by Sarah K. White

What is ITSM? Managing IT to serve business needs

Aug 15, 2019
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As technology becomes integral to nearly every business, companies are looking for ways to incorporate IT service into overall business needs. ITSM helps businesses build structure around the lifecycle of IT services, from creation to management and upkeep.

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ITSM definition

IT service management (ITSM) is a set of policies, processes and procedures for managing the implementation, improvement and support of customer-oriented IT services. Unlike other IT management practices that focus on hardware, network or systems, ITSM aims to consistently improve IT customer service in alignment with business goals.

ITSM encompasses multiple IT management frameworks that can apply to centralized and de-centralized systems. There are multiple frameworks that fall under the ITSM discipline, and some address unique industry-specific IT needs, including those in healthcare, government or technology. Businesses using ITSM consider IT as a service, with a focus on delivering valuable services to customers, rather than a department that manages technology.

What does ITSM do for your business?

ITSM offers various frameworks for businesses to create management standards around IT services and customer service practices. It encompasses quality management, software engineering, change management, information security management as well as popular management framework standards like ISO 9000, ITIL and ISO/IEC.

It isn’t so much what ITSM can do, but what businesses can do with the frameworks that live within the ITSM discipline. They are designed to bring organization and structure to service-oriented IT departments, aligning IT goals with business needs and goals. It’s used as a guide to help businesses effectively align IT goals and business goals, especially for companies that are customer-focused. If your company has already embraced change management, you’re already on the path to building an ITSM environment – it’s all about improvement and growth in processes, services, products and software.


Although they are sometimes used interchangeably, ITSM and ITIL aren’t the same thing — ITIL is one of the most popular frameworks within the ITSM discipline, and it has helped inform and inspire other ITSM frameworks. ITSM can be supported with the ITIL methodology, which is designed to guide organizations through the ITSM implementation.

The ITIL 4 framework, the updated version of ITIL v3 released earlier this year, is relatively flexible, so it can adapt to a variety of business goals. Businesses can pick and choose operational processes that are the most relevant to their goals. IT as a service is heavily emphasized in the ITIL v3 and updated ITIL 4 frameworks, and as such, it’s tightly woven into the foundation of ITSM. It’s less about ITSM vs ITIL and more about how ITIL supports ITSM and allows businesses to embrace and implement streamlined service management.

ITSM service desk

One primary discipline that falls under ITSM is the service desk, which is defined in the ITIL manual. ITIL views service desks as a Single Point of Contact (SPOC), which can streamline communication within an organization or business unit. Service desks act as a hub for users and customers to contact well-trained staff to manage issues in an organized and coordinated manner.

The service desk is viewed as a primary IT function in ITSM to provide a SPOC to accommodate and manage users, IT staff, customers and IT objectives. An IT service desk, call center or help desk is the central hub for incident tickets, service requests, questions, internal issues, client and customer service and more. As such, it’s importance is heavily emphasized in the ITSM discipline as well as the ITIL framework.

ITSM frameworks

ITIL might be the most commonly used ITSM framework, but there are plenty of other ITSM frameworks businesses can use. Some of these frameworks are targeted at specific industries or business needs — such as healthcare, government and telecommunications. If your business has technology needs that are unique to your industry, you might do well to find a framework that addresses your specific challenges.

Some popular frameworks are:

  • IT Infrastructure Library 4 (ITIL 4): a framework of best practices for delivering IT services
  • Business Process Framework (eTOM): a framework designed for telecommunications service providers
  • COBIT (Control Objectives for information and Related Technologies): an IT governance framework
  • FitSM: a simplified, streamlined service management framework typically aligned with ISO/IEC 20000
  • ISO/IEC 20000: considered the international standard for IT service management and delivery
  • Six Sigma: developed by Motorola with a focus on using data analysis to minimize product and service flaws
  • MOF (Microsoft Operations Framework): a compilation of 23 documents that guide businesses through the entire lifecycle of an IT service, including creation, implementation and cost-effective management with an emphasis on Microsoft technologies
  • TOGAF (The Open Group Architecture Framwork): created and managed by The Open Group as a way to provide businesses with structure when implementing technology, with a focus on software

Related reading: What is Lean Six Sigma? Blending methodologies to reduce waste and improve efficiency

ITSM processes

IT has always had processes that were specific to technology, but to integrate IT objectives with business objectives, ITSM shifts the language used to describe these IT processes to be less IT-specific. This helps to reinforce the idea that service-IT is at the heart of the business.

  • Process Focus: shifting IT from focusing on technology to thinking about processes on a business-level
  • Prevention: viewed as “firefighting” in IT, but addressed as preventative on the business side
  • Proactive: shifting IT practices to a proactive, rather than reactive, strategy
  • Customers: viewing users as customers
  • Distributed, sourced: changing from traditional centralized IT with everything completed in-house
  • Integrated, enterprise-wide: shifting from a siloed IT department to a department with less isolation
  • Repeatable, accountable: creating structure instead of “ad hoc” practices by standardizing processes
  • Formal best practices: establishing processes rather than working off informal policies so everyone is on the same page
  • Business perspective: moving away from thinking about IT-specific needs to full-scale business needs
  • Service orientation: shifting from traditional “operational specific” IT initiatives to a focus on customer and client service

ITSM tools

You’ll find plenty of software suites that are aimed at supporting entire ITSM processes to handle ticketing, service, incidents and any upgrades, changes or problems. Typically, these suites are marketed as either ITSM or ITIL solutions and focus on supporting IT workflow management. These ITSM software suites contain everything businesses need to work within the framework of their choic, and offer flexibility for businesses to deploy all the features they need.

There are over 100 tools that claim to support ITSM and ITIL; only some are certified. Software vendors can gain approval from Axelos to use the trademark and an “ITIL process compliant logo,” according to Axelos’ website, as long as the software meets the functional requirements to support ITIL.

Top ITSM tools include:

  • Atlassian Jira Service Desk
  • BMC Remedyforce
  • Cherwell Service Management
  • Freshworks Freshservice
  • Ivanti Service Manager
  • ManageEngine ServiceDesk Plus
  • SolarWinds Service Desk
  • ServiceNow
  • SolarWinds Web Help Desk
  • Spiceworks
  • TOPdesk
  • Zendesk

For a deeper dive into each of these, read our roundup of the top 12 ITSM tools.

ITSM certification

You can earn a certification in the ITSM discipline, and there are options for corporate-level training and certification, as well as for individuals. But before you find the correct certification program, you need to know the framework you plan to use. While you can be certified in ITSM as a discipline, most programs are based on a specific framework. And you can also get certified in specific ITSM tools, like SysAid and ServiceNow.

More on ITSM certifications: