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What can CIOs expect from ITIL 4? More leadership advice, for one

ITIL 4 is scheduled for release in early 2019. ITIL expert David Ratcliffe discusses what's different about this ITIL update and why the guidance remains vitally relevant to CIOs.

ITIL 4 -- the update of the IT service management framework since 2011 -- is launching in early 2019. To find out what CIOs can expect from the version, we spoke with ITSM guru David Ratcliffe, co-founder and president of the training consultancy Pink Elephant Inc.

Recognized as one of the industry's foremost IT service management experts, Ratcliffe contributed to the version of the ITIL framework (1989-1996). In 1997, he taught the ITIL foundation course offered in North America.

While he did not contribute directly to this most recent ITIL update, he participated in sessions, was briefed on the revisions and, as head of a leading ITIL training organization, he has helped guide the certification scheme.

A clear-eyed judge of where previous versions of ITIL fell short, Ratcliffe dubs ITIL 4 "a major leap forward." Of note is ITIL 4's deeper focus on prescriptive guidance, the value of IT and what's required of an IT leader in a time of tremendous technology and business change.

Editor's note: The following was edited for clarity and brevity.

How is ITIL 4 going to be different from ITIL 3 and -- to ask the broader question-- will it remain relevant for modern IT organizations that are adopting emerging technology, approaches like DevOps and other IT service delivery modes, like cloud, that were not widespread when ITIL 3 was released?

David RatcliffeDavid Ratcliffe

David Ratcliffe: If we take a couple of steps backward and look at what were the weaknesses in version 3 that No. 4 is going to address, it's mainly the context and the application of version 3 that was a challenge. That was not because it was version 3, but because -- up until a couple of years ago when Axelos something called the ITIL Practitioner Guidance Book, which is part of ITIL 3 -- virtually everything we taught in ITIL was about processes and activities.

The big shortcoming all through that time -- maybe 20 years or so -- was the application of that workflow: How do you implement those processes? How do you build tools that match up to that way of working? How do you get people to change the way they work to match up with ITIL?

We actually realized that this was a challenge within the few years but never really supplemented ITIL with prescriptive guidance. We now have that in ITIL 4, which is a big leap forward.

What we've done is we've tried to improve the application of ITIL to acknowledge the leadership requirement for organizational change, the adoption of some of these practices in lean and Agile, and the awareness of the scale and scope of IT processes as this gray line crossing over into the development world.

Systems thinking, rethought

So, the big conceptual change is that there's more practical, prescriptive advice on how to apply the ITIL framework?

Ratcliffe: It's not just how to implement these ways of working. It's understanding the context today of things needing to be done quicker and faster, of the business actually having more of a role in defining what it wants. The business didn't use to have that role in the early days of ITIL -- they relied on the IT guys to come forward and say, 'How about doing this?' Now, the business is coming forward and saying, 'Our competitors are doing this, why aren't we doing it?'

So, the business community is more demanding and it wants to see valuable solutions, so there is a big discussion now on what do we mean by value in IT services. There's a definition of value in version 3, but it's not really very helpful. It wasn't something people spent a lot of time thinking about. Now, it's really important.

And lastly, this idea of what we call "systems thinking." IT people have always been famous for thinking about systems and then, secondly, about how IT systems fit into the business. That has to be turned around and you've got to think, 'What is our business doing, and where is the opportunity for IT to make the business more successful?' The systems are not what drive the business. The business drives what the systems should be. In ITIL 4, systems thinking is now used to describe a much more open and holistic view of the needs of the business, along with the overall capabilities of IT.

ITIL evolution

Communicating change

OK, so ITIL 4 looks into the world beyond the ITIL processes that CIOs already know about and into areas such as how have better relationships and interactions with the business. How does that happen?

Ratcliffe: Some of it is just traditional organizational change techniques.

If you're working in a factory and you want to change the way the production line works, you've got to get people to understand why the way of working is better and how they can play a part in making that effective and successful. You don't just say, 'Stop doing it that way and start doing it this way.'

The academics understand organizational change very well, and the leading organizations that go through organizational change effectively understand this.

But the average IT person has never been in that kind of a situation. They think, 'Oh, we have a better process, let's just do that.' Then they find out that while they might have been convinced, the change affects a lot of people, and they haven't done a very good job of explaining why the urgency, what the benefits are, what we require of them and how to continually improve it. These are the things that we're talking about in ITIL 4 -- as much and if not more so than what are the inputs and outputs of the process in operations. The latter hasn't changed very much.

Identifying IT leaders

Who in IT is the advice intended for?

Ratcliffe: What we have to do -- and it's reflected in the certification scheme -- is to identify people we call leaders, or strategists. And that could be from the CIO down -- anyone who is in a position of authority or a position where they are accountable for improving things. I've talked before about the difference between managing and leading. Managing is all about short-term, established, well-understood things that need to get done. Leading is all about thinking about how we can make things better.

So, there now is this discussion in ITIL about leadership and how do we lead improvement. And it's not just about looking up to a single person -- the CIO. All of our senior people or people in positions of authority with responsibility for change need to understand the bits and bytes of what we mean by organizational change: It's understanding people, and it's understanding culture, and that's now described in ITIL 4.

So, this is a great opportunity for us -- I don't just mean for us in the training and consulting business -- I mean for the industry as a whole. For the very time, we have done a much more holistic job of working though practices and evolving practices more effectively for the business, instead of looking at things in isolation and saying, 'Here's a and improved process, let's just roll it out' -- and not thinking about how does that impact the business in terms of improving value, and how do we need to do this in a way where it can be successful? To do that requires getting inside the minds of all of the people who are involved and who will be affected by the change and making sure they understand how this way of working will deliver value.

So, yes, the version is not just tinkering around the edges. It's actually a whole layer of stuff on top that allows us to do those pieces of work as they evolve and improve in a more effective way.

ITIL update: Reception so far?

That's pretty exciting -- what's your prediction about how ITIL 4 will be received?

Ratcliffe: Well, we've got some feedback already, and this all top-secret stuff, so I hope there's way to describe this without giving too much away. We were commissioned by [ITIL joint owner] Axelos to deliver the training course. It's been done and we delivered it to a specially invited group of practitioners at the ITSM Fusion conference in St. Louis. The feedback we got was outstanding -- 36 out of 38 people were super impressed with the direction that ITIL 4 has taken and tried to do.

[SearchCIO contributor and Pink Elephant Vice President] Troy DuMoulin is getting involved in training the trainers. He said that one of the things he's concerned about is making sure the trainers who are training practitioners stress upfront the things that we don't normally talk about in previous versions of ITIL (some of the things we've already recapped); we have got to spend quite some time making sure people understand how IT delivers value and what value really means -- and also get away from this systems thinking I referred to, and think more about the business rather than systems.

Defining IT value

How do you think IT value should be defined?

Ratcliffe: It's a very tricky subject, and so you have got to really think deeply about it, almost on a project-by-project basis. It's not like you can put a chart up on the wall in the IT department, and say, 'This is what value means to us,' because depending on what service or what applications, what you're providing to one group of customers as opposed to another group of customers, the way you quantify value is going to be different. You might be able to have a general statement that describes and defines the way that you quantify value, but you can't even write it down. It's like the ether: You think it's there, but you don't really know how to capture it.

That's an important nuance -- that IT value depends upon the context. In one situation, speed may represent the highest value; in another, reliability, or ease of use.

Ratcliffe: In ITIL 3, we talk about utility and warranty. Utility is what does an action do, and warranty is how reliably does it work.

In ITIL 4, they have gone beyond that -- maybe it is not possible to write down what value is, but we've got to talk about it with the customer before we get too deeply into development. 'What is going to be most useful to you? And can we break it down using Agile concepts into a way that we check and do it iteratively and stop when there is no more value in proceeding?'

So, there are discussions around Agile and, particularly, around lean thinking, which helps developers and the IT folks make sure what they're doing for the business is cost-effective and worthwhile.

Dictionary definitions of value like this have been around for a long time: Determine whether what you're getting out of the activity is worth what you're putting into it in terms of cost.

But in IT, it's tough because things are changing so much. One group of customers might value one aspect of the service or an application, and another group might value something else, because of their level of previous experience or awareness or how they use the service.

Determining IT value and how it relates to organizational change means you've got to have good collaboration between the IT people -- this is the DevOps stuff -- and you've got to have good relationship management with business people and with other suppliers in order to resolve this discussion around value every time we have to do something different.

So, having good communications, collaboration, an attitude of cooperation; it's important to understand what we call the voice of the customer as being a critical tool, so we can make sure what we do is worthwhile and we're not just making assumptions and steaming ahead.

What do you say to critics who say, 'ITIL is dead?'

Ratcliffe: I don't know if it is a very fair comment. I think there are people out there who believe it is an easy way to get attention by saying you don't need ITIL anymore.

I'd say: 'You're probably saying that because you're using what you need from it already, and you don't think you need to pay much attention to it anymore. But you've embedded it in.'

I think if ITIL had been left on its own without the recent development work -- what we call an update -- yeah, people might not pay as much attention to it in terms of new adoptions, because when you looked at it, you'd think: 'Where is the reference to DevOps? Where is the reference to the types of applications and services we're providing today?' This all looks much like the old mainframe world of 20 years ago, which is where most people worked at that time. And so, yeah, I can imagine it is easy for people to say it's not of value anymore.

But I don't think that's the case. ITIL 4 is going to help us make use of other frameworks and techniques, because it is going to crystallize together things like Agile, DevOps, IT governance and leadership, and strategy. It helps us to say, 'Hey, let's get together and make sure we exploit all these techniques and keep in mind the prerequisites of delivering IT service quality.'

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