An Introduction to the ITIL Processes

The ITIL concept provides a framework to successfully navigate the complexities of technology implementation. Learn about ITIL and how its processes can help your organization.

Updated June 26, 2020

Business success in today’s digital world depends on technology adoption. But that adoption isn’t without challenges.

Let’s say you want to implement payroll management software. That kind of project involves an array of factors. Most people focus on the cost and features included in the software, but many other elements require consideration.

How well do the existing features match up to current business needs? How is the system updated with new capabilities? What’s the process for dealing with technical issues? How will the platform incorporate future tax law changes?

Any business implementing technology requires a framework to address the myriad details of doing so. The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) delivers the solution.

An overview of the history and evolution of ITIL

The ITIL model defines best practices for delivering IT services to customers. By services, we’re talking about any technology-related item, such as the implementation of IT help desk software or setting up technical support for users. At its core, ITIL seeks to more closely align IT operations with business needs.

The concept began in the United Kingdom during the 1980s. The UK government, seeing a growing dependence on IT, established ITIL to standardize IT management practices.

The Information Technology Infrastructure Library started quite literally as a library of 30 books. As the need for standardized IT processes spread across the world, IT organizations adopted ITIL throughout the 1990s, and it became the de facto standard for IT management.

Since its inception, ITIL underwent several revisions. As ITIL evolved over time, its 30 books condensed down to five stages. The current ITIL version 4 was introduced in 2019, incorporating modern IT trends such as agile methodologies and DevOps teams responsible for software development support.

ITIL vs. ITSM: What's the difference?

ITIL is often confused with Information Technology Service Management (ITSM). ITSM is the concept of delivering IT services to customers. If your IT team provides support to a group of internal or external customers, you’re using ITSM.

Within ITSM rests the ITIL process framework, which provides the details for how to deliver ITSM. This subtlety separates ITIL and ITSM. The difference is so small that some people use the terms ITIL and ITSM interchangeably.

The Five ITIL process stages

Five stages provide structure to the ITIL processes and procedures, and inform how to apply them to your IT organization. These stages represent steps in the ITIL lifecycle. Your IT team progresses through the processes in each stage to execute IT service management.

ITIL lifecycle diagram

The ITIL processes are housed in these five stages. Source: axelos.com

Let’s dive into the processes in the context of these stages, which is the approach used in ITIL version 3, to understand how each process fits into the overall ITIL framework.

1. Service strategy

Every IT service implementation begins at the service strategy stage. Before your IT team can deliver services to your customers, you must create a plan and strategize how to reach your objectives. The service strategy stage outlines how to do this.

The ITIL service strategy guides you through development of your approach by walking you through the components impacting your strategy. For example, the service strategy helps you answer these questions:

  • Who is your customer? What are their business objectives?
  • What are the services required to meet the customer’s needs?
  • What resources are required to develop those services?
  • How do you define the successful delivery of those services?
  • What is the cost involved? The value of the customer solution must be on par with the cost.

Determining the needs of your customers allows you to bring together a portfolio of IT services to meet those needs. The ITIL service strategy helps you define your approach through the processes within five components.

These five represent required pieces to complete your service strategy, and consist of the following.

  • Business relationship management (BRM): Similar to customer relationship management, BRM comprises the set of principles and skills required to maintain a strong relationship between the service provider (the IT team or company delivering the service) and their business partners.
  • Demand management: The demand management piece encompasses understanding and influencing customer demand for IT services. It also covers anticipating future demand by looking at customer profiles and business activity patterns.
  • Service portfolio management: This component houses a comprehensive list of services offered to customers, the pipeline of products and services planned for the future, and any that are retired.
  • Financial management: Understanding and managing the costs associated with delivery of your IT service is a key piece of the strategy, and must be incorporated into your plan.
  • Strategy management: This comprises building and implementing the strategy for the IT service offerings and what functionality needs to be built based on customer needs, industry standards, and competition.

2. Service design

The ITIL service design processes address the components required to create the actual IT service, whether that’s an entirely new service or changes in an existing one. The implementation of an IT service consists of the following 11 components.

  • Design coordination: The processes in design coordination outline components comprising the creation of new or revised IT services, from building technical plans to assigning staff to work on the project.
  • Service catalog management: The service catalog contains the list of services available and visible to customers. It’s a subset of the service portfolio. While the service portfolio is a comprehensive list of all services, the service catalog is limited to only the options a customer can currently choose from. Service catalog management outlines oversight of this catalog.
  • Risk management: The risk management component is about creating a plan to manage risk in the implementation of technology. For instance, what steps are required to ensure the system does not experience down time?
  • Compliance management: Every technology implementation must meet relevant legal requirements and the policies of an organization. This ITIL area addresses these needs.
  • Service level management: Every technical solution must define and convey to customers measurable levels of performance and reliability. These are captured in a service level agreement (SLA) document, and customers must agree to these SLAs.
  • Capacity management: The capacity of IT services, including infrastructure and technical support, should line up with the necessary resources to fulfill the SLA commitments.
  • Availability management: The availability of IT services involves a technology’s ability to perform its function when required. Availability is defined in the SLAs, and availability management outlines the steps required to meet these obligations.
  • IT service continuity management (ITSCM): ITSCM focuses on implementing processes to enable IT services to consistently meet its SLAs. ITSCM goes hand-in-hand with risk, capacity, and availability management to ensure IT services can recover from disasters or other incidents that impact those services.
  • Information security management: Every IT service must factor in security measures, such as data confidentiality, while allowing authorized personnel to access that data.
  • Supplier management: This piece of the service design ensures all contracts with third-party suppliers are fulfilled and meet business requirements. It details supplier evaluation as well as contract negotiations, renewals, and terminations.
  • Architecture management: The construction of IT services requires an architecture that provides room for those services to evolve over time. The architecture management component covers future development of the adopted technology.

3. Service transition

You’ve defined your strategy and designed your new IT service; now it’s time to build it. The service transition piece is all about the processes required to build, test, and roll out your IT service. The service transition also covers how to make changes in a coordinated manner after the new service launches.

The service transition stage contains these seven processes.

  • Change management: The goal of the change management process is to implement changes to IT services while minimizing disruptions to those services and its customers.
  • Change evaluation: Before introducing major changes to IT services, those changes must undergo an evaluation. The goal of the change evaluation process is to assess the impact of changes before deciding if those changes are allowed to proceed.
  • IT project management: Any major launch of IT services requires transition planning and support. The IT project management piece involves planning and coordinating the rollout of technology.
  • Release and deployment: The implementation of technology requires planning, scheduling, and controlling the transition of that technology across test environments and out to the real world where customers engage with it. The release and deployment processes outline how to do this.
  • Service validation and testing: Once changes are live, the IT service must be checked to ensure it meets customer expectations and that IT operations are successfully supporting the new or revised service.
  • Service asset and configuration management: IT services require maintaining certain technical information and configuration parameters for the services to function properly. Service asset and configuration management processes cover this area.
  • Knowledge management: This component involves capturing the information required to successfully implement IT services so that subsequent changes can apply this information to minimize risk and increase efficiency.

4. Service operation

After the rollout of an IT service, ITIL processes shift the focus to maintaining the service in the service operation stage. The following nine processes encompass this stage.

  • Event management: This process entails monitoring the IT service, capturing any technical occurrences (called events), and categorizing them so that the team can respond with the appropriate action. For instance, if capacity limits are being reached, this event is captured and a notification is sent to the appropriate team to address this incident and resolve it before customers are impacted.
  • Incident management: When an incident takes place that disrupts use of the IT service, this set of processes are applied to return the service to full operation.
  • Request fulfillment: Customers using the service require the ability to submit requests, such as resetting a forgotten password. Request fulfillment outlines these processes.
  • Access management: This set of processes involves granting access to the IT service for new users while ensuring unauthorized users are blocked.
  • Problem management: The problem management processes are about preventing incidents by analyzing trends, past incidents, and other data points.
  • IT operations management: This component is considered a function in ITIL nomenclature, as it’s not just a set of processes but also a team within IT that is responsible for monitoring the IT service and the infrastructure behind it to ensure customers are receiving value.
  • Service desk: Another ITIL function, the service desk is sometimes referred to as a help desk. This is the team that serves as the communication channel between customers using the IT service and the provider delivering that service. This group is responsible for addressing requests and responding to incidents.
  • Application management: Applications are the software tools within an IT service. A separate team is responsible for monitoring and addressing incidents that arise within these applications, and making changes in those applications.
  • Technical management: Technical support for IT infrastructure falls under technical management. Like the application management group, this team handles incident resolution and changes specifically for infrastructure, such as the servers used to deliver the IT service.

5. Continual service improvement

This ITIL stage revolves around continually improving IT services. Improvements include learning from past successes and failures as well as raising the effectiveness and efficiency of IT processes and systems.

Seven steps comprise the process of continual improvement, and serve as a feedback loop to other ITIL pieces.

  • Identify and define improvement strategies, such as through a gap analysis.
  • Define quantifiable performance benchmarks and other indicators of success, such as the metrics described in the SLAs.
  • Collect data to validate that performance goals are being met.
  • Process the data to prepare it for analysis.
  • Analyze the data to determine where you are at.
  • Present and use the information from the analysis to communicate to stakeholders.
  • Use this information to define and implement improvements.

A last word about ITIL processes

The ITIL framework continues to evolve along with the technology and methods employed by IT teams. For example, last year’s ITIL version 4 attempts a less-prescriptive approach in its advice to allow IT teams more flexibility in how they apply ITIL process management to their organization.

Regardless of how you tackle ITIL implementation, use its core goal of providing value to customers as your guiding principle to deliver consistent, high-quality IT services.

The Motley Fool has a Disclosure Policy. The Author and/or The Motley Fool may have an interest in companies mentioned.