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Just What is an ITIL Service Anyway?

Ah, the question of questions. ITSM Watch columnist Rob England thinks he has the answer.
Apr 11, 2008

Rob England


This is the third in a series of articles forming an unofficial introduction to ITIL. In the first article of this series we looked at an unauthorised history of ITIL. In the second article we discussed service management. Now it's time to consider just what is a service anyway?

The word “service” certainly gets some exercise. ITIL v3 says “A service is a means of delivering value to customers by facilitating outcomes customers want to achieve, but without the ownership of specific costs and risks.”

This impenetrable bit of consultant-babble does not help those who are trying to grasp the fundamental concept.

The itSMF repeats the same waffle in their introduction, but they then take pity on us by providing a practical example, where the outcome of sales people getting more customer face-time is delivered by a service which provides remote access to systems. (In reality, we all know that sales people spending less time in the office does not translate to more time with customers).

This is an advance from the ITIL v2 pocket book from itSMF which avoids the whole question of defining a service, though it does in passing say that a service is about “ICT infrastructure and management processes that deliver the information and solutions required by the business." ITIL v2 was centred on the process not the service, and in fact that other excellent itSMF pocket book for ITIL v2, IT Service Management, talks about “service” as a verb rather than noun in all parts of the book except the Serve Level Management section.

The ITIL V3 Glossary naturally repeats the party line quoted above, so we are no further ahead. Even the ever dependable Wikipedia omits a definition. This might be because defining a service is hard. It is one of those words where people know one when they see one but struggle to create a crisp, clear definition that covers all instances.

I prefer to follow the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” approach: it is okay if something is “relaxed” and “contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate” so long as it is ultimately practical and useful.

Users regard IT as a utility delivering “stuff” in the same way as other utilities deliver water or power. IT is a pipe and what comes out the end are IT services. Users don’t give a toss about the ponds, pumps, purifications and pipes needed to deliver out of the pipe—they just care about the consumables delivered to the screen in front of them.

Customers and users care about all that infrastructure only so much as they care about the cost and standard of the delivered consumables. [Note: ITIL makes a good distinction between users and customers: the user uses; the customer pays.] So, services are what come out of the pipe not what happens to get them there.

What do users consume from IT (or if you prefer, ICT)? They consume transactions running on technology. They add, update, find, view and report data. They execute a process. They communicate with someone. The value and quality of those services is measured by whether they are the transactions that the users need, whether they do what is required, and how well they do it. All those things are defined from the user/customer point of view, i.e. looking at what came out the end of the pipe.

Okay, so this, then, gives us a nice, crisp definition, right?: IT Services are transactions on technology.

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