ITIL in the Channel – Crucial or Irrelevant?

ITIL™, once known as the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, forms the core of a popular framework by which some larger companies structure their internal IT services. Consisting of two dozen functions or processes and over a hundred named ‘roles’ for staff involved in running it, ITIL is complex in itself – it is made more complex still by being surrounded by an overall set of principles known as ‘IT Service Management’ (ITSM). Any student of ITIL will rapidly conclude that it is designed by and principally for internal IT providing services to its own users, chiefly in larger companies and public sector organisations. So is it relevant to the provider of external support or managed services, collectively referred to as ‘The Channel‘?

ITIL Relevance

The short answer is “Yes”. That said, the reasons for its relevance in the channel are more commercial than organisational. A requirement that the supplier have ITIL qualifications is common on Invitations to Tender (ITT), so to increase ticks in boxes, some of your staff may need to have attended at least the Foundation Course.

Another reason stems from perhaps ITIL’s greatest hit, namely the imposition of a common vocabulary on IT Services provision. It is essential to know what an ‘Incident’ is for example; and particularly that only under certain procedural circumstances may you use the word ‘Problem’ when referring to a difficulty with your computer (by the way, an ‘Incident’ means computer won’t work properly and a ‘Problem’ is repeated incidents requiring root-cause analysis).

Furthermore, ITIL has brought discipline to IT Support provision where once only support staff reactivity and goodwill may have prevailed. I have no doubt, for instance, that ‘Change Management’ is a great idea; and ‘Release Management‘ is so useful it should be compulsory.

ITIL Police

But what about internally? If you are providing services to an ITIL-based customer, does that mean you too have to be operating under the ITIL framework? This is much less clear, because ITIL itself emphasises that its recommendations are strictly non-prescriptive. Deeper still, the question of how the ITIL-compliant company builds ITIL processes into its own way of working is a matter for the company itself. There are no ITIL police testing whether a company or its Managed Services Provider are doing things the ITIL way (or at least not unless the ITIL instance has been enshrined under ISO 20000, which is rarely the case). It’s up to you how you and your customer do ITIL. It may be enough that you both simply use the same service-management jargon.

This lack of prescription is one of ITIL’s many Achilles’s Heels and as weaknesses go, it’s a doosie. There is no measurement in ITIL whatsoever – you’d think that was kind of essential for any form of informed management decision making, but it’s not there. ITIL has no stated recommendations for performance. It says there should be service levels, but it does not and cannot say at what level they should be set. ITIL has no way even of benchmarking itself, so it cannot prove that it is better than any other way of running IT, despite its well-publicized claim to be ‘best practice’.

Best Practice?

That claim is a potentially major let-down. Companies hoping that ITIL will tell them how to do their jobs better may be surprised to find that often, it doesn’t. For example, according to figures gathered by my own consultancy practice, ITIL has coexisted with a 35% decline in second-line technical productivity over the past decade. And where ITIL does recommend, some of its ideas are dangerously out of date, such as having a mixed-skill-level call-centre take all sorts of enquiries and spray them around IT specialists, wasting time and money while lengthening fix times.

Thoughtfully-designed user support can always outperform mediocre structures by sizeable margins. ITIL does not cover how IT Support should be run, does not deal with issues like productivity, turnaround times, customer service and staff performance. You may run IT Support your way, with or without ITIL being present. There is a lot of scope for the organized Managed Service Provider to leave his customer’s internal support provision in the dust.

Upshot is, be aware of ITIL, for the sake of dovetailing with your customer. Understand it so you can see how it might impede him and give you an opportunity for upselling services. But take its proclamations with caution and above all, don’t chain yourself to its inherent inefficiencies and silo practices.

To go deeper, I provide training catered specifically for IT Support professionals in the channel, working for vendors, MSPs, VARs etc. Click here for details.