What is ITSM?

ITSM explained - what is ITSM?

What is ITSM (IT service management)? There are many available definitions. For instance, ITIL – a globally popular ITSM and broader service management best practice framework – defines ITSM as:

“The implementation and management of quality IT services that meet the needs of the business”

It might be simpler though to think of it as:

“Improving business performance through better IT delivery”

ITSM? Let’s start with IT delivered as service

When asked, “What is ITSM?”, many people will automatically think of the ITIL processes – such as incident and change management – when ITSM is mentioned, but service management “thinking” is a very important part of designing and delivering superior IT services and support. With this based on the concept of “IT delivered as a service” and the terms IT service delivery and IT support commonly used.

This means, rather than thinking of IT provision and management across the separate domains of network, compute, and storage, ITSM involves the delivery of IT services. For instance, an email or a managed desktop service. These IT services are the things that employees, or customers, use or consume (and know that they are doing so).

When it comes to understanding what ITSM is, it’s important not to get bogged down in the processes – with an important thing to remember that it is about making your company’s IT, and business operations, better. That it’s ultimate aim is to improve business performance. Bear this is in mind when asking, “What is ITSM?”

The key ITSM capabilities in ITIL v3/2011

ITSM has many processes – for instance, ITIL v3/2011 had 26 and four “functions” (we’re now on ITIL 4 – see below), but it’s better to think of them as capabilities. These business processes enable IT departments or service providers to design, create, deliver, support, and manage IT services.

The most common of these ITSM processes are:

  • Incident management – dealing with requests for help with IT issues, usually via an IT help desk or service desk
  • Request fulfillment (service request management in ITIL 4) – dealing with requests for, and providing, new IT services, again via an IT help or service desk, and
  • Change management (change enablement in ITIL 4) – the effective management of IT and business change.

In terms of “what is ITSM?”, if you’re interested in what the full 26 ITIL v3 processes/capabilities are, then here you go (and listed by ITIL v3/2011 book):

Service strategy:

  1. Strategy management for IT services
  2. Service portfolio management
  3. Demand management
  4. Financial management for IT services
  5. Business relationship management

Service design:

  1. Design coordination
  2. Service level management
  3. Service catalog management
  4. Availability management
  5. Capacity management
  6. Supplier management
  7. IT service continuity management
  8. Information security management

Service transition:

  1. Transition planning and support
  2. Change evaluation
  3. Change management
  4. Release and deployment management
  5. Service validation and testing
  6. Service asset and configuration management
  7. Knowledge management

Service operation:

  1. Event management
  2. Incident management (the most adopted ITSM capability)
  3. Request fulfillment
  4. Problem management, including root cause analysis
  5. Access management

Continual service improvement:

  1. Continual service improvement (CSI) – the capabilities that allow organizations to continuously improve.

While this answers the question for some people, ITIL v3/2011 was refreshed in 2019-2020 to a new version – ITIL 4. This is detailed in the next section.

The key service management capabilities in ITIL 4

Much of this changed with the ITIL 4 release (although many of the traditional ITSM practices remained). These “What is ITSM?” changes included that:

ITIL 4’s 34 management practices for service management, not just ITSM, are as follows:

General Management

  1. Architecture management
  2. Continual improvement
  3. Information security management
  4. Knowledge management
  5. Measurement and reporting
  6. Organizational change management
  7. Portfolio management
  8. Project management
  9. Relationship management
  10. Risk management
  11. Service financial management
  12. Strategy management
  13. Supplier management
  14. Workforce and talent management

Service Management (note – it’s not just ITSM)

  1. Availability management
  2. Business analysis
  3. Capacity and performance management
  4. Change enablement
  5. Incident management
  6. IT asset management
  7. Monitoring and event management
  8. Problem management
  9. Release management
  10. Service catalog management
  11. Service configuration management
  12. Service continuity management
  13. Service design
  14. Service desk
  15. Service level management
  16. Service request management
  17. Service validation and testing

Technical Management

  1. Deployment management
  2. Infrastructure and platform management
  3. Software development and management

Why ITSM is important

Often the why is more important than the what. So here is the “Why ITSM?” to add to the “What is ITSM?”

ITSM can help you, your IT team, and your organization as a whole, i.e. there are both IT and business benefits that will come from ITSM’s adoption and use.

When starting with ITSM, or more realistically building on what you already have, it’s good to create the business case for IT service management adoption rather than just approaching it as “a good thing to do.”

Importantly, though, it’s best not to paint it as a “business case for IT service management” but rather a business case to improve something, with ITSM the “means” rather than the “end.” For example, your company might want to leverage ITSM and ITIL to:

  • Reduce operational IT costs
  • Improve quality of service
  • Increase customer satisfaction (for both internal and/or external customers)
  • Improve governance or reduce risk
  • Increase competitive advantage through better IT enablement
  • Offer improved flexibility or increased agility/speed of delivery for new IT services, or
  • Something similar (that, importantly, is not just ITSM process adoption).

Plus, of course, it might want to receive benefits across multiple of these examples. So consider this when trying to explain “what is ITSM?”.

Benefitting from ITSM

In “What is ITSM?” terms, quality of service improvements could involve:

  • Fewer, and better-managed, incidents – providing increased availability of IT and business services
  • Increased business productivity – due to the higher IT service availability and quicker restoration of service for end-user IT issues
  • Improved customer experience – related to both IT services and IT support.

Reducing the long-term cost of IT provision, management, and support (through ITSM) could involve:

  • Improving efficiency – through the consistent use of best practice ITSM processes and fit-for-purpose ITSM technology
  • Reducing IT wastage – through the better understanding and management of IT assets and services
  • Reinvesting IT savings – to deliver new or improved IT services that ultimately improve business operations and results.

Reducing risk and improving governance through ITSM could involve:

  • Remaining compliant – to both internal and external risk management requirements, through formal, and embedded, internal controls, and the ability to rely on and demonstrate their consistent application.

There are of course many other benefits of ITSM and ITIL, for both IT and the business as a whole, but hopefully these are enough to whet your appetite in terms of “what is ITSM?”.

Digging deeper into the potential ITSM benefits

In these financially-conscious times, when considering “what is ITSM?”, it’s worth digging deeper into how ITSM can save your IT team, and business, money.

Firstly, there’s “increased IT efficiency,” where ITSM principles and the use of fit-for-purpose IT service management technology can:

  1. Provide technology-enabled ITSM process workflow and automation – removing labor-intensive manual processes, and improving collaboration and handovers between different people or teams
  2. Result in the more-focused use of scarce IT people resources. Making for less admin, waiting, and even incident “fire-fighting” – and freeing this scarce resource for more strategic work
  3. Support “service-based incident management” – allow IT support personnel to understand which IT issues have the most-significant business impact and thus the highest resolution priority (rather than dealing with issue on a first-in, first-out basis)
  4. Save time and money through knowledge management – in particular, reusing incident-based knowledge, rather than having to “reinvent the wheel,” to reduce incident resolution times and, thus, the impact on end users or the business as a whole
  5. Make ITSM reporting easier and increase both service and operational insight and value – moving from manual to system-generated reports, with the added benefit of trending over time.

Then there’s “increased business efficiency,” where ITSM principles and the use of fit-for-purpose technology can:

  1. Reduce downtime – through the use of incident, problem, and availability management best practices in particular
  2. Prevent serious, business-affecting issues before they occur – through problem management and capacity management best practice
  3. Help businesses to quickly bounce back from critical, operations-affecting IT issues – through major incident management and IT service continuity best practices.

Finally, when looking at “what is ITSM?” and the benefits, there’s “reduced wastage,” where ITSM principles and the use of fit-for-purpose IT service management technology can:

  1. Help to reduce, if not eliminate, duplication of effort and rework – saving time and labor, and therefore unneeded costs, particularly through defined roles and responsibilities and the use of consistent, best-practice-inspired, processes
  2. Ensure that any new IT spend is essential – through asset, configuration, and capacity management best practices
  3. Prevent change-related or inconsistency-based wastage – avoiding the costs of “reworking” mistakes that’s ultimately the duplication, or even triplication, of effort.
  4. Remove the costs of duplicate or obsolete applications, hardware, hosting, cloud services, and their support – again through asset management best practice (which is now considered ITSM too).

Potential ITSM “quick wins”

Rome wasn’t built in a day – and the introduction of service management can take time, potentially significant time. So, it’s worth understanding not only the answer to “What is ITSM?” but also what can be done to improve things and what to do first to deliver what many term “quick wins.” This is both the targeting of business pain points and the realization of maximum benefit as early as possible.

Starting with “resource optimization,” there are a number of easy ways to start to eliminate IT waste using ITSM:

  1. Only buy what you need, or think that you need, through the use of formal capacity management activity best practice.
  2. Reuse, rather than buying more, hardware or software using asset management, particularly for software licenses. Your IT estate could be a sea of software over-provision – thankfully, ITAM is now part of the ITIL 4 service management best practice framework.
  3. Reduce failed changes with better change management – have you ever stopped to think about how much-failed changes cost your business? Even if just the adverse impact of change-related incidents.
  4. Look for duplicate, underused, or even unused applications or IT services using asset management and service portfolio management. If your business has been through significant merger and acquisition activity, then you will most likely have, and be paying for, “two of everything.”

Then look to make “labor-saving changes” with ITSM (it’s a great element to consider when looking at “what is ITSM?”):

  1. Automate as much as possible – especially the repetitive, low-“intelligence” tasks
  2. Offer employee self-service capabilities backed by automation – to allow end users to serve/help themselves, and probably with a better customer experience
  3. Use remote resolution tools – the less time spent traveling the better, plus it delivers a quicker resolution with most likely a better customer experience again
  4. Do some problem management – prevent your service desk from having to waste time on repeat incidents (it’s an often undervalued ITSM capability).

Finally, instigate “ongoing business dialogues” – they could save you money and improve the perceived worth of corporate IT and IT service management:

  1. Get a better understanding of IT demand to better understand future business requirements and the impact on IT’s strategies and purchasing decisions. This can be via demand management, capacity management, service level management, or even business relationship management
  2. Actively communicate IT success stories – as sadly, IT’s successes often don’t sell themselves, unlike its failures
  3. Discuss how service level targets stack up against the costs associated with delivering varying levels of service. For example, a slightly lower service level target might make a considerable ITSM and business saving with a minimal impact on perceived service.

The concept of Advanced ITSM

There was a lot of head-scratching when “ITSM advanced” was voted top in our content trends for 2022. It was simply intended as the opposite of the “basics,” but when people voted in numbers in 2022 it made us think it was more. The 2023 trends poll verified this – with advanced ITSM still #4 when ITIL/ITSM “advanced” capabilities (which positioned ninth) was a separate option. As to what this includes, the quick 2022 article explanation was the a blend of the following:

  • Introducing capabilities that traditionally have lower adoption levels. These capabilities are now more relevant and include service financial management and IT asset management
  • Doing things differently – perhaps adopting the new ITIL guidance for a practice already in place. A good example is “swarming” for incident management. Or refocusing ITSM metrics from “what’s done” to “what’s achieved.” With a focus on value and the employee experience
  • Leveraging new technologies such as AI more
  • Sharing advanced IT service management capabilities with other lines of business through enterprise service management strategies.

Let’s not forget enterprise service management

Enterprise service management is “The use of IT service management principles and capabilities in other business areas to improve their operational performance, services, experiences, and outcomes.”

You can read more about this extension of IT service management in our Enterprise Service Management Explained article.

This page only scratches the surface of “what is ITSM,” but hopefully, it has given you an appreciation of what’s involved and how it can help. If you wish to read more about “What is ITSM?” then please check out the rest of the website or the links below.

The common ITSM tool capabilities

The ITSM industry has seen the growing adoption of fit-for-purpose ITSM tools, with circa 90% of IT organizations employing some form of ITSM tool. These tools help with ITSM process or ITIL practice enablement, with the commonly available ITSM process capabilities including:

  • Incident management
  • Service request management
  • Change management/enablement
  • Problem management
  • Knowledge management
  • Asset management
  • Continual improvement
  • Financial management
  • Service configuration management

There are usually “non-process” capabilities too. For example, a service catalog and a self-service portal.

The above ITSM capabilities can also be used for enterprise service management use cases based on the workflow automation capabilities within the ITSM tool.

For both ITSM and enterprise service management, the non-functional capabilities should also play a significant role in ITSM tool selection. These include:

  • The total cost of ownership
  • Ease of use for the service provider and end-users
  • Domain separation of data, processes, and knowledge management
  • Scalability
  • Access controls

Some ITSM tools also provide platform capabilities for creating bespoke applications and workflows that extend the ITSM tool’s use cases beyond the core ITSM capabilities.

Finally, ITSM tools increasingly add artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled capabilities to improve ITSM operations and outcomes. The common AI-enables capabilities include:

  • Automated ticket triage
  • Intelligent resolution and provisioning
  • Automated escalation
  • Intelligent recommendations to service-provider staff
  • Self-help knowledge and solution provision to employees

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Want more? If so, these ITSM and ITSM tool articles might be of interest.

Stephen Mann

Principal Analyst and Content Director at the ITSM-focused industry analyst firm ITSM.tools. Also an independent IT and IT service management marketing content creator, and a frequent blogger, writer, and presenter on the challenges and opportunities for IT service management professionals.

Previously held positions in IT research and analysis (at IT industry analyst firms Ovum and Forrester and the UK Post Office), IT service management consultancy, enterprise IT service desk and IT service management, IT asset management, innovation and creativity facilitation, project management, finance consultancy, internal audit, and product marketing for a SaaS IT service management technology vendor.

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