In 2016 I was asked to write a column about ITIL's life story, in honor of Happy ITIL Day 2016. I didn't have to think long about the answer. ITIL is just too important to pass. And since millions of people have read the books I wrote about ITIL, I simply couldn't refuse. But what message was interesting for the people who were involved with Happy ITIL Day? The answer, I thought, had to be found at the start of ITIL's life cycle: the last letter of the original name - GITIMM.


Thirty years ago, in 1986, ITIL started as an initiative of Peter Skinner and John Stewart, colleagues in CCTA's Roy Dibble team. The original name they came with was GITIMM - Government Information Technology Infrastructure Management Method. Roy Dibble changed that to ITIL - the IT Infrastructure Library. Why? One reason was simply that he thought it was not a method. Another reason was that the "G" of government would not sell so well. And finally, because "GITIMM" was a worthless acronym, again from a commercial point of view. This illustrates how commerce influenced ITIL from day one…

ABC card game


So if it wasn't a method, what was it, Dibble asked? The answer was there within a minute: "A series of books", a library. Hence the name "Library". The content of that library was qualified as "guidance", practical rules. And so it began. For thirty years, ITIL authors and reviewers produced books on practices designed to guide IT people in their daily activities. And they did that with flying colors. ITIL has become the de facto standard for millions of IT people, and a huge market grew around it. I estimate the total turnover of ITIL-related products and services in the three decades of its existence at more than 1 trillion dollars (12 zeros). And with that we immediately have ITIL's pitfall ... Sometimes success is its own enemy.

The missing link

For a set of practices to be successfully applied in an organization, users must anchor it in their own service management system. And that is precisely where we see a lot of ITIL's potential ending up in the gutter - at the same time causing a waste that is in proportion to the aforementioned trillion dollars. ITIL was used by so many consultants, trainers and tool suppliers, all of whom wanted a piece of that huge pie that the original mission was often lost. ITIL was intended to improve IT services by standardizing the best practices of others and applying them on a larger scale. For exactly that reason I wrote so many books about all those ITIL versions. Unfortunately, the application of ITIL was increasingly based on the offer of a one-sided market of suppliers and consultants. The slogan "Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM" soon changed to "Nobody ever got fired for hiring an ITIL consultant".

ITIL grew slowly in the first years. But when the Dutch market embraced ITIL in 1992 and soon developed a simple training course for all IT people, ITIL was ready for the masses. Originally called ITIL Essentials, this training course was developed for EXIN by a small group of Dutch early adapters (including undersigned), in the early 1990s. EXIN then licensed the training to the British Computer Society (BCS/ISEB), and after some time renamed the training to ITIL Foundation. ITIL then took a flight as it has not been shown before.

Booming market

ITIL soon dominated the market with just one taste. A huge consultancy market grew around ITIL. And we all know the business model of the average consultant: "turnover = number of hours x hourly rate". This simple formula does not focus on the interests of the customer, but on the turnover of the consultant. The consequences were obvious: huge amounts of money were spent on ITIL projects, but in most cases only little of the ITIL treasure was used, and only limited value was created. The results of those projects were often disappointing in the sense that ITIL projects did not deliver what people expected, and projects had to be carried out over and over again. That is where ITIL’s character stood in the way of itself. ITIL simply did not include the management system that was needed to apply the practices. All consultants and tool suppliers had to develop their own approach. And from a consultant's perspective - with their business model in mind - developing custom solutions was much more lucrative than using a standardized management system that would save a lot of time. After all, for the consultant "time is money".


In the 1980s, Roy Dibble was absolutely right with his criticism of the last M in GITIMM. But it would take twenty years before the first standardized management systems were developed, from which all those ITIL projects would have benefited so much. These standardized management systems were not based on practices, but on principles that were incorporated into methods. The latest addition to this line is the Unified Service Management method, USM, managed by the SURVUZ Foundation. ITIL projects could have benefited enormously from this systematic approach with a standardized method (exactly what ITIL was not - according to its inventors), with lasting results, at much lower costs and in a much shorter time.


So there is hope for ITIL. It has now gained allies at the other end of the spectrum that will help it get more successful. While ITIL growth is slowing and competition is increasing, ITIL still by far contains the most detailed guidance for day-to-day IT practice, and it is constantly evolving. And with the USM method, much of this content can now also be made available to service providers other than IT, in an Enterprise Service Management approach.

How long will ITIL survive? Will we see ITIL end its days in a nursing home? Is ITIL swallowed up by a new life form such as IT4IT from The Open Group, or by the IT Capability Framework (IT-CMF) of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth? Or will it seek cooperation with the complementary forces of methods such as USM? We will see. It took thirty years to reach the top of the growth curve. It will take at least a decade for another framework to beat it.

Author: Jan van Bon, 2016

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