The Information Technology Infrastructure Library, or ITIL, is enjoying success within Internet-driven organizations despite ongoing criticism.
A set of best practices focused on IT service management, ITIL was originally designed to help companies create a framework to address common problems within information technology organizations (ITOs). It was first released as a set of guidebooks published by the Office of Government Commerce of the United Kingdom in the 1980s and has since established itself as a leading methodology worldwide.
The appeal of ITIL to CIOs is that it brings structure to IT processes and governs the human element of technology. Because process is the most difficult thing to change in IT, documenting and standardizing processes is critical to creating high-quality ITOs and adding value to business clients.
ITIL has been criticized as being too generalized, incomplete, and too complicated. Yet, according to a 2008 survey by Dimension Data, more than 50 percent of ITOs worldwide have implemented some form of ITIL. However, a much smaller percentage (well under 20 percent) consider themselves “ITIL practitioners.”
What does this all mean? Is ITIL an essential methodology for ITOs? Or is it overkill?
Herb Cabral, an executive in Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)’s outsourcing division, has been an IT practitioner for decades, working in user, consulting, and vendor organizations. He told me, “We live and die by ITIL; it’s a way of life. ITIL allows us to take charge of process and ride it to a solution.” Like many ITOs, Cabral’s services groups primarily use ITIL to deal with incidents and ultimately identify and remediate root cause problems.
As an example, Cabral cited a situation where the ITO experienced numerous automatic server re-boots (ASRs), a highly disruptive event. Fingers were pointing at the service providers, application vendors, server teams, etc. HP’s ITIL framework guided the group through a resolution that included stakeholders coming together regularly to identify their piece of the problem in order to solve the issue. The process lives on today. ASRs are extremely rare, and overall the ITO gets high marks from the client.
Dan Sheehan, CIO of Dunkin’ Brands, told me his ITO is using ITIL, but only as a high-level framework to help govern processes, controls, and who is responsible for what actions. Sheehan said, “We use other sources to add to the framework and then create what is missing that we believe is necessary to execute our processes.”
This is a common theme among IT practitioners. ITIL is by design not prescriptive and, as such, lacks action plans that are specific to a particular business. But there is a robust ecosystem of vendors, consultants, service organizations, and ITOs able to apply the concepts and develop their own systems precisely because ITIL is flexible. Though ITIL is criticized for being too general, the fact that ITOs add incremental value to the framework speaks to the elegance of its design.
There are gaps, of course. “ITIL is a good baseline blueprint/tool for anyone wanting to assess their in-house infrastructure management practices… But like any tool, if one does not know what they are doing they can hurt themselves. So my opinion is use it as a baseline and apply the principles and practices appropriate for your organization. It is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself,” states Omer Perra, principal of Perra Systems International and former CIO of Aetna International and Joseph E Seagram.
Will ITIL wane as the Internet and cloud bring a higher level of abstraction? Yes and no. Organizations that outsource IT should let the service provider worry about process standardization and focus on their businesses. But service providers and “Internal Cloud Operators” will, I predict, find ITIL-like frameworks even more critical to the management of IT complexity.
— David Vellante spent 15 years at IDC and is a founder of The Wikibon Project. He can be reached on Twitter at @dvellante.