an ITSM framework from scratch, start with ITIL.

Difference between ITSM and ITIL

Differentiating between ITSM and ITIL

People new to ITSM and ITIL often confuse the two terms. Here’s an easy way to differentiate them: a horse is an animal, but not all animals are horses. Likewise, ITIL is a view on how to do ITSM, but not all ITSM is ITIL.

While ITIL is the gold standard in our opinion, other frameworks do exist:

  • BiSL – A framework used for information management
  • COBIT – A framework for the governance and management of enterprise IT
  • ISO/IEC 20000 – A service management system standard from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)
  • MOF – the Microsoft Operations Framework
  • Six Sigma – a methodology with tools and techniques for process improvement
  • TOGAF – an enterprise architecture methodology and framework
  • USMBOK – a series of publications and references for professionals working in service provider organizations

Organizations commonly mix-and-match frameworks. Towards that end, AXELOS, the company responsible for ITIL, offers a number of white papers that describe how to use ITIL in conjunction with other frameworks:

Note: As if this weren’t confusing enough, IT advisory and research firm Gartner has its own term: IT service support management (ITSSM). Don’t stress about the differences.

ITSM Process in ITIL

The Top ITIL Processes

ITIL 2011 has 26 ITSM processes split across the five ITIL areas (and books). Some are adopted more widely than others. The three most popular are:

Take a deep breath, have a stretch, and re-caffeinate. It’s time to meet the lingo.

The Most Popular ITSM and ITIL Processes Defined

The ITIL 2011 Glossary of Terms has formal definitions of every process. We’re not going to bore you with the full spiel on each. Below, we’ve listed what we consider the most important terms with links where you can find more information about each one:

Help Desk vs Service Desk

Differentiating Between IT Help Desk and Service Desk

Similar to the potential confusion between ITSM and ITIL, two other ITSM terms can mean different things to different people: “IT help desk” and “service desk.”

The term “IT help desk” dates to the 1980s and refers to the people that employees should contact for IT support or information. ITIL literature never mentions the IT help desk. The “service desk” is ITIL’s service-oriented term for roughly the same thing.

These days, corporate IT organizations tend to use “service desk” over “help desk.” Their end users, however, might call it the help desk anyway – hence, the confusion. (2012 HDI Practices and Salary Report, available to HDI members, has quantified usage of each term.)

If you would like to read more on this, Joe the IT Guy has written more on the distinction between the two terms in his Are You An IT Help Desk Or An IT Service Desk? blog.

The Takeaway

The Bottom Line on ITSM

This guide has illustrated that ITSM is a wide-ranging craft that can benefit your IT organization and company. Simply put:

  • ITSM increases the speed, cost-efficiency, and effectiveness of IT service
  • ITSM reduces IT incidents and prevents them from happening in the first place
  • By ensuring IT is available and performing, ITSM enables employees to be productive
  • When business must evolve, ITSM modernizes technology without disrupting work.
  • ITSM reduces risk by enforcing compliance with regulations

A powerful but less concrete benefit of ITSM is how it changes the relationship between IT and the business. Too often, IT’s raison d'être is doing damage control when things inevitably malfunction. With ITSM, the IT group becomes more of an internal service provider and consultant. It learns what the business seeks to achieve and strives to introduce technology that can bring those goals to fruition.

We threw a lot of ITSM terminology at you. As long as you remember that ITSM is the art of making a business run, you got the main takeaway.

If you read through to this point, kudos! You saved yourself from a long misadventure in the web’s labyrinth of IT jargon. Don’t be shy – get in touch if you have more questions about ITSM.

Further Reading