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The ITIL scene: looking back, looking forward – looking good?

ITIL - the future through a crystal ball

A return to interesting times

Five years after APMG took control we are once again facing ‘interesting times’ with ITIL under new management. Capita will be majority owner of the Joint Venture to run ITIL, Prince and the rest of UK Government’s Best Practice portfolio. While this handover takes effect officially on 1st January 2014, it is certain that,  once the new company has a name and becomes active in a few weeks, we will start to see the consequences.

I was asked to write about what I thought this would mean for our community and I will, but the more I considered it, the more I needed to put things into perspective first. Effectively, that requires documenting something about how we got where we are, before suggesting where we might be going.

Predicting the future is, perhaps, the single most pervasive human activity, almost everything we do is driven by what we expect, or is about influencing what will happen. This is true whether we are doing business strategy or making a shopping list, and it is the staple of all good gossip.

That’s because, if we agree that ‘now’ is just a point on a line from the past to the future, we are interested in the direction that line will take from ‘now’ on. For any other kind of line, say the path of a yacht or metrics on our company performance, we would look at:

  • how that line moved in the past
  • what might be different now and henceforth (factors)
  • how differences might affect where the line goes (influences)

So let’s try and apply that same logic to our ITIL world, or rather more grandly we can quote Winston Churchill who, when asked how he had successfully predicted things, said “Because, young man, I study history”[1]

We can also look at changing — or working with — the factors to try and deliver the changes we want rather than the ones we fear; but first we need to get an accurate picture and understand the situation, else we have little chance of influencing it. So, with your indulgence, an initial and very brief look at some key parts of ITIL’s past.

Once upon a time

Back in the beginning, ITIL was some books documenting ways of doing things in IT operations. I cling resolutely to a definition of best practice as ‘things that worked for other people in similar circumstances’. That definition applies in IT service management, journey planning, cooking and almost any other human enterprise you can think of. That is exactly what ITIL was, just ideas for people actually doing something to help them get started in a good direction. Best practice isn’t about a finished solution; it is a valuable input and a good place to start.

However, something else happened alongside the basic ITIL guidance, and it happened quite quickly. This illustration is an extract from the ITIL introductory leaflet of the mid 1990s:

The booklet describes this collection of ‘ITIL-Related activities’ as the ‘ITIL Philosophy[2]’.

So, as you can see, within a few short years the products around ITIL had begun — financially at least — to overshadow the books. This has not changed — in fact a study of the recent history line for ITIL would undoubtedly show well in excess of 99% of ITIL related financial transactions are now from the related products.

Those two strands — the guidance itself and the related   products — evolved alongside each other. Or perhaps we should see the ITIL guidance as underpinning those products? Whatever the term, they are clearly connected but separate.

Initially this gave a simple picture of ITIL guidance and products based on it. Let’s picture it like this, with ITIL forming the foundations. That is how it was for a while, and this is when ITIL became more or less synonymous with the new term ‘service management’.

But then our history line gets a kick and starts to move off the simple ITIL line. Other relevant guidance began to emerge — or was already there and became seen as relevant to ITSM. ITIL remained — and remains – the biggest thing in that universe but there were other places to get good ideas too. Of course, the products that help real people in real jobs deliver service management to real customers have that range of guidance as their foundation. But, interestingly, we did not get multiple versions of that simple picture, with products ‘choosing’ a set of guidance to reflect. Instead, because the sets of guidance — ITIL, COBIT, ISO20000 etc – are pretty much consistent with each other, the tools can relate to any one — or all — of them. The other factor we see is the introduction of ‘ITIL branded’ products; same products but now financially linked to that underpinning guidance — and the owners of it. So — let’s try a picture for all that.

As someone who grew up talking British English, where it is perfectly normal to ask ‘what make of hoover do you have?’ I understand the concept of brand names that spread across their sector and I see why the owners (CCTA at the start) made the moves they did to seek financial return on their investment in development and maintenance — and I will get back to the all-importance maintenance bit very soon!

What just happened?

Ok, that — for me, and simplified massively — is the sort of line that got ITIL to ‘now’, and let’s us ask ‘where does it go next?’ What does the Capita Era hold for us?

The whole point of this explanation was to understand, and set in some context, the focus of almost all the initial announcements and comments, and to see that they are related to the commercialized ‘ITIL philosophy’ that evolved, rather than to the guidance. And I want to point out the importance of additionally asking and answering questions about ITIL itself.

The initial government announcement was in fact under a heading “New deal will market government professional qualifications”, as if this was only about qualifications. The next line led with £500m boost for taxpayers” and soon after that we get the phrase “ITIL® IT services standards”. So, OK this has been written by civil servants who have been told to focus on the money. That’s fair enough and to be expected; the UK government is sitting amidst the financial rubble of the recession and a strong financial focus from them is inevitable.

So we should not waste too much time looking for any detailed clues there about ongoing direction, except, that Capita will need to be sure they make enough funds — from the ITIL badged products — to satisfy the government’s financial demands and expectations.

Those of us[3] who make our livings from those ITIL-badged products, or think we might do soon, or have products that could be ITIL-badged, are of course interested, and will voice concerns. But, really, this is business as usual; the ITIL line carries on almost undisturbed. There will still be a surcharge for using the word ITIL, but, looking back over our history line, we can see that companies feel that this is money well spent and offers good value. Capita have to be keen to keep that bit of status quo, because their contractual commitments have to be met.

The announcement was supported by a Cabinet Office/Capita press release, also mostly focused on the derived products, but — thankfully – with the start of some encouraging nods to the underpinning guidance itself. It came over the signature of Capita’s chief executive, so it isn’t going to be technically focused and it talks about ‘developing products’. They also gave notice of plans for ‘the growth of a vibrant open ecosystem of training, consultancy and examination organisations.

That sounds interesting, I suspect those aims will be adapted and modified as they go, but they imply to me that our ITIL history line might be accelerating and expanding a little perhaps? I think the omission of software — or even an ‘etc’ is probably an oversight, maybe not, but all part of the interesting times and gives us something to gossip about.

And looking forward ….

But the biggest potential impact on ITIL itself is maybe in the announcement that they “will develop the current portfolio including digitising services and introducing experiential learning methods such as gaming and simulation, and broaden both the products and the markets in which they are sold across the UK and worldwide.”
There is some marketing licence here of course — many of us have been delivering some degree of simulation and gaming in this market for the last 20 years, but we know what they mean. Marketing speak says ‘introduce’ but means ‘do more’ or maybe ‘make more central’. As for broadening the market, , ITIL is already in most places — but still many markets have the potential to expand and then, of course, PRINCE etc don’t have that global coverage yet. Maybe ITIL approaches can help. And maybe a strong global user community (such as itSMF?) is a good model here? Again, interesting times and potential for involvement from the community.

So, the initial focus of the announcements, seen mostly through money-tinted glasses, is on the commercially viable products with concerns all round on the ongoing profitability for the end suppliers like software companies, ATO and consultancies. But don’t doubt for a moment that all of this will depend — as it always has — on the underpinning products.

And here we are in a situation with real potential to move that ITIL history line in a slightly new direction. ITIL was conceived and constructed in the 20th Century, and is still delivered in a very 20th century fashion albeit late 20th Century. You can see the book on your screen rather than just on paper but, conceptually, they are still books, with lots of words around the real messages and the need to decode it from pretty dry language into ides that you can use in your business.

Here is where I think the really good messages are coming out from the Capita inheritance. Add in the kinds of work that G2G3 have been doing with their corporate clients (including but certainly not just the service management games we see in the ITIL world) then maybe, just maybe — and only with industry support and enthusiasm — we have a chance to produce 21st Century guidance. Ideas captured, maintained and delivered in a better way?

To make that happen then Capita needs things from outside itself — and they can only come from our broader community. I expect them to seek, nurture and value the ideas out  there in the community. It won’t be enough to focus on harvesting what they inherit. ITIL really needs some new seed corn and a revitalisation. Not just, not even mostly, in terms of the way those basic ideas are delivered by commercial companies, but in ensuring they are today’s ideas because things have changed a bit even since V3 hit us.

Of course we know about Cloud[4] and Big Data and the technical changes. While ITIL is never again going to be the only game in town in terms of guidance, it will likely remain in a comfortable and indispensible position amongst other ways of parcelling and communicating service management ideas. It is still the big name: the ‘hoover’ or ‘scotch tape’ of our community, the word that comes to customers lips when they want to check that some proposed consultants are knowledgeable. That is one good example of ITIL as a catalyst of bigger things than are actually written in it. So many really useful SM improvement initiatives are started because of ITIL awareness and training, the good ones then go on and use local common sense too.

It will be good to see ITIL setting out to help that happen more often. There is a whole raft of ways that could evolve, perhaps into broader training and qualifications than we have now? Lots of scope for additional potential which is — I seem to recall — what Capita say they are seeking?

And what do I actually predict after all that?

So, time for me to get off the fence and make a minor prediction or four. What do I see — and hope to see – happening to the direction of the ITIL life line. I think our new company’s early behaviour might cover:

  • What works should stay working – basically that means the ITIL Foundation exam. It is the source of funding to most everything else at least in the short term.
  • What doesn’t work gets changed — but carefully – and after some comprehensive research and wide industry input. So don’t hold your breath, use that breath to have your say.
  • The best practice underpinning it all has to be updated. And it has to get updated by the community in a way that makes the whole community able to accept it. Again carefully rather than immediately.
  •  The next generation of Best Practice will be more heuristic and experiential, with gaming, simulation etc built in at the start. After all, it is NOT a coincidence that Capita also just acquired G2G3 — but this is an innovation in delivery, it will also need input material in the shape of industry generated and widely accepted guidance.

I, for one, am encouraged. Recently ITIL has seemed to me like a football team[5] in danger of relegation. They are still a quality side but maybe they need a new manager to make all the pieces work together in a new way.

Capita are well placed to get the industry support to make that happen. They will need to woo the industry, at the very least to get its trust, but hopefully to get its friendship. Without that they won’t get the money they need in the long term, and they have promised lots of that to the UK government. So — let’s all go make some new friends; of course friends might argue and disagree about things but they will always listen to each other. I have only a few years left in my professional life to stay involved, I hope I get one more chance to play a part, and hope it is a last chance to work with lots of the great people in this business.

[1] Quoted by David Niven in ‘The Moon’s a Ballon’
[2] It may not be the perfect term but I suggested it in the draft for the leaflet and nobody during QA came up with anything better, so it stuck for a while.
[3] And I have seen my children grow up, fed and clothed almost entirely via work on ITIL-related products, so I really do see that they matter a lot.
[4] Damn, I had hoped, for once, to be able to write something without using that word
[5] I think this term works for a range of sporting cultures using that word: in Europe, North America or Australia.
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