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ITIL vs. ITSM: What’s the difference?

Building – and maintaining – efficient IT services is no easy task. Frameworks such as ITIL offer a guiding light when creating an IT Service Management function, but does that make them the same thing? And, if not, what’s the difference?

The strength of your IT services relies heavily on the framework they’re built on. Without a clearly documented approach to delivering and managing services, you’ll likely struggle to deliver them efficiently or consistently.

That’s where ITIL comes in. It’s a well-tested and widely-adopted set of principles and practices to help you build an effective IT Service Management (ITSM) solution.

However, it’s not uncommon to hear the two terms being used interchangeably – or even incorrectly – which can lead to a lot of confusion about the role each plays in the management of your IT, and the relationship between them.

Let’s explore both ITSM and ITIL, helping you understand what they mean, what they’re used for and how ITIL can benefit your ITSM approach.

What’s the difference between ITSM and ITIL?

We’ll start with a high-level summary of each to quickly understand the difference.

ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library): In its simplest form, ITIL is a set of documents that provide guidance on best practices for delivering and managing IT services. It’s designed to help organisations increase efficiency whilst reducing service management costs.

ITSM (IT Service Management): Sometimes mistaken for a software solution, ITSM is actually about the people, processes and technologies involved in delivering IT services. It’s a strategic approach for designing, delivering, managing and improving the way IT is used in your organisation.

So, the difference between ITSM and ITIL is that ITSM is the actual practice of implementing and delivering your IT services whereas ITIL is a framework for how to go about it.

Or, to put it another way, if ITSM was a piece of flat-pack furniture, ITIL would be the instruction manual on how to build it.

What are the principles of ITIL?

Originally created in the 1980s by the UK government’s Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency, the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) was designed out of a need to standardise the way organisations adopted and used digital technologies.

Consisting of 30 volumes at publication, ITIL has been reviewed, updated and consolidated over subsequent versions to make it more accessible and affordable.

The current version, ITIL 4, was released in February 2019 and moved to a more value-focused approach rather than the process-driven iterations that came before it.

This focus on value now shapes the seven key principles of ITIL:

  1. Focus on value
  2. Start where you are
  3. Progress iteratively with feedback
  4. Collaborate and promote visibility
  5. Think and work holistically
  6. Keep it simple and practical
  7. Optimise and automate

In 2005, ITIL’s practices were incorporated into ISO 20000, the international standard that describes best practices for ITSM. As such, it’s been widely used and adopted as a framework to support organisations building out an ITSM function.

So much so, that ServiceNow’s market-leading ITSM product is heavily based on the principles of ITIL – using ITIL terminology such as ‘Incident’, ‘Problem’, ‘Change’, ‘Configuration Item (CI)’, ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Configuration Management Database’.

How does ITIL feed into ITSM?

A fundamental goal of ITSM is to deliver the highest level of customer satisfaction whilst being effective and financially efficient. So you can see how that would marry well with the value-focused principles of ITIL.

The ITIL framework covers all phases of the ITSM lifecycle. Its processes are documented in five stages:

  1. Service Strategy: The planning and preparation before service provision.
  2. Service Design: The technical design and requirements from provisioning to management.
  3. Service Transition: Covers service transitions, from launch to change and commissioning.
  4. Service Operation: Outlines the service desk operation and its related activities.
  5. Continual Service Improvement: Covers how to review, document and implement improvements.

Taken together, these five areas offer a comprehensive ‘how to’ guide to help you create an effective ITSM function.

You can then apply ITIL guidance to build out the following ITSM processes:

  • Service Catalogue
  • Incident management
  • Problem management
  • Change management
  • Asset management
  • Policy and procedure management
  • Reports and dashboards

ITIL is an ideal framework for ITSM as it enables you to keep your business and IT in line with each other, as well as regularly analyse your service level and capacity to create solutions that meet your customer or user needs.

Take your organisation to the next level with ServiceNow ITSM.

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Benefits of using ITIL for ITSM

The reason behind ITIL’s popularity is that it offers several benefits to help your IT services run better and deliver more value whilst cutting excess and ensuring efficient performance and spending.

Used correctly, ITIL will help you gain:

  • Better alignment between your IT and business
  • Cost-effective processes to manage service demand
  • Better business risk management and reduced service disruption
  • Improved asset utilisation and tracking
  • Consistent and repeatable processes
  • Significantly reduced time to implementation

There’s an additional cost benefit in that, by following an established framework, you’ll likely implement your services correctly the first time, which saves having to fix or rework them later.

ITIL alternatives

ITSM and ITIL are both concepts of IT management and complement each other well, but they serve different purposes and have different characteristics. If ITSM is the ‘what’, ITIL is the ‘how’ – but it’s not the only ‘how’ available to you.

Other frameworks you might use include:

  • COBIT (Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies): Focused on risk management and governance, COBIT can be applied to ITSM but also to almost any area of your business.
  • FitSM: Though not published or managed by any established standards organisation, FitSM offers a set of standards better suited to a lightweight ITSM implementation.
  • MOF (Microsoft Operations Framework): MOF offers technical guidance and support for achieving system reliability, availability and management of IT solutions built with Microsoft products and technologies.
  • Agile and DevOps: Not as comprehensive as ITIL, but Agile and DevOps methodologies are useful for a tried-and-tested approach to structuring the development and delivery of your IT services (ITIL 4 aligns with Agile and DevOps practices now as standard).

When creating an ITSM solution, you’re free to choose from or combine multiple frameworks and methodologies, depending on your needs. So ITSM as a concept is quite fluid, whereas ITIL is more prescriptive with very specific guidelines and processes that you can adhere to.


Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the two terms and their intertwined nature.

ITSM is the overall approach to delivering your IT services, focusing on value, people, technology and processes and ITIL is the handbook of how to build your IT services to a high-performing industry-accepted standard.

To find out how you can jump-start your IT services with ServiceNow ITSM and ITIL, get in touch to arrange a free consultation where we’ll answer your questions and show you effective ITSM in action.

Key takeaways

  • ITIL is an industry-recognised framework for building an efficient IT Service Management (ITSM) function.
  • ITIL is focused on the ‘how’ of creating, delivering and managing IT services whereas ITSM is broader and covers the organisation-specific people, technology and processes involved.
  • ITIL has been a best-practice framework for ITSM for nearly 50 years, and has evolved several times to keep up with modern IT requirements. The current version is ITIL 4.
  • Using ITIL to support your ITSM will enable you to deliver reliable, cost-effective IT services that match up with your overall business objectives and aims.
  • ITIL isn’t the only framework available to you, and, depending on your needs, you can combine ITIL with other methodologies to find the best fit.
  • ServiceNow’s market-leading ITSM product draws heavily on the principles of ITIL to help accelerate implementation.

FlyForm is an elite ServiceNow partner, renowned for its expertise in integrating and optimizing ServiceNow solutions for businesses. Leveraging their deep knowledge of the platform, FlyForm can tailor ServiceNow implementations to fit unique business requirements, ensuring a seamless digital transformation journey.

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By Marcus Gentle
19th Jun 2023