Hopefully by now the whole world and its dog have realized that ITIL is a. not a standard to be complied with and b. something that should be “adopted and adapted” as needed. In other words, if your company only needs ITIL, or IT service management (ITSM), processes to support service desk operations (or a help desk) then they will only need a small number of ITIL’s 26 processes and four functions.

For me it’s a frequent state of intrigue as to which processes are commonly adopted, which aren’t, and why. And to support my “limited process adoption” view, I’ll often throw out the following opinion:

“Most organizations do incident management and do it well. Many do change too, reasonably well. Fewer still do problem management, or should I say ‘they pretend to do problem management.’ Many started with service level management but failed to see it through. Others might have started with configuration management, and a CMDB, but found it too difficult. Then, more recently, people have been investing in self-service technology but have struggled with end-user adoption. And knowledge management, while popular again, is still a difficult nut to crack.”

I could go on in terms of other ITIL processes – such as financial management and capacity management, say – but outside of those already mentioned adoption levels quickly drop off.

This might be okay

The recommended “adopt and adapt” approach encourages people to only use what they need to use. It seems sensible but why don’t more companies need to use more than the commonly-adopted ITIL processes?

My pet theory is because they don’t have to. That while they need to have some form of IT support capability – a help desk, service desk, or support center – they don’t necessarily need to do financial management or capacity management, say. They can live without it, with the only downside that they are probably spending more on IT than they should be – but who is ever going to find out? (And yes, I’m being a little facetious here).

Plus, of course, there will be different factors that dictate the need for additional processes. For instance, the size of a company and the industry it’s in will most likely mean more ITIL processes are employed due to: the magnitude of IT spend, the complexity of the IT estate, and the need for greater governance. Then we have other factors such as geographic differences or the company’s level of IT and ITSM maturity.

So can we ever know true ITIL process adoption levels?

I don’t think we can ever be 100% sure of anything purporting to be a true picture of adoption levels – well not without a massive global survey that slices by geography, size, and industry. The smaller scale surveys that are limited to “members” are sadly biased.

For instance, if we take the results of a tier-one analyst firm client survey as gospel, then we are ignoring the fact that the clients are most likely going to be the largest of global organizations, US-based, and certainly not representative of all global organizations.

Or if we look at an industry body survey, the results will reflect the constituent make up of that body. For instance, solely IT support professionals (help desk and service desk staff) who potentially work in a spectrum of SMB through to enterprise companies, across a wide range of industries, but in a single geographic region. Please appreciate that I’m not knocking either of these survey types, I love using them, but we should be conscious of the potential survey bias and relevance.

Alternatively, if we look at an ITSM tool vendor survey, it’s always going to be biased based on customer mix. In the main SMB and lower mid-market versus upper mid-market and enterprise organizations, say. This is not as clear cut as needing a help desk tool versus an ITSM tool (and the associated processes) because other factors come into play, but a bias will still probably be present. SaaS ITSM tool vendors in particular can also see which customers are using which modules or capabilities. For instance, I blogged the following statistics three years ago:

  • Incident management – 92%
  • CMDB – 82%
  • Change management – 68%
  • Service catalog – 64%
  • Knowledge management – 55%
  • Problem management – 40%

Here the customers were, in the main, enterprise and upper mid-market and thus more likely to be using more ITIL processes. And, just as importantly, using a tool module doesn’t necessarily mean that a customer would say they are doing the related process (or vice versa). For instance, with the above stats, the CMDB use is very high and I’d bet most wouldn’t say they do configuration management – instead solely using the CMDB, or more specifically the data it holds, to support other ITSM processes. Then change and knowledge management and the service catalog capabilities might be provided by an existing third-party tool with no desire to stop their use.

So is there an answer?

In terms of stating global process adoption across all the organizations that would benefit from ITIL and ITSM processes – not a chance without a massive global survey and the aforementioned ability to slice and dice.

However, if we want to look just at mid-market organizations in advanced ITIL-adoption countries – such as the USA, Netherlands, Australia, and the UK – then we would probably see the most-adopted ITIL processes/capabilities looking something like:

  1. Incident management – 95%. Why? Because industry surveys consistently place incident management as the most-adopted process at between 90-98% (although some surveys are skewed with this ITIL terminology not always being equated to ticketing and “fix when broke”).
  2. Change management – 80%. It’s more difficult to pinpoint, but change management is usually sitting second behind incident management with some semblance of formal change control required, and thus in place.
  3. Self-service – 80%. Both SDI and HDI surveys now place self-service, which can range from a single to many capabilities, in the 80-percent decile due to its recent rapid growth in adoption.
  4. Knowledge management – 80%. This can be for IT or end users, or both and has also seen strong growth on the back of offering knowledge management as an end-user self-service capability.
  5. Problem management – 60%. Probably a little generous but if an organization says it uses problem management techniques following a major incident then it uses problem management, proactive or not.

Then after problem management there is a steep drop off in process use down to single digits (remember that these are just the top five of the 26 ITIL processes). Please note that these figures aren’t from a single survey, or a scientific amalgamation of surveys, but are instead merely my simple, gut-feel blending of stats that I’ve seen over the years.

You might question why service fulfilment isn’t in the list – for me it’s too hard to pin down given that the latest HDI research shows what many already know, that 27% of respondents don’t distinguish between incidents and service requests, and another 26% distinguish between them but don’t measure them separately. (Source: 2016 Technical Support Practices & Salary Report.)

So what do you think? Do my figures feel right relative to your experiences of ITIL process adoption? Please let me know in the comments.

  • Rob

    Interesting article Stephen, with I’ve shared internally on our community site. We are an enterprise group (My team delivers ITSM practice and the SAAS tool to territory or business units), but our customer base ranges from Enterprise down to small in regards to IT support (France has about 400 IT staff, Singapore has about 3 with all shapes and sizes in between!). Therefore the difference in both adoption rates and maturity is just a wide, making centralised and standard function and process almost impossible. But we continue to grind the wheel 🙂

    • Stephen Mann

      Thanks for the comment. It’s so easy to forget that the geographical differences in ITSM and ITIL adoption can be massive.

  • Great article. It reminds me of a book that I read – B4B – which describes a continuum of services that a software provider can deliver. Tier 1 – ship a CD, Tier 2 – install it, Tier 3 – Assist customer with being successful and Tier 4 – Only charge customers based on their outcomes using your SW. Seeing stats like this makes me think that NMS/ITOM/ITSM provides that can step in and ensure that customers optimize those numbers have an excellent shot of moving the market….and what are the chances that HP, IBM and such will be the ones doing that?

    • Stephen Mann

      I think we are due to see quite a shake up in the ITSM tool market with the LANDESK + HEAT = Ivanti move surprising a lot of people.

  • Randy Tangco

    The incident, problem, change, knowledge, self-service request are the most common service operation capabilities that are being adopted by most organizations. How come we don’t see other organizations grow beyond this as as growing their service strategy capabilities adoption.

    • Stephen Mann

      Hi Randy

      I think it’s a combination of things including the service operation focus of ITIL foundation training, the fact that service desk capabilities are nearly always needed, and people not having the time nor resources to extend to other capabilities.