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ITSM vs. ITIL: What’s the difference?

We know how you feel: when you start looking into service management frameworks, it can feel like you’re wading through an endless river of acronyms. But we want you to know that some of those acronyms are definitely worth understanding. First and foremost: ITSM and ITIL.

ITSM stands for Information Technology Service Management. ITIL is short for the Information Technology Infrastructure Library. They’re related concepts, but not the same thing. So what’s the difference? The very, very short version is that ITSM describes what IT departments should do, and ITIL describes how they should do it.

But what does that mean in practice? Let’s cover some of the differences for ITSM vs. ITIL in more detail so you can understand how to best apply ideas from each.

ITSM explained

Let’s start by understanding IT Service Management. An ITSM model structures information technology into services that you deliver to customers. Those customers can be external paying customers, or they can be other teams or workgroups within your organization. For example, if your team maintains cloud-based accounting software for your finance department, that department is a customer.

Traditional IT practices focused on tools—the hardware and software itself. IT departments would deploy that infrastructure and support it when requested. ITSM shifts the focus to serving customers. Hardware and software are combined with standardized business practices and support programs, and together they are a service. Ideally, your organization offers services that best align with your customer’s business goals.

Having an ITSM business model means you follow a documented set of policies and procedures for running those services. Those procedures usually stipulate how services are developed, delivered, and supported for their customers, called their “lifecycle” within your organization.

ITSM example

Many companies use a service desk management app to run their ITSM workflows. Let’s look at a typical example of how one company might use one to support its service management.

Alpha Manufacturing wants to bring its remote workforce back into the office on a hybrid schedule. Their employees have been working from home using company laptops. To support these workers on a hybrid schedule, the corporate office opens a request in their ITSM service desk to provision docking stations in the office so employees can easily come and go with their laptops.

Rebecca, an operations manager at the corporate office, submits the docking station request for her employees. In the service request, she lists all the information the IT end-user support team wanted about the employees, their jobs, office locations and peripherals they’ll need with their docking stations. The end-user team receives the request, assigns it to the next available technician and get to work.

ITIL explained

Many frameworks for applying IT service management exist. ITIL is one of the oldest, most successful and most popular. The Information Technology Infrastructure Library was originally developed in the 1980s by the UK government and is now a privately maintained standard. It has gone through many updates over the years and is currently in its fourth iteration.

The practical focus of ITIL 4 is vastly different from the focus of the original standard on “infrastructure libraries” in the ‘80s. The overall goals haven’t changed, though. ITIL has always been about helping organizations align their information technology with their business goals. Today, the practical focus of ITIL 4 is on its “service value system”.

ITIL documentation stresses that it is not a prescribed system, meaning the standards can’t just tell your organization what to do. Every organization must adapt ITIL best practices to what makes sense for them. At your organization, that will include establishing:

  • Core principles
  • IT practices
  • IT governance
  • A process for continual improvement
  • The ITIL Service Value Chain

That last point is the largest addition to ITIL 4 and requires further explanation. The Service Value Chain lays out a new, optimized approach for ITSM service delivery. It includes six essential actions for managing services:


At the beginning of each service development cycle, start by understanding your organization’s current IT capabilities and the direction you want to grow them. In other words, how your IT needs to align with your business goals. That lays the foundation for every action that follows.


ITIL 4 emphasizes continuous improvement. That specifically includes improving how your IT services align with your business goals.


In addition to technology and processes, you need people engaged in your service management. Nothing happens without people, and you need to ensure the right people are involved throughout the entire service delivery process.

Design and transition

Your engaged personnel ensure that the service you’re designing meets customer expectations, including their expectations for the value it will deliver, its cost and its time to release.

Obtain and build

Once you know your customers’ expectations, you can obtain the resources to build the service. Those resources will include technology as well as also people and funding.

Delivery & Support

One of the key elements of IT service management is that your organization’s responsibilities don’t end once a service is assembled. You then need to deliver it, so it works effectively within your customer’s processes and support it ongoing.

What you need to know about using ITSM vs. ITIL

ITSM is a set of principles for structuring information technology. Its principles are general and high level, and as such some industry leaders have started applying service management principles to activities outside of IT in recent years. This practice is called Enterprise Service Management (ESM).

ITIL is an example of a popular framework for IT service management. It includes best practices for how organizations can apply ITSM principles. ITIL is also only one of many different ITSM frameworks. Some other popular ones include:

  • COBIT (Control Objectives for Information and Related Technologies)
  • VeriSM (Value-driven, Evolving, Responsive, Integrated Service Management)
  • ISO/IEC (International Organization for Standardization and International Electrotechnical Commission)

As you can see, it’s not really a question of ITSM vs. ITIL. It’s ITSM and ITIL. Different organizations will choose to adopt different frameworks or even adopt hybrid models. As ITIL stresses, there is no one right answer. No matter which service management framework you adopt, you should adapt it to your organization’s unique set of resources and goals. Then use a reliable service management application to ensure your whole team is working together.