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Stop Calling ITIL Best Practice

ITIL is not “best-practice” and we deride ITIL by calling it that, writes ITSM Watch columnist The IT Skeptic.
Sep 29, 2006

The IT Skeptic

Best practice is one of those terms where the meaning gets gradually eroded by constant misuse, especially by vendors, analysts and consultants—the phrase gains currency and pretty soon everyone uses it.

By now, “best-practice” has been so abused it only means “we wrote down a way of doing it." But ITIL is two decades old so let us assume that when ITIL was first created they really meant best-practice.

OGC defines best-practice as “A proven activity or process that has been successfully used by multiple organisations. ITIL is an example of best-practice.”

This strikes me as evasive: What has this to do with “best”? The itSMF defines best-practice as “an industry accepted way of doing something, that works” and “the best identified approach to a situation based upon observation from effective organisations in similar business circumstances.”

This is better. At least there is some element of relative merit to the second definition. Wikipedia (the Skeptic’s favourite source of the Zeitgeist) defines best-practice as “a management idea which asserts that there is a technique, method, process, activity, incentive or reward that is more effective at delivering a particular outcome than any other technique, method, process, etc.”

Yes, that is what "best” means, isn’t it? “More … than any other …”. Calling something best-practice is (or was) a brave statement. It led with the chin. “This is superlative. There is no better way of doing it.”

So why is OGC’s (U.K.'s Office of Government Commerce) definition nowadays so wimpy? Because ITIL isn’t best-practice. It is good practice. It is generally accepted practice. But it isn’t "best."

We have good arguments why ITIL is not the ultimate approach to IT operations:

  • It is still improving. Optimal process does not need a refresh.
  • We could not know if it were the best, as we have no objective measure of efficacy of ITIL against any other approach.
  • ITIL is not based on any rigorous research so there is no proof of efficacy and there can be no evidence-based process of optimising it, as there has been with, say, CMM.
  • ITIL is created by individuals, acting as a committee. Although they are highly knowledgeable, experienced professionals, they are still people with opinions and personal biases, and they still need to reach a consensus among several diverse positions. It is hard to imagine this process ever reaching the best result (something about design of camels comes to mind).
  • Even if ITIL were best, it is best as defined by a narrow group of people drawn from large corporations and major government bodies in the Western European culture.
  • Although the last thing I want is to sound like is a post-modernist, in cases like this they have a point. Despite OGC’s claims, ITIL does not fit well in smaller organizations and has almost nothing to say to small business. The great experiment is underway right now to see how it goes in the Asian cultures.

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