ITIL vs. ITSM – What’s the difference?

Daniel Weiß
January 23, 2023
Table of Contents:

Companies depend on IT services to support their business operations, and to meet the demands of their customers. ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) and ITSM (Information Technology Service Management) are frameworks to help organizations manage their IT services. While these two do have elements in common, they also have important differences.

ITIL is a set of best practices for IT service management which emphasizes the alignment of IT with the needs of the business. ITSM, on the other hand, is a broader term which relates to the processes, tools, and policies that are used to provide and support IT services.

In this article we will examine the differences between ITIL and ITSM more closely, and take a look at the advantages they have to improve the management of a company’s IT services.

What is ITIL?

ITIL is a framework that provides a range of best practices for IT service management. It was developed to help companies align their IT with the needs of the business and improve the quality and efficiency of their IT operations.

ITIL best practices are the de facto standard for ITSM, meaning they can also be considered a playbook for ITSM. This goes to show how ITSM efforts can be implemented at the highest level.

The ITIL Service Lifecycle (since ITIL version 3 from 2011) is at the core of the ITIL framework and consists of five main phases: Service Strategy, Service Design, Service Transition, Service Operations and Continuous Service Improvement. Let's take a look at these stages in detail:

  1. Service strategy: In this phase, a service portfolio is created that contains the necessary IT services. Decisions are made on how to provide and manage the services.
  2. Service Design: In this phase, detailed blueprints for new or changed IT services are drawn up, including the processes, tools, and documentation required to deliver and support these services.
  3. Service Transition: In this phase, transitioning the newly developed IT services into ongoing operations is planned and executed. This phase is also called service transfer or installation.
  4. Service Operations: The Service Operations phase focuses on the day-to-day management of IT services, including incident and problem management, and processing queries.
  5. Continuous Service Improvement: Finally, this phase is about the ongoing evaluation and improvement of IT services with the aim to increase efficiency and effectiveness. This helps companies to constantly improve the quality of IT services.

Updates in ITIL 4

ITIL 4, published in 2019, is the newest version of the ITIL framework.

There are several key differences between ITIL 3 and ITIL 4. One of the main differences is that ITIL 4 takes a much more holistic approach to IT service management by recognizing the interdependencies between the different parts of the IT service lifecycle. It also introduces new concepts such as value streams, which are end-to-end processes that span multiple stages of the service lifecycle, and emphasizes the importance of continuous improvement .

Another key difference between ITIL 3 and ITIL 4 is the way they approach service management. ITIL 3 is based on a process-oriented approach which focuses on individual processes and practices. ITIL 4, on the other hand, sees service management as a holistic activity where people, processes and technology work together to create value for customers. In this way ITIL 4 is similar to DevOps, in terms of the focus on collaboration and communication and thereby the creation of a culture, which is an essential characteristic of DevOps.

These seven basic principles are also new:

  • Focus on value orientation
  • Start where you are
  • Iterative development and feedback
  • Promote collaboration and transparency
  • Think and work holistically
  • Focus on simplicity and practicality
  • Optimize and automate

Details on the ITIL basic principles can be found here.

Overall, ITIL 4 builds on the fundamentals of ITIL 3, but takes a more modern and flexible approach to service management that is better tailored to the needs of organizations in the digital age - including integration with the cloud, among other things.

What is ITSM?

ITSM (Information Technology Service Management) is a broad term that refers to the practices and processes organizations use to plan, design, deliver, manage and improve the delivery of IT services to their customers. It spans the entire lifecycle of IT services, from conception and design to delivery and support. Key activities within ITSM include incident management, problem and change management, and service level management.

Incident management refers to identifying, prioritizing and resolving any incidents, problems or issues that occur with IT services. Problem management is about identifying the root cause of incidents and implementing permanent solutions to prevent them from occurring again. Change management is the process of controlling and coordinating changes to IT services to ensure they are implemented in a controlled and consistent manner. Service Level Management is the process of defining, documenting and agreeing on the levels of service that an organization will provide to its clients and ensuring that those levels are met.

What are the most important differences between ITIL and ITSM?

One of the main differences between ITIL and ITSM is how widely they can be applied. ITIL is a specific framework that provides a set of best practices for managing IT services, with a focus on aligning IT with the needs of the business (‘how exactly actions and efforts are implemented’). It consists of a set of guidelines and recommendations organized around the ITIL Service Lifecycle, which covers the full range of activities associated with managing IT services.

On the other hand, ITSM is an umbrella term that refers to the way organizations plan, design, deliver, manage and improve their IT services. It can include elements of ITIL as well as other frameworks and approaches. While ITIL is often used as the basis for building an ITSM program, it is not the only approach to ITSM. There are also other frameworks and standards that organizations can use to guide their ITSM efforts, such as COBIT, ISO 20000 and CMMI.

ITIL and ITSM are often confused or mistaken for the same thing because of their similarities. ITIL is a specific framework for managing IT services and best practice standard for ITSM, while ITSM is a broader term that encompasses a wide range of practices and processes for delivering and supporting IT services.

Advantages of ITIL

Managing IT services with ITIL has several advantages. Firstly, ITIL is widely recognized and accepted as a best practice for IT service management. It is used by thousands of organizations around the world, and across a wide range of industries. This makes it easier for organizations to compare their IT service management practices against others, and to share knowledge and experience with others using ITIL.

ITIL also provides a structured approach to IT service management. It is based on a set of best practices that have been developed over time and have been proven to be effective in a wide range of organizations. This setup also makes it easier for organizations to understand, implement and benefit from the ITIL framework.

Furthermore, ITIL is flexible and can be customized to meet an organization’s specific needs. In this way, ITIL not only provides a set of recommended practices, but also allows organizations to tailor these practices to their own needs and requirements. This makes it easier for organizations to integrate ITIL into their specific environment.

Overall, ITIL provides a systematic approach to service management based on clear processes and procedures. Organizations can use it to improve their service quality, use their resources more efficiently and manage risks better. ITIL is a framework that can be used to support a wide range of IT services, including those provided by cloud providers.

Advantages of ITSM

Using ITSM also has several advantages. Firstly, ITSM focuses on meeting the needs of customers, both internally and externally. When organizations develop and deliver their IT services with the customer as the focus, they can improve the quality and value of their services to increase customer satisfaction.

Secondly, ITSM can help organizations improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their IT operations. By using standardized processes and tools, along with continuous monitoring and process improvement, companies can reduce waste and inefficiency and increase the productivity of their IT staff.

Furthermore, ITSM can help companies to reduce costs. By streamlining processes and identifying and eliminating inefficiencies, IT costs can be reduced and the bottom line improved. In addition, ITSM can make an organization more Agile. By enabling companies to respond quickly and effectively to changing business needs, ITSM can help them stay competitive in a rapidly evolving business environment.

Last but not least, ITSM can support compliance with relevant laws, regulations and industry standards. By implementing effective controls and processes for managing IT services, organizations can reduce the risk of non-compliance and protect their reputation and bottom line.


In summary, ITIL and ITSM are both frameworks that help organizations manage their IT services. Although they may share some common elements, they do have important differences. ITIL provides guidance on specific processes and practices, while ITSM takes a holistic approach to IT service management, covering everything from design and delivery to monitoring and improvement. By understanding the differences between ITIL and ITSM, organizations can choose the best approaches to managing their IT services and improving the efficiency and effectiveness of their IT operations. For the most part, it's not an either/or decision, as they are complementary approaches - simply because ITIL is the global standard for ITSM.

What’s more, this also applies to DevOps. Want to know how this works?  Read our article "ITIL vs. DevOps: Which is right for your company?"

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