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ITIL 4: Why Processes are now Practices

ITIL 3 talked about processes, ITIL 4 talks about practices. This isn’t just a semantic change. So why is it important?

This article is part of our Making ITIL 4 Simple series—helping you learn and apply ITIL 4 concepts and practices quickly and easily.

The Need for Process

When we talk about processes and practices we’re talking about control structures—applying control to work and how it flows across the organization to create value. The application of a process means work is managed.

Without a process, work happens in a haphazard fashion and a positive outcome cannot be guaranteed on a consistent basis. To get things done quickly and properly, some structure is required: a queue of work and a way of describing how to do it. Processes help organizations get things done, be efficient, meet expectations, and be productive/profitable.

If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.

W. Edwards Deming

However, if people don’t fully understand the holistic view—why they are doing what they are doing—process-dominant thinking can take over. The process becomes everything. Processes calcify and swell. They become dogmatic and weighed down by documentation. Process management overheads grow. Processes become inefficient, inflexible, and unfit for purpose.

Having no structure to the way work happens is bad. But too much structure is also bad. process-dominant thinking can result in too much structure and not enough business relevance. It’s about getting the balance right; and the only way that can be achieved is by keeping a holistic view—focusing on why; focusing on value. When an organization has a holistic view if benefits in two ways:

  1. It’s easy to see where the work that IT does aligns (or misaligns) with what is needed by the organization and its customers, so corrective action can be taken. Often, when process-dominant thinking has crept in, scope creep is ignored for two long, because IT people are in “heads down” mode.
  2. The operational model is more complete, as it considers all of the elements that are required to be efficient and effective—beyond simply having a process definition.

What Does "Value" Really Mean?

Why the Old ITIL Process Concept is “Broken”

In the early versions of ITIL, each activity was documented as a best practice process—a flow of tasks to deliver an outcome. If you look at the ITIL 2 Service Support volume, you will literally find process flow charts. This worked fine when everything was simple. Things are no longer simple. The one-process-fits-all approach doesn’t work any more. That approach is too rigid and limiting to work in the ultra-fast digital age where service customers have much higher expectations.

Different situations require different response processes. For example, the Service Desk may employ one of a number of processes, depending on the category of Incident. In the 1990s, ITSM technology wasn’t capable of managing many different processes so it was entirely necessary to keep things simple. Now, it’s easy to manage dozens or hundreds of custom processes using drag-and-drop process design and process portfolio management tools. For each type of issue, there’s a process which can be automatically triggered. Many types of issue require many types of process.

So, because Incident Management, Problem Management or any other area of ITIL now contains a number of processes, it’s no longer appropriate to say that Incident Management is a process.

Processes to Practices

When an organization’s ITSM strategy is centred around following a process-oriented operating model (like ITIL 2 and ITIL 3) it is easy for process-dominant thinking to take hold and the holistic perspective to fall into the background. The ITIL 3 Service Lifecycle Model was an integrated process structure. In ITIL 4, the Service Value System is a value structure—all about delivering value.

What is the ITIL 4 Service Value System?

The ITIL 4 Service Value System

The shift from process to practice makes ITIL 4 more holistic by expanding the scope of how we look at work—from a somewhat limiting process perspective to a more holistic practice perspective.

ITIL 4 defines a practice as:

A set of organisational resources designed for performing work or accomplishing an objective.

Practices are more than Processes

ITIL 4 presents 34 of these practices. When looking at each, you are encouraged to take a holistic view—a more complete perspective of what it takes to build an efficient capability: including not just the processes which guide the work but also the other essential elements which are necessary to operate efficient capabilities:

  • Organizations and people: The teams and individuals that do the work. Do they have the skills and knowledge they need to get things done?
  • Value streams and processes: End-to-end processes, as defined using the ITIL 4 Service Value Chain as Service Value Streams to ensure they are framed by demand at one end and value at the other—meaning the holistic view is maintained.
  • Information and technology: Do your people have the information they need to run the practice properly? For example, smart queue management to help them decide what to work on next. Or performance reports to decide where improvements are required. Do they have the tools they need to give them visibility and control? Do they have the right automation tools to optimize and automate these practices?
  • Partners and suppliers: Are partnerships required to fill gaps where in-house capabilities don’t exist? Can a 3rd party organization perform a part of the practice better, faster, or cheaper? Do technology suppliers respond quickly when the ITSM technology that supports a practice isn’t working?

To Summarize

A process is just one element of a practice. Having a process is not enough to deliver excellence. There are more moving parts to consider when building capabilities. The new ITIL 4 guidance will help you—particularly the 4 Dimensions of ITIL 4, which describes all of the pieces of the puzzle you must slot into place to become an efficient service provider.

The 4 Dimensions of ITIL 4: Information & Technology - 4 dimensions of service management

The 4 Dimensions of ITIL 4

Making it Work

Our assyst ITSM platform is a holistic solution for better service management in large organizations across the globe. It will help you build high-performance ITSM practices by giving you complete visibility and control over all of the elements that are essential to delivering excellence in service management.


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