ITSM vs ITIL: What's the Difference?

If your organization wants a better understanding of how it currently provides IT support, it is crucial to understand the difference between ITSM vs ITIL (Information Technology Management System vs Information Technology Infrastructure Library). In short, ITSM describes the entire set of processes an organization uses to manage its IT services for customers, whereas ITIL is one specific ITSM framework.

The Definition of ITSM

ITSM stands for IT Service Management and refers to the process of managing IT operational services. ITSM describes how an organization facilitates IT service delivery, including the management of all resources and employees involved in providing it – such as IT administrators, service providers, vendors, and customers. ITSM covers several key tactical IT concepts, including but not limited to the operation of an IT service desk (including helpdesk functionality).

Some of the guiding principles of ITSM include:

  • How a particular organization’s IT services should work.
  • The organization’s overall vision for its IT services.
  • The format of the organization’s IT services.

Because ITSM is the collection of actions and policies designed to plan, execute, and manage all the IT services available to stakeholders, a fundamental goal of any IT department is (or should be) to deliver the highest level of customer satisfaction possible while also doing so in a way that is functionally effective and financially efficient.

Easy, right?

Now, let’s see how ITIL fits into this definition.

The Definition of ITIL

ITIL stands for Information Technology Infrastructure Library. As mentioned, it is a set of specific functions for IT service management that focus on marrying IT services with business needs. ITIL is an essential, standard practice framework for ITSM, and implementing ITIL ideas can help you work more effectively by allowing an organization to maximize enterprise value through the use of technology.

First developed in the 1980s by the British government’s Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), ITIL has evolved from a collection of over 30 books to a condensed group of 7 books that outline the latest iterations of the framework. The latest version, ITIL 4, reflects the widespread migration of businesses across many industries to cloud-based and digital technologies. As such, it emphasizes:

  • The integration of IT into the overall business structure and company culture
  • Cross-department collaboration
  • Customer feedback

The ITIL strategy is the most widely used set of principles for treating your company as a customer and providing services in a way that delivers the best results. Its latest iteration can be thought of as an embrace of business agility in IT.

ITSM describes how a given organization manages its IT services, whereas ITIL is a framework for ITSM that is made up of specific processes and guidelines for delivering IT services.

What is the Difference Between ITSM and ITIL?

IT Service Management and ITIL  are related concepts in the field of information technology management, but they serve different purposes and have distinct characteristics.

ITSM is a broad term that refers to the management of IT services to meet the needs of an organization and its users. As mentioned above, ITSM focuses on delivering IT services efficiently and effectively, ensuring that IT processes align with business objectives. This approach includes various methodologies, frameworks and best practices that help organizations manage their IT infrastructure and support their end users.

ITIL, on the other hand, is a specific framework within the ITSM domain. It is a widely recognized and adopted set of best practices for IT Service Management. ITIL provides a structured approach to managing IT services through a series of processes and functions, such as service strategy, service design, service transition, service operation and continual service improvement.

In summary, the main differences between ITSM and ITIL are:

  1. Scope: ITSM is a broader term that encompasses various methodologies, frameworks, and best practices for managing IT services, while ITIL is a specific framework within ITSM.
  2. Purpose: ITSM focuses on aligning IT processes with business objectives, whereas ITIL provides a structured approach to managing IT services through a series of processes and functions.
  3. Flexibility: ITSM allows organizations to choose from or combine multiple frameworks and methodologies, while ITIL is a more prescriptive framework with specific guidelines and processes.

A useful analogy would be the concept of project management and the various project management methodologies available. While project management describes the standardization of processes any given organization uses to manage its projects, methodologies such as Agile and Waterfall prescribe their own specific frameworks (i.e., specific processes and guidelines) for managing projects in particular ways.

Overall, ITSM and ITIL are complementary concepts, with ITIL being one of the most popular frameworks used in ITSM practices. By adopting ITIL within an ITSM strategy, organizations can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their IT service delivery, ultimately benefiting their end-users and business operations.

ITIL Classification Definitions

As with any new process, it’s essential to clearly define the nomenclature that will be used as part of your ITSM culture. When implementing ITIL, the following definitions are used:

Incident – An unplanned interruption to an IT service or a reduction in the quality of an IT service. Failure of a configuration item that has not yet impacted one or more services is also an incident. For example, the failure of one disk from a mirror set.

Major Incident – An event that significantly affects a business or organization, and demands a response beyond the routine incident management process. A major incident is an incident that is either defined in the major incident procedure or which:

  • Affects, or has the potential to affect services or systems that are critical to the business
  • Has a significant effect on the reputation, legal compliance, regulation or security of the business/organization.

Problem – The cause of one or more incidents. The cause is not usually known when a problem record is created, and the problem management process is responsible for further investigation.

Change – the addition, modification or removal of anything that could affect IT services. This includes all IT services, configuration items, processes, documentation, etc.

Release – A collection of hardware or software documentation, processes or other components required to implement one or more approved changes to IT services. The contents of each release are managed, tested, and deployed as a single entity.​

Service Request – A request from a user for information, advice, a standard change or access to an IT service. For example, to reset a password, or to provide traditional IT services for a new user. Service requests are usually handled by a service desk and do not require a Request for Change (RFC) to be submitted.

Implementing the ITIL Framework

ITIL can be thought of as the process of building ITSM within the organization in a way that tailors IT services to the organization’s particular needs.

As with many things, the availability of resources is a limiting factor when it comes to IT Service Management. Even with the demand for IT services skyrocketing across the board, ITIL allows you to overcome the resource constraints that are holding you back while also delivering the type of user experience your customers expect.

For a full understanding of the ITIL framework, the ITIL Glossary provides an overview of the implementation, management, and quality of IT services that meet the needs of a company.

Understanding the relationship between ITSM vs. ITIL is indispensable when defining both short and long-term goals for an organization’s IT Service Management. IT services geared to the needs of the company can produce untold results, particularly as companies across industries migrate to a digital landscape.

And the ITSM tool you select to help run your IT services plays a crucial role in the success of your IT operations.

Whatever ITSM vendor you choose, you should have the ability to be as ITIL aligned as you need depending on your IT maturity. Many organizations implement ITIL to ensure they have a common vocabulary and methodology surrounding request fulfillment and incident response – both within IT and outside IT when using Enterprise Service Management (ESM).

Check out these customer stories to see how organizations are embracing ITSM systems to support their ITIL initiatives: 

Interested in learning more about ITIL best practices? Read 4 ITIL Best Practices to Revive Your Service Management.

This article was originally published in May 2020 and has been updated with new information.

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