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Stop Calling ITIL Best Practice

ITIL is not “best practice” and we damage ITIL by calling it that.

Best Practice is one of those terms whose meaning gets gradually eroded by
constant misuse, especially by vendors, analysts and consultants. The
phrase gains currency and pretty soon everyone has it. By now, “best
practice” has been so abused it only means “we wrote down a way of doing
it”, but ITIL is two decades old so let us assume that when ITIL was first
created they really meant Best Practice.

OGC defines Best Practice as “A proven Activity or Process that has been
successfully used by multiple Organisations. ITIL is an example of Best
Practice.” This strikes the IT Skeptic as evasive: what has this to do with
“best”? The itSMF defines Best Practice as “an industry accepted way of
doing something, that works” and “the best identified approach to a situation
based upon observation from effective organisations in similar business
circumstances”. This is better: at least there is some element of relative
merit to their second definition. Wikipedia (the Skeptic’s favourite source of
the zeitgeist) defines Best Practice as “a management idea which asserts that
there is a technique, method, process, activity, incentive or reward that is
more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique,
method, process, etc.” Yes, that is what “best” means, isn’t it? “More …
than any other …” [By the way, Encyclopaedia Britannica is still thrashing
around in the last century somewhere and hasn’t had a go at defining it yet].

Calling something “Best Practice” is (or was) a brave statement. It led with
the chin. “This is superlative. There is no better way of doing it.” So why is
OGC’s definition nowadays so wimpy? Because ITIL isn’t Best Practice. It is
Good Practice. It is Generally Accepted Practice. But it isn’t Best.

We have good arguments why ITIL is not the ultimate approach to IT
• It is still improving. Optimal process does not need a Refresh.
• We could not know if it were the Best, as we have no objective measure of
goodness of ITIL against any other approach..
• ITIL is not based on any rigorous research so there is no proof of
goodness (see previous pint) and there can be no evidence-based process
of optimising it, as there has been with say CMM.
• ITIL is created by individuals, acting as a committee. Although they are
highly knowledgeable, experienced professionals, they are still people with
opinions and personal biases, and they still need to reach a consensus
among several diverse positions. It is hard to imagine this process ever
reaching the Best result. Something about design of camels comes to
• Even if ITIL were “Best”, it is Best as defined by a narrow group of people
drawn from large corporations and major government bodies in the
Western European culture. Although the last thing the Skeptic wants to
sound like is a Post-Modernist, in cases like this they have a point.
Despite OGC’s claims [ITIL Small Scale Implementation, TSO, 2006], ITIL

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does not fit well in smaller organisations and has almost nothing to say to
small business. The great experiment is underway right now to see how it
goes in the Asian cultures.

It is fair to ask at this point whether it even matters if ITIL is Best or not.
Any standard is a good thing. ITIL has brought benefits to the industry by
getting people talking in common agreed terms [so don’t let any vendor mess
with them]. It helps new employees get up to speed quicker. It helps
auditors, trainers, contractors and suppliers understand the business. It
reduces ambiguities and disputes in service provider contracts.

In fact ITIL could be Awful Practice and it still would have yielded benefits
just from getting people to think about their own processes and rework them.
For many organisations, it is the first time they have ever formally considered
their processes at all. The IT Skeptic contends that many of the benefits
attributed to ITIL would have been delivered if Astrology had been used as
the process framework instead.

So perhaps the fact it is not Best is not so important. What does matter is
that we are calling it Best Practice when it isn’t. More than merely annoying,
this misuse of the term endangers Service Management projects.

Firstly, it sets expectations with any literal-minded executive that the project
will yield best-possible results, that the resulting IT department will be
unbeatably competitive.

Also, calling it Best Practice encourages a mindset that there is no alternative
to ITIL, that no sane person would consider anything but the Best. ITIL is
not the best choice in all situations. Good alternatives include:

• MOF (Microsoft Operating Framework).
o MOF is broader than ITIL so parts of MOF may well be adopted to
cover other areas such as Risk Management or Security.
o Microsoft have done some nice work integrating the development
and production sides of the IT house (which ITIL only partially
addresses with Application Management), by linking MOF with
Microsoft Solutions Framework (MSF).
o MOF goes deeper into technical detail of managing Microsoft
technologies – it addresses the “how” - so it provides a useful
reference for those tasked with implementing process on Windows,
Active Directory, SQL-Server etc…
o It is free to download (ITIL books cost hundreds of dollars).

• FITS (Framework for ICT Technical Support). FITS was developed to
provide simplified IT processes for schools in the UK. The result is a
nicely-simplified version of ITIL that has some uptake among smaller IT
environments. FITS is also free to download, it is clean and straight-
forward, and it probably scales up to mid-size organisations.

• Do nothing: if IT ain’t broke don’t fix IT. No business case, no project.

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• … and it is only a matter of time before someone writes an analogous set
of ISO/IEC 20000 books that are broader and better than ITIL.

Finally, calling it Best Practice verges on being pompous and arrogant. Some
people will be alienated and turn away from a set of practice that is really
quite good, and deserving of their attention.

There is far too much misuse of terms in our industry. This is as good a
place as any to call a halt. So the next time someone is prattling on about
Best Practice in general, or ITIL as Best Practice in particular, ask them how
they know it is best, who says so, and by what frame of reference. When
you talk about ITIL, call it Good Practice or Generally Accepted Practice: call
it what it is.

The IT Skeptic is an ITIL professional and active itSMF member who, for
obvious reasons, prefers to remain anonymous. More thoughts from the IT
Skeptic can be found at The IT Skeptic can be contacted

© Copyright Two Hills Ltd, 2007.

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