Demystifying ITSM vs. ITIL: Understanding the Similarities and Differences

Understand how ITSM & ITIL are essential to IT Service Management excellence.
We often refer to IT Service Management (ITSM) and IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL®) in the IT support domain. While they are closely related, it's essential to understand their characteristics, similarities, and differences. Understanding the relationship between ITSM and ITIL helps organizations choose the right support approach, tailor their practices, and leverage industry best practices to enhance IT service delivery. Spoiler alert! Neither one stands alone. They were meant for each other.
Before we get into the technical definitions, differences and overlaps between ITIL and ITSM, let's use the restaurant business as an analogy. ITSM is the restaurant operation; ITIL is a renowned cookbook.
The restaurant (ITSM) is the entire operation — it involves not just cooking, but also menu planning, sourcing ingredients, serving customers, maintaining the dining area and kitchen, and so forth. It's all about providing a comprehensive service to the customers (the organization), from the moment they walk in the door to the moment they leave.
Now, to ensure that this service is delivered efficiently and successfully, the restaurant might refer to a renowned cookbook (ITIL). This cookbook doesn't tell the restaurant what dishes to make, but it offers best practices — recipes, techniques, presentation tips, etc. — that can guide the restaurant in providing a top-notch dining experience. The restaurant might not use every recipe, but the guidance helps shape the menu and the cooking techniques to ensure customer satisfaction.
Just as the restaurant could technically operate without the cookbook (though perhaps not as effectively), ITSM can exist without ITIL. However, the cookbook (ITIL) could never exist without the concept of the restaurant (ITSM). They are distinct concepts, but ITIL is designed to support and enhance ITSM.

Understanding IT Service Management (ITSM)

IT Service Management (ITSM) refers to a set of practices, policies, and processes designed to efficiently and effectively deliver IT (Information Technology) services to meet an organization's and its customers' needs. The primary goal of ITSM is to align IT services with the overall business objectives and improve the quality of IT service delivery.
Frameworks and standards such as ITSM practices often guide ITIL® (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), and COBIT (Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies) drives the frameworks and standards such as ITSM and ITIL.

ISO/IEC 20000 and ITSM

ISO/IEC 20000, often called ISO 20000, is the international standard for IT Service Management. Individuals may use ISO/IEC 20000 certifications to demonstrate their expertise in implementing and auditing IT Service Management systems.

The benefits of ISO 20000

ISO 20000 can help any organization benchmark its ITSM, improve its services, demonstrate an ability to meet customer requirements, and create a framework for independent assessment:
  • ISO 20000 may offer a competitive differentiation by demonstrating reliability and high-quality service.
  • Given that many public sector enterprises demand proof of ISO 20000 compliance from their IT service suppliers, it could open doors to important markets.
  • Assures clients that their service requirements meet an agreed level of quality.
  • Encourages a culture of continuous improvement by allowing service providers to track, evaluate, and compare their service management procedures and offerings against a set standard.
  • ISO 20000 compliance dives down the costs of conformance to many regulations, including the PCI DSS and Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX).
  • ISO 2000 standards help leverage ITIL Practices to optimize resources and practices.

Understanding ITIL

ITIL is a best-practice framework or set of best practices that guide ITSM.  ITIL does not prescribe what to do; it guides IT organizations in best practices.

ITIL is not equal to ISO 20000

It is important to note that ISO 20000 is a standard, while ITIL is a best practice, not a standard. ISO 20000 is for the business, while ITIL is for individuals.
How ITIL & ISO 20000 Fit Together

Best practices are meant to work together ITIL/COBIT/ISO 20000

Description Best Practices for IT Service Management Business Framework for Governance and Management of Enterprise IT International Standaard for IT Service Management Requirements
Market View ITIL's main focus is on internal IT practices. The latest version emphasizes the customer and value. COBIT's primary focus is on IT governance and IT competence. The latest version emphasizes enterprise IT, which has a broader scope than previous versions. ISO 20000 main focus is on Certification Achievement to demonstrate compliance with the international standard.
User Group International IT operation personnel IT audit and compliance personnel External IT service provider
Purpose Defining the Internal IT Service Management (ITSM) practices. Defining the audit and compliance requirements for IT. Demonstrating the organization meets international standards.

Examples of ISO 20000 standards and the corresponding ITIL best practice

ISO 20000 is an international standard that specifies the requirements for an organization's Information Technology Service Management (ITSM) system. It provides guidelines for establishing, implementing, maintaining, and improving IT Service Management processes within an organization. Here are some — by no means complete — examples of ISO 20000 standards and supporting ITIL Practices:
ISO Number ISO Definition Guidance Focus ITIL Practices
ISO 20000-1;2018 Part 1: Service Management system requirements. A core standard that outlines the requirements for an organization.
  • Strategy
  • Knowledge
  • Portfolio
  • Service Level
ISO 20000-2:2019 Part 2: Guidance on the application of Service Management systems. How to apply the requirements of ISO/IEC 20000-1 in the context of an organization's specific IT Service Management needs.
  • Architecture
  • Portfolio
  • Financial
  • Strategy
  • Continual Improvement
  • Service Design
ISO 20000-3:2019 Part 3: Advice on how to use ISO 20000-1 and define its scope. Defining the scope of the IT Service Management system and its applicability to different parts of an organization.
  • Strategy
  • Project
  • Relationship
  • Architecture
ISO 20000-4:2020 Part 4: Service Management system resilience. Ensuring the resilience of the IT Service Management system, allowing organizations to recover from incidents and maintain service continuity.
  • Incident
  • Problem
  • Continuity
  • Configuration
  • Risk
  • Financial
ISO 20000-5:2019 Part 5: Exemplar implementation plan for ISO 20000-1. This standard provides an exemplar implementation plan to help organizations effectively implement ISO/IEC 20000-1.
  • Strategy
  • Risk
  • Financial
  • Project
  • Change
  • Portfolio
  • Service Design
ISO 20000-6:2020 Part 6: Criteria for organizations that audit and certify service management systems. This standard sets out the requirements for bodies providing audit and certification of IT Service Management systems, ensuring consistent and reliable certification processes.
  • Continual Improvement
  • Strategy
  • Project
  • Change
  • Config
  • Service Level
  • Service Design
ISO 20000-7-2019 Part 7: Guidance on the integration and alignment of Service Management and system management. Guidance on integrating and aligning IT Service Management with other management systems, such as ISO 9001 (Quality Management) and ISO/IEC 27001 (Information Security Management).
  • Continual Improvement
  • Service Level
  • Strategy
  • Project
  • Change
  • Service Design
  • Business Analysis
These standards collectively form the ISO 20000 series, providing organizations with a framework to enhance the quality and efficiency of their IT Service Management practices, resulting in improved service delivery and customer satisfaction. There are 34 ITIL Practices to assist in ISO 20000 compliance.

Commonalities between ITSM and ITIL

ITSM and ITIL share several commonalities in their approach to IT Service Management:
  • They prioritize delivering high-quality services
  • They focus on customer satisfaction and continuous improvement
  • They advocate a practice-oriented approach
  • They emphasize alignment with business objectives
  • They promote a service lifecycle perspective
  • They support IT governance and compliance
Understanding these commonalities sets a strong foundation for organizations to implement ITSM and leverage ITIL Practices effectively to promote ITSM standards.

The shared objective of delivering high-quality IT services

ITSM and ITIL share a common goal of providing high-quality IT services that meet the needs and expectations of customers. They emphasize the importance of understanding customer requirements, ensuring service availability, and continuously improving service delivery processes.

A focus on customer satisfaction and continuous improvement

Customer satisfaction is a crucial driver for both ITSM and ITIL. They advocate for a customer-centric approach, actively engaging with users to gather feedback and incorporating it into service improvement initiatives. Additionally, both frameworks promote a culture of continuous improvement, encouraging organizations to regularly assess their processes and make necessary adjustments to enhance efficiency and effectiveness.

Emphasis on a practice-oriented approach and best practices

ITSM and ITIL highlight the significance of adopting a practice-oriented approach to manage IT services effectively. They provide guidelines and best practices for defining, implementing, and optimizing practices across the service lifecycle. By following these practices, organizations can streamline operations, enhance service quality, and ensure consistent delivery of IT services.

Alignment with business objectives and strategies

Both ITSM and ITIL recognize the purpose of IT. As the shortened name suggests, the goal is to provide the information the business requires to make timely and accurate business decisions and to ensure that the data is available, accurate, and protected.
ITSM and ITIL emphasize aligning IT services with the organization's business objectives and strategies. They stress the importance of understanding the business requirements and ensuring that IT services contribute to achieving those objectives. This alignment enables IT to act as a strategic partner to the business, supporting its growth and success.

Adoption of a service lifecycle approach

ITSM and ITIL frameworks promote a service lifecycle approach, which involves defining, designing, transitioning, operating, and improving IT services. This holistic perspective ensures that services are managed comprehensively from inception to retirement. It also facilitates better planning, risk management, and decision-making processes.
ITIL 4 introduced a four dimensions approach to service management. Together, they provide a comprehensive approach to service management, which is vital for facilitating value creation for consumers in the form of products and services:
  • Organization and people
  • Information and technology
  • Partners and suppliers
  • Value streams and processes

Support for IT governance and compliance

ITSM and ITIL frameworks provide guidance and support for IT governance and compliance requirements. They emphasize the need for establishing controls, documenting policies and procedures, and ensuring adherence to regulatory standards. By following these practices, organizations can mitigate risks, enhance security, and maintain compliance with industry-specific regulations.

Differences between ITSM and ITIL

While ITSM and ITIL are closely related, there are distinct differences between the two frameworks that organizations should understand. Exploring these differences helps determine which approach best suits their needs and goals.

Scope and breadth of coverage

ITSM focuses on the end-to-end delivery of IT services and includes various frameworks, methodologies, and practices. ITIL refers to best practices and guidelines for IT Service Management. ITIL provides detailed practices and recommendations for specific areas such as Incident Management, Change Enablement, and Service Level Management. ITIL never mandates but suggests following particular procedures to achieve what is best for the business and customers.

Relationship and dependency between ITIL and ITSM

ITIL is a subset of ITSM. It is a specific framework within the broader ITSM framework. ITIL provides clear guidelines and practices that organizations can adopt as part of their ITSM strategy. ITSM allows organizations to incorporate other frameworks or practices based on their requirements. For example, ISO 27001 is part of ISO 27000 family of standards that provides guidelines and best practices for information security management systems. ITIL does not prescribe which one to choose, only that a business should choose the one that fits their strategy and business requirements.

Flexibility and customization options

ITIL, being a well-defined framework, provides organizations with a structured approach to IT Service Management. It offers a standardized set of practices and policies that have proven effective in many organizations. However, this standardized approach may only sometimes align perfectly with the unique needs of every organization. ITSM, being a broader concept, allows organizations to customize and adapt their IT Service Management approach based on their specific requirements and organizational context.

Certification and training programs

ITIL has a well-established certification program providing individuals with credentials at different levels, such as ITIL Foundation, ITIL Managing Professional, ITIL Strategic Leader, and ITIL Master. These certifications validate the individual's understanding and knowledge of ITIL Practices.
On the other hand, ITSM (ISO 20000) certifications are typically broader in scope (i.e., external business audit), covering various aspects of IT Service Management beyond just ITIL. ITSM certifications often encompass a more comprehensive range of frameworks, methodologies, and best practices related to IT Service Management.

Focus on maturity and organizational readiness

ITSM frameworks often emphasize assessing an organization's IT Service Management maturity level and providing guidance on improving it. They focus on building a robust IT Service Management system that aligns with organizational goals and evolves. ITIL, within the ITSM context, guides organizations toward higher maturity levels by providing best practices for each stage of the service lifecycle.

The complementary nature of ITSM and ITIL

How ITIL aligns with ITSM principles

ITIL, as a specific framework within the broader concept of IT Service Management (ITSM), aligns closely with ITSM principles. ITIL provides detailed best practices and guidelines for various aspects of IT Service Management, such as Incident Management, Problem Management, Change Enablement, and Service Level Management. These Practices complement the broader ITSM framework by offering specific recommendations and processes that organizations can adopt to enhance their IT service delivery.

Leveraging ITIL within ITSM frameworks

Many organizations choose to incorporate ITIL Practices within their overall ITSM approach. By leveraging ITIL's best practices, organizations can benefit from the knowledge and experience accumulated through years of industry practice. ITIL provides a standardized set of 34 Practices and procedures that have proven effective in many organizations, enabling organizations to streamline their IT Service Management efforts and improve efficiency.
Organizations that have adopted ITSM frameworks and incorporated ITIL Practices have reported significant improvements in service quality, customer satisfaction, operational efficiency, and costs. These case studies highlight the value of combining the broader principles of ITSM with the specific guidelines and best practices offered by ITIL.
For example, an organization may implement an ITSM framework to establish a comprehensive service management system, defining practices, roles, and responsibilities across the service lifecycle. Within this framework, they can integrate ITIL Practices such as Incident Management, which provides standardized procedures for handling and resolving incidents promptly and effectively. Organizations can create a cohesive and efficient IT Service Management ecosystem by combining the broader ITSM principles with specific ITIL guidance.
The complementary nature of ITSM and ITIL allows organizations to benefit from the strengths of both approaches. ITSM provides a flexible framework that encompasses the entire IT Service Management landscape. At the same time, ITIL offers specific best practices and guidelines organizations can adopt to optimize their service management practices. By combining the two, organizations can create a robust and tailored IT Service Management strategy that aligns with their unique requirements, fosters continuous improvement, and ensures the delivery of high-quality IT services.
It is important to note that while ITIL offers valuable guidance, organizations can incorporate other frameworks or practices that align with their needs and goals. The ultimate goal is to create an IT Service Management approach that maximizes efficiency, meets customer expectations, and drives business success.

Choosing the right spproach: ITSM, ITIL, or both?

Factors to consider when selecting an IT management framework

When determining the most suitable approach for IT Service Management, organizations should consider various factors:
  1. Organizational goals and requirements: Assess the organization's specific goals, priorities, and needs. Consider factors such as the organization's size, industry regulations, and the complexity of IT infrastructure.
  2. Maturity level: Evaluate the organization's current IT Service Management practices maturity level. Determine whether there is a need for foundational practices or if the organization is ready for more advanced frameworks. There are 34 ITIL 4 Practices, all with specific organizational values. When determining maturity level, there are better options than avoiding some Practices.
  3. Resource availability: Consider resources, including budget, expertise, and time. Implementing a comprehensive IT Service Management framework requires investment and commitment, so assessing resource availability and planning is essential.
  4. Industry standards and compliance: Consider any industry-specific standards, regulations, or compliance requirements. Ensure that the chosen approach aligns with these standards and helps the organization meet its compliance obligations.

Industry-specific requirements and standards

Different industries may have specific requirements when it comes to IT Service Management. For example, the healthcare industry may have unique regulations regarding patient data privacy, while the financial sector may have stringent security and risk management standards. Organizations must consider these industry-specific requirements and choose an approach that can accommodate and support them effectively.

Tailoring ITSM and ITIL to meet organizational needs

Organizations often find value in adopting ITSM and ITIL, as they are complementary and can address different aspects of IT Service Management. Organizations can leverage the broader principles of ITSM to establish a comprehensive framework that aligns with their goals and requirements. They can then incorporate specific ITIL Practices that best fit their needs.
By tailoring ITSM and ITIL to meet organizational needs, organizations can create a customized approach that combines the flexibility of ITSM with the specific best practices offered by ITIL. This approach allows organizations to maximize the benefits of both frameworks and create a robust IT Service Management strategy.
It's important to understand that the choice between ITSM, ITIL, or a combination of both is not mutually exclusive. Organizations can start with one approach and gradually incorporate elements from the other as they mature and their needs evolve. Flexibility and adaptability are vital in selecting the right pathway for IT Service Management.
Ultimately, the right strategy depends on the organization's specific context, goals, and resources. Conducting a thorough assessment, involving stakeholders, and seeking expert guidance to make an informed decision is essential. The chosen approach should align with the organization's objectives, optimize service delivery, contribute to overall business success, and fully supported by senior management.

The future of ITSM and ITIL

Trends and emerging practices in IT Service Management

IT Service Management (ITSM) constantly evolves to keep pace with technological advancements and changing business needs. Several trends and emerging practices are shaping the future of ITSM:
  1. Automation and Artificial Intelligence (AI): Automation and AI technologies are gaining traction in ITSM. Intelligent automation can streamline routine tasks, improve service efficiency, and enhance the customer experience by enabling self-service options, intelligent routing, and predictive analytics.
  2. DevOps integration: DevOps practices, emphasizing collaboration and continuous integration and delivery, are becoming more integrated with ITSM. Integrating DevOps and ITSM enables organizations to achieve faster deployments, improved communication between development and operations teams, and more efficient incident resolution.
  3. Cloud-native ITSM: With the widespread adoption of cloud computing, organizations are embracing cloud-native ITSM solutions. Cloud-based ITSM platforms offer scalability, flexibility, and reduced infrastructure costs. They enable organizations to focus on service delivery rather than managing the underlying infrastructure.
  4. Shift towards customer experience: ITSM is increasingly emphasizing the customer experience. Organizations are adopting a customer-centric approach, leveraging technologies like service portals, chatbots, and personalized self-service options to enhance customer satisfaction and engagement.
  5. Shift-Left service support strategy: These organizations realize that costs go up and customer satisfaction goes down when escalating (i.e., Level 1 to Levels 2 and 3) incidents are the norm. Shift Left means levels 2 and 3 objectives are to support Level 1 (i.e., Service Desk) by increasing resolution through training, knowledge tools, self-help, and problem management reducing recurring incidents.

The evolving role of ITIL in the digital era

ITIL, one of the most recognized frameworks for ITSM, plays a significant role in the digital era. The future of ITIL involves:
  1. Integration with Agile and Lean practices: ITIL is adapting to the Agile and Lean methodologies prevalent in modern IT environments. Organizations leverage ITIL Practices, specifically the Project Management Practice, while adopting Agile and Lean principles to ensure flexibility, speed, and responsiveness in service delivery.
  2. Emphasis on value co-creation: ITIL is evolving to focus on value co-creation between IT and business stakeholders. It recognizes that IT is an enabler of business value and aims to align IT services with the strategic goals and outcomes of the organization.
  3. Incorporation of emerging technologies: ITIL incorporates AI, machine learning, and automation into its Practices. This integration enables organizations to leverage these technologies to optimize service management practices, improve decision-making, and enhance operational efficiency.
  4. Continuous improvement and feedback loops: The future of ITIL involves an increased emphasis on continual improvement. ITIL encourages organizations to establish feedback loops, gather insights, and use metrics and data-driven analysis to drive ongoing improvement in service quality and performance.

Integration with other frameworks and methodologies

As ITSM continues to evolve, there is a growing recognition of the need for integration between different frameworks and methodologies. ITIL easily integrates with frameworks such as COBIT (Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies), Lean IT, and Agile ITSM. This integration allows organizations to leverage the strengths of multiple frameworks, tailor their approach to specific needs, and create a comprehensive IT Service Management strategy.
By integrating ITIL with other frameworks and methodologies, organizations can benefit from each framework's best practices and guidance, resulting in a more holistic and practical IT Service Management approach.

Conclusion: Understanding ITSM and ITIL

Emerging technologies, customer-centricity, agility, and continuous improvement drive the future of ITSM and ITIL. As organizations embrace automation, cloud-native solutions, and a focus on customer experience, ITSM frameworks like ITIL adapt to incorporate these trends. The evolving role of ITIL involves integrating with Agile practices, emphasizing value co-creation, including emerging technologies, and promoting continuous improvement. Integration with other frameworks further enhances the adaptability and effectiveness of ITSM strategies in meeting the dynamic demands of the growing digital landscape.
Bart Barthold

About the Author

Bart Barthold

Bart Barthold is an independent senior ITIL instructor with years of experience in combining ITIL knowledge with practical expertise in running a world-class support organization. He has earned the certificate for the highest level of ITIL training - IT Service Manager, holds an MBA, and he has taught various ITIL certifications and hundreds of students since 2004.
Bart is known for his outstanding performance in IT service management and is a recipient of the Help Desk Institute's prestigious Team Excellence Award in 1998. He also finished second in 1997, making him one of the most decorated IT service managers in the industry.
Giva Authorship Team

About the Author

Giva Authorship Team

Our team of industry experts and luminaries is dedicated to sharing their insights and experiences in the areas of Information Technology, Customer Service, and Customer Experience. Comprised of senior and midlevel thought leaders, these professionals have garnered extensive expertise and recognition within their respective domains. Their collective knowledge and experience allow us to provide valuable content to our readers.
Our contributors have participated as thought leaders at industry events, teaching, mentoring, and contributing to the advancement of IT and customer experience practices. Their hands-on experience and strategic insights enable them to offer practical advice and solutions to challenges faced by organizations in IT service management and customer service.
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