Professionalism in ITSM – What Really Matters

Professionalism in ITSM

Let’s talk about professionalism in ITSM. We have a few qualifications and certifications in the IT service management (ITSM) industry, but these often only prove our textbook understanding and our ability to pass exams. The sheer quantity and structure of some of these qualifications can also make it extremely confusing. As a result, it can be difficult for individuals, employers, customers, and all involved in ITSM.

I can tell by the amount of professionalism discussion and activity, and the number of invitations I’ve received over the last couple of years to talk about this subject at conferences and seminars, that this is an area many are looking for help with.

  • Employers and recruitment agencies, and customers buying ITSM-related services (consultancy and training), would be helped if they had some standardized way of assessing the skills, experience, capability, and professional standing of individuals.
  • ITSM professionals, whether working in an operational environment, providing consultancy or training services, or any other aspect of service management, would benefit from the ability to demonstrate their professional standing, competency, and experience.

Professionalism in ITSM

Some argue about whether ITSM/service management is a profession. However, a common definition is that a professional is someone who gets paid – as simple as that! But I would hope that the majority of us (in the ITSM community) operate in a professional manner, striving to ensure that we act in an ethical and moral way.

If we want to be seen as professionals and be recognized in a similar way to other professions such as doctors, pilots, accountants, and lawyers, we need to demonstrate certain professionalism things. You wouldn’t be happy to fly in an airplane where the pilot has no practical flying experience to support the various desk-based courses and examinations they have successfully passed. Pilots have to show they can actually fly a plane by flying it under the guidance of an instructor for many hours, maintaining their skills by flying on a regular basis, and continuing to prove other core capabilities and their fitness to operate – which includes medical tests, more theory, and more practical flying tests.

Allowing People to Know More About the People They Employ

Back to the pilot example, isn’t it essential we differentiate between people with a theoretical understanding of how to fly, those who are competent but are still developing their flying skills, and the experienced professional pilots?

Sadly, I often see companies hire and deploy individuals based on whether they have an ITIL Foundation certificate – the equivalent of letting someone with 10 hours in a flight simulator, a theory exam certificate, and no real practical flying experience, fly a commercial jet!

As individuals working in ITSM, wouldn’t it be good to be able to get better professional recognition and to provide independently-verified proof of our professionalism, including our practical experience and capability, on top of the list of qualifications and certifications we hold?

As someone hiring ITSM staff or looking for ITSM-related consultancy or training services, wouldn’t it be good to have some additional tools which help evaluate and differentiate between different candidates or offerings?

Various credentialing schemes have been tried by ITSM membership organizations and commercial entities, but these don’t seem to last long – often becoming “lost” regarding their value to members and the end customers who wanted the credentialing to make it easier for them when hiring staff or selecting service providers and consultants.

What remains, and continues to grow in its own modest way (probably because it’s owned and made available by a not-for-profit foundation with virtually no marketing budget), is SFIA – the Skills Framework for the Information Age. SFIA has been around for over 20 years now and is regularly updated – most recently through version 7, released in 2018.

If used appropriately, SFIA can help fill this gap – in fact, there are many examples where SFIA is being used to do this around the globe.


Augmenting the recruitment processes can often be desirable – moving away from approaches which often rely on keyword searching and gauging suitability based on certifications, many of which may only confirm a theoretical understanding rather than practical experience in a working environment.

The following represents a typical flow – first the need is identified and then a job description created, identifying the SFIA levels of responsibility, the individual skills, and levels needed for the proper performance of the role. With this, we can interrogate the data we have on current skills internally (assuming this data exists) to identify people with the required skills, or those who are close enough to be considered for a development opportunity. If no internal candidates are identified, you may decide to go to the external market – this may be through recruitment agencies, job boards, LinkedIn, press, or the company website. SFIA is also used to help describe the position in the job advert or posting.

SFIA can be used to filter applicants based on skills and levels – whether it’s reviewing their CVs or resumes, or asking them to take an online SFIA self-assessment and then using matching queries and analytics to identify those you want to put through to the next stage. With some organizations, this is a skills interview, often conducted online or over the phone, to confirm the candidate’s skills and experience – putting them through to the next stage if they meet an agreed threshold. The next stage is often interview, where SFIA can again assist in helping to formulate interview questions based on skills and professionalism.

Professionalism and Skills Assessment

There are three key options for skills assessment:

Option 1 – Moderated Self-Assessment

Employees that understand how their skill profile can be leveraged (from both personal and organizational perspectives) are most likely to produce accurate self-assessed skill profiles, both initially and ongoing when reviewing/updating their skills profile.

Having the individuals take ownership of their own skill profiles can result in the following:

  • A feeling of empowerment and ownership by the individual
  • A well-represented skills profile
  • Regularly inspected and updated skills profiles (according to skills development opportunities), which means more accurate skills capture
  • Focused individual action plans
  • Automated provisioning of a dynamic, real-time, managed organizational skills matrix

Yes, there’s still an element of risk here if anyone decides to overstate or exaggerate their skills and professionalism – but with an appropriate tool and approach, this risk can be reduced.

Option 2 – 360-Degree Review

With the use of internal managers/team leaders, who have close knowledge of the individuals and their capability, collaborative endorsement/discussion sessions are held, which can result in the following:

  • Better representation of skill profiles
  • A more collaborative approach to producing a refined skills profile
  • The production of a very thorough skills profile, which includes skills that the individual may have mastered outside of the scope of their current role(s) – this can be very rewarding for the individual and manager involved, by exposing skills that may not have been leveraged for both organizational and personal benefit
  • It may undermine empowerment and ownership
  • It may invoke fears of bias based on personalities and conflicts of interest

In a recruitment scenario, this could be focused on taking up references which ask specific questions about the core skills and professionalism required for the position.

Option 3 – Skills Discussion with an Independent Expert (such as an Accredited External SFIA Consultant)

This process is used to independently assess the skills of an individual and produce a certified skills profile, using a skills discussion session or a skills interview in a recruitment context. This activity is optional and may not be deemed necessary in many organizations.

Considerations when utilizing this approach include the following:

  • It provides independent external certification of skills, producing a certified skills profile
  • It can reduce fears of internal bias, stemming from personalities and conflicts of interest
  • It needs to be positioned appropriately as augmenting and informing the individual self-assessed skills profile, to avoid undermining empowerment and ownership by the individual
  • It relies on appropriate change management and communication, plus experienced assessors, to avoid being perceived as confrontational by the individuals
  • There’s an ability to scale due to availability of suitably-experienced accredited SFIA consultants

Some professional memberships and credentials do include an element of independent external validation, but be clear exactly what has been scrutinized, how, and by whom; and then decide how much you can rely on this rather than deploying your own methods related to skills and professionalism.

More About SFIA

SFIA has become the globally-accepted common language for the skills and competencies related to information and communication technologies, digital transformation, and software engineering. It’s a simple and logical two-dimensional framework consisting of professional skills on one axis and levels of responsibility on the other.

It uses a common language and a sensible, logical structure that can be adapted to the training and development needs of a very wide range of businesses – or simply used “off the shelf.” The use of clear language, avoiding technical jargon and acronyms, makes SFIA accessible to all involved in the work as well as people in supporting roles such as human resources (HR), learning and development, organization design, and procurement. It can solve the common translation issues that hinder communication and effective partnerships within organizations and multi-disciplinary teams.

This consistency means that SFIA works well for both large and small organizations – because they share an approach, a vocabulary, and a focus on skills, capability, and professionalism.

What Should You Trust (When Assessing People, Their Professionalism, and Their Capabilities)?

Some of the existing qualifications, certifications, credentials, and professional memberships cannot be trusted as a reliable method of confirming someone has suitable skills and experience – often these only confirm theoretical understanding. As a result, we need to take a realistic view on what these are telling us, and utilize some other activities designed to specifically test skills and experience.

Instead it’s time to stop relying on CV-noted knowledge and qualifications, and specifically target skills backed up by relevant working experience and professionalism.

Matthew Burrows
Managing Director at BSMimpact

Matthew Burrows currently serves on the SFIA Council, is Chair of the itSMF International Ethics Review Board, and contributes to the Service Management industry and the development of best practice – including as Design Authority for SFIA.

He is Director and Principal Consultant of BSMimpact, an ISO/IEC 20000 qualified consultant and auditor, and SFIA Accredited Consultant, specialising in implementing pragmatic business service management solutions rather than just theoretical consulting. He has considerable practical and operational experience of Service Management.

Matthew’s authoring credits include SFIA (Skills Framework for the Information Age), Service Management, Portfolio and Programme Management methodologies, white papers, books, articles and publications.

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