Published on August 18th, 201028
ITIL – impractical, unhelpful and doomed?
Noel Bruton explains why ITIL’s days are numbered, and introduces a series of articles which cover everything about effective IT support that is missing from the ITIL books.
The news as reported on ServiceDesk360 about how the government copyright owners of ITIL have insisted that the framework’s original developers, the Office of Government Commerce, has no remit to develop it further. Let us not underestimate the significance of how this effectively kicks one of ITIL’s legs away. Adding this to ITIL Version 3’s faltering start and its decision to abandon altogether any idea of specific practice instruction at the user support operational level, and the ITIL edifice is beginning to wobble like a cheap wardrobe.
So I’ve found myself using this summer, a time of respite and retreat before it all kicks off again in September, to look back on what ITIL actually gave us. I warn you now, this is going to be a rant, so let me state where I’m coming from. My sole interest in this is IT user support. It’s where I’ve spent the last thirty-odd years of my professional life and I’ve written four books about it. By ‘IT user support’ I mean that suite of organisational philosophies and mechanisms by which we keep IT users working effectively with the tools that manufacturers and developers foist upon them, especially when the tools appear not to be functioning as they should. Throughout, I am keeping that in focus – IT support specifically, not IT in general and not even ‘T Service Management’ (whatever that is – it seems to be so many things).
IT support better off
The main reason ITIL annoys me so much is because it lurched, gauche, ignorant and ill-conceived, into my beloved arena of IT user support and proceeded to screw it up, increase its costs, misdirect its managers, dilute its goals, confuse its staff, hinder its progress and hamper its developers. I sat on the fence for a while, to my shame in hindsight. But now, after ITIL’s eight years of lumbering glory (yes, it is only that few), I am utterly convinced that IT support would be better off without ITIL’s unfocused banality. And I am deeply glad that we are now seeing the back of it, so we can now get on with managing IT support instead of just renaming and reorganising it. Get out of the way, ITIL – there’s real support management to be done.
ITIL is only popular nowadays because of the UK’s helpdesk software vendors. ITIL was nowhere before they hijacked it for the purely commercial end of inventing a stamp of official approval for their products – and its own history suggests that it would still be nowhere if they had not done so. ITIL has only been in the popular consciousness since 2002, even though it existed for a decade and a half of relative obscurity and stagnation before that. And even now, ITIL continues its endeavours to make itself impracticable to most organisations, while the software companies who came to depend on ITIL look increasingly bereft of technological strategy.
Also I call them ‘helpdesk’ software vendors for a reason – for that is what they were before we found ourselves replacing the helpdesk’s proven idea with the wasteful, misguided, excessively costly and underdeveloped, blunt instrument that is the ‘ITIL Servicedesk’, which seems to persist despite its own obsolescence. The software does largely what it always did, but market forces have changed the terminology.
ITIL deals at a higher level in IT service management than just IT support. In fact, it deals at a high and imprecise level in pretty much everything it even mentions, in order to make itself vaguely relevant to as many potential corporate customers as possible. It is deliberately short on detail (all together now, “ITIL is not prescriptive”, yawn) and what little there ever was in ITIL specifically about how to run IT support, was abandoned along with ITIL Version 2. In practice, once IT service managers have decided to call the heart of IT support the ‘Servicedesk’, ITIL is thereafter pretty much useless to IT support’s first- and second-line managers, offering virtually nothing in the way of practical guidance.
It’s not all bad. From the IT support perspective, there is in ITIL at least one area of success I cannot dispute. This is the fostering of the idea of a supreme authority to which all IT must defer when making alterations to the computer estate, so that those who need to know, get to know, and the ill effects of these alterations can thus be minimised. IT support managers don’t implement this idea – it has to happen further up the hierarchy because it affects so many areas of IT – but support teams benefit from it, so long as the systems owners abide by it.
ITIL calls this feature ‘change management’. Good idea; terrible, inaccurate, ill thought-out and misleading name. As a term, change Management was used in general management by such luminaries as Charles Handy, Tom Peters and Peter Drucker for a much larger concept than mere technology upgrades, for years before Thatcherism coughed up ITIL. Couldn’t they have called it something more relevant and less confusing? Or perhaps the data processing-based civil servants who drew up the original ITIL hadn’t read the works of leading management thinkers?
So, thank ITIL for change, problem and configuration management, all have some merit, but conceptually, they also harbour flaws of idealism. They are anachronistic, coming as they do from an era of mainframe-dominated comparative stability.
I started to write down a list of the crucially important things that ITIL ought to deal with to have any real credibility in IT support management. These are concepts that ITIL should have covered but amazingly still has not, despite governmental design, consultation with some seriously clever people, two and a half upgrades and a quarter of a century of what at least one ITIL website laughably calls ‘evolution’. I soon found that my list was too big for the page and could run to several articles.
So that’s what I’m going to do. Over the next few months, I intend to offer a series of articles. Each one of these will deal with just one area of IT support management without which IT support cannot function effectively and which ITIL, for whatever reason, has only barely acknowledged or in many cases, ignored. But they won’t be just rants – they will contain specifics on how support managers can plug these exasperating gaps. So if your site is ITIL, don’t worry – you can use these techniques without negatively impacting your ITIL implementation, so long as you don’t mind improving your service, staff job satisfaction, management information, operational efficiency, business value and customer satisfaction.
I could have called the series ‘Why ITIL is useless to IT support managers’, but instead I’ll call it ‘Crucial guidance missing from ITIL’. By the way – I anticipate there will be those who say: “that’s mentioned in ITIL’s supporting literature”. Of course it is. But then what isn’t? The boundaries of the ITIL bandwagon are as nebulous as you want them to be. I will gladly defer to anybody who can show me where the ITIL core is as specific as I will be about these issues. I don’t expect to have to make that deference.
Noel Bruton is a UK-based consultant and trainer who advises companies on the practicalities of IT support management and improvement and the author of best-selling books on all aspects of IT service delivery. See more of his work at www.noelbruton.com.