Is this ITIL’s last gasp?

For any service management framework or approach to remain relevant, their core focus must be to help shift and reorient organizations away from systems-centric or even service-centric operating models to customer-centric ones.

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You probably missed it, but earlier this month something significant took place. Its significance is less about what happened, but rather because of what didn’t.

At FUSION 17, one of the industry’s largest IT Service Management conferences (produced by itSMF USA and HDI), AXELOS announced its planned update of ITIL in 2018.

And the industry gave a collective shrug.

According to AXELOS, owner of the framework, ITIL is “the most widely accepted approach to IT service management in the world.” The company reports that there are millions of worldwide practitioners and that it used by the vast majority of large organizations to help guide and direct their IT operations.

So you would have expected the news that the company will update the framework to be met with lots of press and industry chatter. But as you probably guessed, it was not.

The reason for the lack of interest is the same reason that the company is updating it: ITIL appears to be rapidly reaching the point of irrelevance in a dynamic, agile world that looks very different from the decades-ago world in which it was originally created.

New architectural models, new management approaches and the broader digital transformation of organizations seem to have rendered ITIL a relic of the past.

Still, the substantial investments that organizations around the world have made in certifications, the vast number of technology vendors that have been built up around the framework and the large network of consultants and training companies would suggest that this framework will not pass quietly into the night.

But will this update be enough to keep it from falling into the trench of irrelevance or will this be ITIL’s last gasp?

The fight for relevance in a changing world

During the announcement, AXELOS’ Chief Product Officer Margo Leach acknowledged the need for ITIL to evolve to keep pace with the times, while arguing for its continued relevance.

“The core principals of ITIL are valid and remain critical to enabling businesses to transform and scale,” Leach stated. “But we need to add an additional focus to the core of ITIL: speed-to-market and agility — that is a business’s ability to respond to commercial threats, market demands and market opportunities.”

The company further acknowledged that other approaches, such as DevOps, are already addressing these very issues. “The new ITIL must include practical and explicit guidance on how to incorporate the principles of new contemporary ways of working,” Leach said.

The rapid ascent of cloud-based technologies, new approaches such as DevOps and the entrenchment of agile methodologies have challenged many of the seemingly rigid and bureaucratic methods often associated with ITIL.

As a result, and in spite of their otherwise significant investments in the framework in the form of both training and tooling, many organizations are now putting their future-investment focus elsewhere.

The updating of ITIL, therefore, should come as no real surprise, in spite of the fact the company had claimed several years ago that there would be no further updates to the framework. Nevertheless, ITIL’s perceived lack of relevance has also translated into a loss of stature as evidenced by the arrival of a competing service management approach and certification program, called VeriSM.

Also announced earlier this month, VeriSM claims to represent a modern approach: ‘Service Management for the digital age.’ While there is little information available about the organization’s model at this time, the number of ITSM industry leaders and organizations supporting it speaks, at the very least, to the industry’s recognition that the broader service management space is losing mindshare and risks irrelevance.

Digital transformation drives a change in focus

What I fear is that both the forthcoming ITIL update and the new VeriSM approach miss the real point of what is happening. As I wrote about recently, digital transformation is not actually about technology or applying it in some particular way. It’s about the transformation of business and operating models and a fundamental shift in power away from the organization and to the customer.

As such, the organizing paradigm for the organization must shift away from optimization and efficiency and towards the customer experience and enablement throughout the customer journey. The problem is that the predominant focus of ITIL and service management within organizations has been on the efficiency and optimization of operations (IT or otherwise).

Moreover, traditional ITSM adoptions have largely assumed linear process progressions. Today’s self-service, customer-centric world, however, creates an abundance of asynchronous and asymmetrical customer interactions with the organization and the technology stack that must support them.

The net result is a framework — and an entire industry sector — that is increasingly out-of-touch with the real-world needs of the organizations they support.

As I spend time talking to business and IT executives about the challenges they face and the strategies they are employing to respond to them, there is little focus on increasing efficiency and optimization — the traditional value drivers of ITSM.

The focus today is all about agility, adaptability and in enhancing the customer experience to create competitive market advantage — drivers that AXELOS correctly identified. While efficiency remains an everyday concern, organizations are turning to cloud-based services and automation — and their existing investments in ITSM — to maintain operational optimization.

For ITIL, VeriSM or any other service management framework or approach to remain relevant, therefore, their core focus must be to help shift and reorient organizations away from systems-centric or even service-centric operating models to customer-centric ones.

While true-blue ITSM practitioners will argue that this has always been its philosophical center — and I won’t disagree — it’s time that we recognize that, in practice, this is not the role that service management has played. If ITIL is to remain relevant, that will have to change.

[Disclosure: I am a past president of itSMF USA.]

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