If you’re in IT, have an IT department, have significant IT needs, or are simply IT curious, you’ve probably come across the term “ITIL”.

The IT world is nothing if not obtuse in its terminology, and ITIL is no exception. Its very existence has baffled both IT professionals and laymen in their quest to understand it and wield its power.

So what is ITIL? What does it do? Do I need one? Is it expensive?

In this article, we’ll cover all those questions and more, as we seek to understand the often-quoted, but rarely-understood world of ITIL.

A Brief ITIL History

First, a little history. Did you know ITIL is a creation of the British government?

It’s true – ITIL was created by IT professionals who were working for the UK government in the 1980s. As computing systems became more complex, and as government functions began to rely more heavily on computers and digital systems, it became necessary for the British government to create a set of standards, procedures and guidelines that could easily and effectively be disseminated to the various needs of the various groups in the organization.

The first version of ITIL was released in 1989, and since then, it has only blossomed and grown in both popularity and sophistication. It quickly evolved into a series of 30 books providing best practices that catered to client and business needs.

Over the years, ITIL has seen several updates, with the most recent one being ITIL 4 – which was released in 2019. As a framework, ITIL shows no signs of slowing down, and in fact, we’re probably due for a new framework in the next 4 or 5 years!

What Is ITIL?

ITIL, or Information Technology Infrastructure Library, is a globally recognized collection of best practices for IT service management (aka ITSM – more on that in next month’s “What Is____?” series). It’s a bit like Six Sigma or ISO 2000 – it’s a trademarked, copyrighted framework for managing IT.

So what is ITIL, really? Honestly, it’s a bunch of checklists. Okay, not just checklists. But a lot of checklists.

No, ITIL is a series of standardized processes, rules, procedures, and guidelines that organizations can follow to increase their IT management’s efficiency and effectiveness. This usually takes the form of tasks and checklists, as previously mentioned.

The other big part of ITIL is a reframing of the IT department entirely. Gone are the days when IT departments are viewed as a business unit within a larger organization. Or at least that’s what ITIL suggests.

The ITIL framework says that IT departments must divest themselves of thinking of themselves as a business unit – rather, they must think of themselves as a standalone business, whose customers are all the people who use IT to complete their jobs.

Essentially, ITIL breaks up all the complex bits of IT and IT infrastructure and makes it into an easy-to-follow, procedural process where you can simply follow the industry-agnostic guidelines to help guide your IT strategy. It’s an overarching framework for your IT.

What’s the difference between ITIL and ITSM?

Oftentimes ITIL gets confused with ITSM, but in reality, they are very different. In fact, ITSM is actually a subset of ITIL. IT service management is only one factor of ITIL, which looks at the entirety of an organization’s IT applications.

ITSM and ITIL are similar, however, from their perspective. ITSM also considers the IT department its own organization, and the ITSM approach also includes thinking of the business units they serve as their customers. What it lacks is the procedure and action of ITIL.

ITIL takes this a step further. It’s not just about defining the relationship between the IT organization and the business, but rather, ITIL provides a structured approach to managing IT services throughout their entire lifecycle. It’s a set of detailed practices that focus on aligning IT services with business needs, allowing organizations to plan, implement, and measure their strategies effectively​.

Pros and Cons of ITIL

So what are the pros and cons of ITIL?


  • Proven model – the ITIL framework has been proven over 40 years. There’s a reason people use it – it works!
  • Industry/use case agnostic – Since ITIL was developed as a government-wide set of standards, ITIL is meant to be applicable to any industry. It’s been designed to work for ANY IT system, in any industry, which is a huge pro for small businesses.
  • Easy to follow – ITIL is, as we said earlier, effectively a giant checklist. Since it had to be easily understood by very different groups of people, the ITIL framework is extremely easy to follow, even for laypeople.
  • Helps make sense of complex systems – An ITIL framework can help make heads and tails of extremely complex IT systems, by breaking down everything into discrete functions with definable characteristics.


  • Restrictive – where ITIL provides stability, it gives up in flexibility. If you’re an organization that needs to be agile and make decisions at the moment, ITIL might not be right with its reams and reams of paperwork and procedure to follow.
  • Difficult to implement – although ITIL, once implemented, is something your IT department can do in their sleep, implementing it initially can be an uphill battle. People are resistant to change to begin with, and ITIL requires a lot of restructuring of common behaviors

Do I Need ITIL?

So do you need ITIL for your business? The only person that can answer that is you.

For businesses with lots of systems and dozens of users or big server rooms, ITIL makes a ton of sense – it allows you to create a broad set of standards that everyone and anyone can follow, making things more efficient overall.

However, if you’re a small business without a lot of need for IT, or if you gain a competitive advantage from simply handling IT the way you handle it already, you might skip the time and energy that involves standardizing your entire IT system through ITIL. the reality is that it’s not always wholly necessary, and in fact, it might just slow your business down!