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What ITIL Means by "Process"

Let's get it together people, writes ITSM Watch columnist Rob England.
May 21, 2008

Rob England


This is the fourth in a series of articles forming an unofficial introduction to ITIL. In the first of this series we looked at an unauthorised history of ITIL. In the second article we discussed service management. In third we looked at the concept of a Service. Now we will try to disentangle ITIL thinking about “Process”.

Since the release of ITIL version 3 (v3) there is much “Ding! Dong! The Process is dead!” but I don’t think so. There is a burgeoning market for third-party process charts for v3. Authors are interpreting the new “v3-speak” back into the process-centric frame of reference where most users are still comfortable. We just got over the wrench away from techno-centric to process-centric with ITIL Version 2 (v2). Many people aren’t ready for service-centric yet.

While, v3 certainly is trying to move away from process, there is still debate about just how many processes there are in v3. The five core books never say. The official introduction says 27. itSMF says 26. There are many more “functions” in v3 that v2 would probably have called a process. The v3 Qualification Scheme offers 35 "subject areas".

Originally an official v3 process model was promised (for example “ITIL Process Maps” worked on by Jeroen Bronkhorst of HP and Sharon Taylor, Chief Architect of ITIL, were in the June 2006 scoping of v3) but it seems to have quietly disappeared, or is at least taking a while. Quite a while.

So, v3 is trying to bury the idea of process in favour of the new improved concept of service. ITIL has always only had a vague concept of what constitutes a process. ITIL authors have never felt constrained by the tighter definitions of “process” used by say process re-engineering or business analysis.

The ITIL V3 Glossary does define a process as: "A structured set of Activities designed to accomplish a specific Objective. A Process takes one or more defined inputs and turns them into defined outputs. A Process may include any of the Roles, responsibilities, tools and management Controls required to reliably deliver the outputs. A Process may define Policies, Standards, Guidelines, Activities, and Work Instructions if they are needed."

The five core ITIL V3 books have a different definition of process:

"Processes are examples of closed-loop systems because they provide change and transformation towards a goal and utilize feedback for self-reinforcing and self-correction … "

The ITIL V3 core books go on to say that processes are measurable; that they deliver a specific result “individually identifiable and countable”; deliver their primary result to a customer; and respond to a specific trigger.

Amusingly four of the five core books go on to say that functions are often confused with processes and use capacity management as an example where “it is a mistake to assume that capacity management can only be a process … with discrete countable outcomes", whereas the one book that owns capacity management, Service Design, says nothing of the sort, and does not even mention capacity management in this section.

Dissent amongst the ranks?

Squabbles aside, the definition in the glossary and the definition in the core books differ somewhat. What they have in common is that many of the 24 or 26 processes listed by the official introduction or by itSMF do not fit them. Four out of five books agree that capacity management is one example of a process that by either definition isn’t. The official introduction calls operations management a process, the Service Operation core book calls it a function (along with other functions that don’t get called a process in the introduction).

A number of activities defined as processes do not fit well with the concept of a clear sequence of looping tasks that respond to a trigger to take inputs and turn them into countable outputs: IT financial management, service continuity management, configuration management, availability management, strategy generation, etc.

Let us accept that v2 was sloppy about what constitutes a process and used the word to label all the domains or functions or activity areas of ITIL. Despite brave attempts to introduce a crisper, more generally accepted usage of the word in v3, the historical legacy has lived on and the word still gets a rough ride. When ITIL talks about process, they mean defined people doing defined stuff in a defined area—nothing more. (Except in some instances where they mean a process.)

Rob England is a self-employed IT consultant, commentator and entrepreneur living in New Zealand. He is well known as the IT Skeptic and can be found at www.itskeptic.org.

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