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Updated: Aug 23, 2023

ITSM vs. ITIL: Understanding the Difference

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In the world of IT management, acronyms are aplenty. Two of the most frequently encountered terms in the IT management industry are ITSM (Information Technology Service Management) and ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library).

At a glance, they might seem interchangeable. Yet, while they are closely related, they serve distinct functions within the same IT service domain.

This article on ITSM vs ITIL aims to shake away the confusion, shed light on their differences and how they contribute to effective IT operations.

What is Information Technology Service Management (ITSM)?

ITSM refers to the entirety of activities, policies, and processes that organizations use for designing, planning, delivering, operating, and controlling the IT systems and services offered to customers by creating a holistic service strategy.

Simply put, it’s how IT services are managed.

  • Objective: To ensure that IT services align with the needs of the business and its customers.

  • Scope: Covers a range of IT-related tasks, from managing incidents and problems to handling changes and releases in the IT environment.

Definition of ITSM

At its core, ITSM is about delivering and managing IT services that meet the current and evolving needs of business users, end-users, customer experience, and business as a whole.

It's not just about technology, hardware, or even software development; it's about aligning these IT services with the organization's business goals, ensuring maximum efficiency, reliability, and value.

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Key Components of ITSM

Service Lifecycle: ITSM operates on a lifecycle approach, where services go through stages like strategy, design, transition, operation, and continual improvement. This ensures that IT services remain aligned with business needs throughout their existence.

Processes: ITSM is built around a set of structured processes. Some of the most common ones include:

  • Incident Management: Managing and resolving unplanned interruptions or reductions in service quality.

  • Problem Management: Identifying and addressing the root causes of incidents to prevent recurrence.

  • Change Management: Ensuring that changes to IT services are made in a coordinated and controlled manner.

  • Service Request Management: Handling requests from users, which could range from password resets to software installations.

  • Service Level Management: Ensuring that all IT services meet the agreed-upon performance standards.

Service Desk: This is the primary point of contact for users when they have IT issues or requests. It's an essential component of ITSM as it facilitates communication between IT and its users.

Service Catalogue: A dynamic and organized database that provides a list of all IT services, often available through a portal where users can request or adjust the services they need.

Tools: Various software tools assist in implementing and maintaining ITSM practices. These tools help automate, track, and manage the ITSM processes.

Why ITSM Matters

  • Alignment with Business Requirements: ITSM ensures that IT services support core business processes and objectives, rather than just focusing on technical aspects. It emphasizes the value IT brings to the business.

  • Proactive Approach: With its structured processes, ITSM allows for the proactive identification and resolution of issues, minimizing disruptions and maintaining service quality.

  • Improved Customer Satisfaction: By meeting the needs of the end-users efficiently and effectively, ITSM helps in enhancing the satisfaction of both internal and external customers.

  • Resource Optimization: ITSM frameworks provide clarity on resource allocation, ensuring that the IT department utilizes its resources optimally, be it manpower, technology, or financial resources.

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Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL)

ITIL, on the other hand, is a set of practices for an effective information technology management, that focuses on aligning IT services with the needs of the business.

Think of ITIL as a book (it is) on how to implement best practice ITSM. While ITSM is the overarching discipline focused on the management and delivery of IT services to meet business needs, ITIL provides specific guidelines, processes, and procedures to achieve effective ITSM.

An ITIL strategy is a framework that provides detailed guidance on how to establish a service management capability.

  • Objective: To offer best practices, drawn from both public and private sectors, for IT service management.

  • Scope: The ITIL framework comprises a series of books that cover various IT management topics, each of which offers guidance for different ITSM processes and stages.

Definition of ITIL

ITIL is a set of practices for IT Service Management (ITSM) that focuses on the service design and aligning IT services with the needs of the business.

In essence, ITIL offers a comprehensive framework that organizations can adopt to ensure their IT services are delivered and managed effectively.

Key Components of ITIL framework

The Five Core Volumes

ITIL's body of knowledge is segmented into five core books, each focusing on a specific stage of the service lifecycle:

  1. Service Strategy: Understanding the market and determining customer needs to decide which services to offer.

  2. Service Design: Designing new IT services and changes and improvements to existing ones.

  3. Service Transition: Managing and controlling changes to services in the operational environment.

  4. Service Operation: Ensuring IT services are delivered efficiently and effectively.

  5. Continual Service Improvement (CSI): Learning from past successes and failures to create a plan of continual service improvement for.


ITIL V4, the latest iteration, shifted from processes to practices. These practices offer a more holistic and flexible view of the tasks and actions required for service management. Examples include:

  • Incident Management: Efficiently restoring service after an unplanned disruption.

  • Change Enablement: Making changes in a defined and predictable manner.

  • Problem Management: Identifying and managing the root cause of incidents.

  • Service Request Management: Handling routine user requests.

Guiding Principles

Introduced in ITIL V4, these principles help guide an organization's actions and decisions. They include concepts like "Start where you are," "Focus on value," and "Think and work holistically."


Ensuring that policies and strategy are actually implemented, and ensuring stakeholder needs, conditions, and options are evaluated to determine balanced, agreed-upon enterprise objectives to be achieved.

If you've paid attention to this point, you'll realise that these processes and principles broadly align with those discussed for ITSM.

Benefits of Adopting ITIL

Structured Approach: ITIL offers a structured and systematic approach to the management of services, reducing inconsistencies and uncertainties.

Improved Service Delivery: With its best practices, ITIL helps organizations deliver services that are more aligned with user needs and business objectives.

Cost Savings: By optimizing processes, ITIL can lead to reduced wastage and more efficient use of resources, translating to cost savings.

Enhanced Customer Satisfaction: ITIL processes ensure that IT services are reliable and of high quality, leading to increased customer satisfaction.

Key Differences of ITSM vs ITIL

While both ITIL and ITSM, pertain to the management and delivery of services, their specifics, scope, and application are distinct.


Let’s break down these key differences in greater detail:

Nature & Definition:

  • ITSM: A holistic approach, ITSM encapsulates how IT services are aligned with the business, ensuring these services are planned, designed, delivered, operated, and controlled effectively.

  • ITIL: A specific set of best practices within the larger scope of ITSM, the ITIL framework provides structured, detailed guidelines and processes to achieve ITSM’s goals.

Framework vs. Approach:

  • ITSM: It represents the broader approach or strategy for managing and delivering IT services. It can be seen as the philosophy behind managing IT as a service.

  • ITIL: As a framework, ITIL offers a defined set of practices and processes to operationalize the ITSM approach. Think of ITIL as a "recipe" or "blueprint" that can be followed to implement ITSM.

Flexibility & Adaptability:

  • ITSM: This is a discipline that can incorporate various methodologies and frameworks, making it highly adaptable to different organizational contexts. It can embrace frameworks like Agile, Lean, Six Sigma, and, of course, ITIL itself.

  • ITIL: Being a specific set of guidelines, ITIL is more standardized. However, while it's prescriptive, organizations can still adapt its recommendations to fit their unique environments.

Certification & Training:

  • ITSM: Given its broad nature, there are various certifications available in the ITSM domain, depending on the specific methodology or framework under consideration.

  • ITIL: ITIL has its own dedicated certification track. Professionals can progress from ITIL Foundation to Master levels, each deepening their knowledge and expertise in ITIL practices.

Origins & Evolution:

  • ITSM: ITSM, as a concept, has evolved with the recognition of IT as a service. As technologies and business needs have transformed over the years, so has the idea and approach of ITSM.

  • ITIL: ITIL has a more defined evolution, with several versions released over time. Each iteration refines and expands on the previous, ensuring it remains relevant to contemporary IT challenges and landscapes.

Scope & Application:

  • ITSM: Its scope is broad, encompassing any activity or process that falls under the management and delivery of IT services. This can include everything from management of incidents and service request handling to long-term strategy and infrastructure planning.

  • ITIL: With a narrower scope, ITIL specifically addresses how to implement and manage the ITSM approach, focusing on its own set of defined processes and practices.

Integration with Other Frameworks:

  • ITSM: Given its flexibility, ITSM can integrate or be complemented by various other IT frameworks or methodologies, depending on the organization's needs.

  • ITIL: While ITIL is comprehensive, some organizations integrate it with other frameworks like COBIT (for governance) or PRINCE2 (for project management) to enhance its applicability.

Key Features Comparison

The following summarises the key differences in a matrix.

ITSM vs ITIL feature comparison matrix

Which Should You Use?

It's not a matter of choosing one over the other. Rather, it's about understanding how they complement each other.

  • If your goal is to create a comprehensive strategy to manage your organization’s IT services, you’re looking at ITSM.

  • If you’re seeking a structured approach, backed by decades of industry insights, to go about implementing ITSM, then ITIL would be your go-to.

Understanding the Real Question

First and foremost, it’s essential to understand that pitting ITIL against ITSM might be framing the question incorrectly.

ITIL best practices are a framework within the broader discipline of ITSM. So, the real question isn't about choosing one over the other but understanding when and how to implement ITIL’s practices as a part of your ITSM strategy.

Key Considerations for Your Decision

Organizational Needs:

For Broader Strategy (ITSM): If you’re starting from scratch and trying to define how IT services should be managed and delivered to support business needs, you're looking at an ITSM approach.

For Specific Processes & Guidelines (ITIL): If you already have a general ITSM strategy but need a structured and proven set of best practices to streamline your service management, ITIL could be your answer.

Scale and Complexity:

Larger Organizations: Bigger entities often require a structured set of practices like ITIL to ensure consistency across various departments and services.

Smaller Organizations: They might find the entire ITIL framework overwhelming and could adopt select ITIL practices that suit their specific needs or even opt for a more lightweight ITSM framework.

Existing IT Infrastructure:

Legacy Systems: Organizations with entrenched legacy systems might benefit from ITIL’s structured approach to change and configuration management, aiding smoother transitions.

Modern, Agile Environments: While ITIL has adapted to modern IT environments, startups or businesses with highly agile frameworks might lean more towards an adaptable ITSM approach, cherry-picking relevant ITIL practices.

Training & Certification:

ITIL: Investing in ITIL means also investing in training and certification for the team, ensuring they are up-to-date with the framework's practices.

General ITSM: If your organization intends to blend various methodologies or customize heavily, general ITSM training might be more beneficial.

Integration with Other Frameworks:

ITIL: If you’re considering or already integrating other frameworks like COBIT or PRINCE2 project management, ITIL can seamlessly fit into this multi-framework approach.

General ITSM: If you're looking for a more flexible, tailor-made approach, a broader ITSM strategy with elements from various frameworks (including ITIL) can be designed.

Service Strategy Recommendations

  1. Start with ITSM: Begin by establishing a clear ITSM strategy that aligns IT services with business objectives. Define what you want to achieve, whether it's better service delivery, improved customer satisfaction, or streamlined operations.

  2. Incorporate ITIL as Needed: Once you have a clear strategy, consider ITIL as a toolset to help you achieve those objectives. Adopt ITIL practices that align with your goals and integrate well into your organization's culture and operational style. ITIL can be great at defining your operational services.

  3. Continuous Evaluation: The IT landscape is continually evolving. Periodically assess the effectiveness of your ITSM strategy and the relevance of the ITIL practices you’ve adopted through conti. Adapt, refine, and evolve as necessary.


ITSM and ITIL, while related, serve different functions within the realm of an IT organization. ITSM is the overarching approach to manage IT services, while ITIL provides a structured set of best practices to achieve that goal.

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By understanding their roles and how they can work together, organizations can better position themselves for IT success, address business risks and ensure their IT services align seamlessly with business needs.

There are a variety of software solutions and organisations that can help you and your IT management team with the project management and a successful, ITSM software and ITIL service management implementation. I'll exlore this in future blogs.


About the author

Hi, I'm Alan, and have been working within the IT sector for over 30 years.

For the last 15 years, I've focused on IT Governance, Information Security, Projects and Service Management across various styles of organisations and markets.

I hold a degree in Information Systems, ITIL Expert certificate, PRINCE2 Practitioner and CISMP (Information Security Management).


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