What is the ITIL Practitioner Course (and Should I Take it)?

Written by David Crouch

We get loads of questions from people wondering what ITIL Practitioner is all about and whether they should take a Practitioner class.  In this article, we will discuss the latest ITIL offering – the content of the class, the certification exam, value in the workplace, and answer your commonly-asked questions.

What is ITIL Practitioner?

ITIL Practitioner is the latest ITIL offering from Axelos, the purveyor of everything ITIL.  Introduced in 2016, Practitioner is an intermediate-level course that, as the name implies, provides guidance on how to take the theory of ITIL and put it into practice in the real world.  ITIL, as with just about any framework, suffers from rampant misconceptions and is considered by the uninitiated as a fad (even though it has been going strong for more than 30 years).  ITIL Practitioner goes a long way towards countering the objection that ITIL is nice in theory but not very practical.  Practitioner is underpinned by the advice to “adopt and adapt.”  In the words of the Practitioner Guide, “Following book examples or practices blindly, without considering their appropriateness to the situation, is a certain way to fail.  ITIL is not an instruction manual.”  Use ITIL as a source of best practice; then adopt what is appropriate.  Do what works!

What Topics are Covered in ITIL Practitioner?

ITIL Practitioner incorporates knowledge from several IT and non-IT domains.  ITIL Practitioner uses nine Guiding Principles and Continual Service Improvement as a framework for introducing other key business concepts helpful in applying ITIL in your organization.  ITIL Practitioner Guidance focuses on the following sections: Guiding Principles, CSI Approach, Metrics and Measurement, Communication, and Organizational Change Management.  The last section of the ITIL Practitioner Guidance is a Toolkit.  The Toolkit, though not organized in any discernable fashion, includes a plethora of ITIL and business tools.

What are the ITIL Guiding Principles?

ITIL proffers nine Guiding Principles to keep in mind when implementing ITIL in organizations.  The Guiding Principles are:

  • Focus on value
  • Design for experience
  • Start where you are
  • Work holistically
  • Progress iteratively
  • Observe directly
  • Be transparent
  • Collaborate
  • Keep it simple

At first, the Guiding Principles may seem cliché.  But when you understand them in the content of continuous improvement and service management, they make a lot of sense.

What is the Continual Service Improvement (CSI) Model?

ITIL Practitioner devotes significant space to discussing Continual Service Improvement and the CSI model.  The CSI model is a series of six questions an organization can ask to identify, prioritize, execute and drive improvement initiatives.  It is largely based on Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act continuous Improvement Cycle.  For the exam, knowing each question and the associated outputs are key. Also, knowing which tools are associated with which steps in the process is helpful.

How do Project Management and ITIL Work Together?

A big misconception about ITIL is that it is an alternative to project management methodologies.  In fact, ITIL works hand-in-hand with both traditional “waterfall” and agile methodologies.
There is a lot of information on managing projects in the ITIL Practitioner book.  For example, the Stakeholder Management and Communication Management knowledge areas of the 5th edition of the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) are nearly identical.  Moreover, many of the tools in the Toolkit are similar (if not the same as) tools in PMBOK.  For example, the RACI chart and Business Case template are two tools that are useful beyond the ITIL and Service Management worlds.

How does ITIL Practitioner Borrow from Agile, Lean, Kanban, & DevOps?

Another misconception about ITIL is that it competes with Agile, Lean, Kanban, and DevOps.  Just as with traditional project management, ITIL incorporates concepts for all four of these domains.  Throughout ITIL Practitioner Guidance Agile and DevOps terms are introduced.  Although Practitioner does not explore these areas thoroughly, Agile, Lean, Kanban, and DevOps enthusiasts will appreciate how these frameworks can be deployed to best advantage in an IT service management initiative.

Organizational Change Management & The People Side of Change

ITIL Practitioner tackles the “people side of change” with a significant section on organizational change management. Think about it.  When an improvement initiative fails, it is usually not because of technology per se.  Organizational failures more often than not involve issues on the people side – people did not buy in or “own” the change, they were not prepared for major changes or did not understand what was in it for them (both positive and negative).  Sometimes, the team did not produce wins early enough in the project or enough quick wins to get people excited.  This section of the ITIL Practitioner Guidance is rich with organizational development theorists and tools.  One I particularly like is Kotter’s 8 steps.  Another favorite – just for the name alone – is the infamous “Trough of Disillusionment” or “Trough of Despair.” Now I bet you really want to be a badass ITIL practitioner.


“Good communication is not just about being human or nice.”  In ITIL Practitioner, communications is about responding to people’s emotional and intellectual needs.  A recent survey suggests that more than half of failed projects were due to ineffective communications.  Not surprisingly, ITIL draws heavily on the Project Management Institute (PMI) for communications models, techniques, and benefits.  In terms of the exam, the successful candidate needs to understand what types of communication are appropriate in which circumstances.

Metrics & Measurement (CSFs, KPIs, SMART)

ITIL recognizes that continual service improvement initiatives that are not (or cannot be) measured are doomed.  On the other hand, some IT shops have a tendency to measure simply because they can even when what is being measured is not very useful or germane to success.  Balance is what is called for in terms of defining metrics and using measurement. ITIL Practitioner goes into depth in terms of defining critical success factors (CSFs) and SMART key performance indicators (KPIs).  Practitioner also provides a treasure trove of tools: The ITIL vision-to-measurement trail, balanced scorecard, IT component to scorecard hierarchy, COBIT 5 goals cascade, organization cascade and others.

ITIL Practitioner Criticism.

Criticism of ITIL Practitioner centers around two areas: the content itself and the exam.
In terms of content, some people point out that Axelos shamelessly appropriated domain knowledge and subject matter expertise from many fields (e.g., organizational development, change management, project management, DevOps, Agile, etc.) and repackaged it into ITIL Practitioner Guidance.  On its face, this is true.   Then again, ITIL does not claim otherwise.  As a framework (and not a standard), ITIL freely draws from many sources of best practice and suggests how these knowledge areas can be applied to IT Service Management.  For those of you who went to business school, ITIL Practitioner is a great refresher.  For those of you who did not, consider ITIL Practitioner a bonus.
The other big criticism is that the ITIL Practitioner exam is difficult!  This is a fair complaint.  Axelos intended Practitioner to be a bridge of sorts between Foundations and other Intermediate classes.  But in many ways it is more like a mini-capstone class.  Recently, Axelos tried to improve the exam by “making the language in the questions more accessible.”  Honestly, the jury is still out on whether the minor modifications made to the exam actually improved it or made it easier.  So, to reiterate, the ITIL Practitioner exam is difficult!

The ITIL Practitioner Exam

Axelos intended for the ITIL Practitioner Exam to be a touch harder than ITIL Foundations but slightly easier than other ITIL Intermediate Exams.  In fact, ask any ITIL expert, and they are likely to tell you that this exam is no joke!

Who is Eligible for ITIL Practitioner?

The only requirement to sit for the ITIL Practitioner exam is that you already have passed ITIL Foundations.  Otherwise, you can take the course at any time along your path to ITIL Expert (in fact, I took ITIL Practitioner years after becoming an ITIL Expert).

The ITIL Practitioner Exam Format

For those familiar with other ITIL Intermediate exams, ITIL Practitioner is a twist on the intermediates.  In fact, it is in some ways similar to the ITIL Foundations Exam and in some ways similar to ITIL Intermediate Exams.  There are 40 multiple choice questions, just like Foundations.  And like Foundations, there is only one correct answer for each question.  However, most of the questions are scenario-based and related to a case study, which is the same for all exams and which you know in advance.
Practitioner is a timed exam and you have 2 hours and 15 minutes to complete it.  An interesting feature of ITIL Practitioner is that it is an open book exam.  You are allowed to bring the official Axelos exam book into the examination room with you and refer to it.  In fact, it makes a lot of sense to place sticky tabs on the various sections of the book and to highlight key words. (You cannot, however, place sticky notes inside the book.)  The open book nature of the exam is a double-edged sword in terms of time management.  If you are familiar with the sections of your book and have done a good job at indexing it, you can save a lot of time by rifling directly to the section of the book pertinent to a particular question.  On the other hand, you can waste a lot of time if you attempt to use the book to answer every question. Although the book helps, there is simply no substitute for knowing the content.  If 2 hours and 15 minutes sounds like a lot of time, be forewarned!  It is likely you will use most (if not all) of the allotted time to complete the exam.

What is the Passing Score for ITIL Practitioner?

The passing score for ITIL Practitioner is 70% (28/40).  This is a tough exam, and a win is a win.

5 Tips for Passing the ITIL Practitioner Exam

There is no doubt about it.  The ITIL Practitioner exam is tough!  Do not assume that an open book exam is easy. Beyond20 was one of the first training providers for ITIL Practitioner and our first-time exam pass rate is high. We have compiled the pointers below after teaching hundreds of students:

1. Take an ITIL Practitioner Class

The absolute best tip we can give you is to take an in-person ITIL Practitioner Class from an Axelos accredited trainer.  The exam can test you on any part of the Practitioner Guide.  A qualified instructor can help you focus your time on the most meaningful material in the text.

2. Know the ITIL Practitioner Case Study

The main case study is the same for all ITIL Practitioner Exams.  Being familiar with the case study saves time on exam day (and you will need time!).  Most of the questions on the exam are based on mini-scenarios that build upon the main case study.

3. Take the ITIL Practitioner Exam on Paper

The Practitioner Exam can be taken three ways: Computer-based at a Testing Center, Remotely on a Computer at Home, or at a Trainer Provider site as a computer-based or paper-based exam.  We suggest the latter, paper-based option.  The only way you can take ITIL Practitioner as a paper-based exam is if you take it onsite with an accredited training provider.  Paper-based is better because you can write notes on the exam, cross off wrong answer choices, easily refer back to the case study, etc.  Many of our students report how critical taking the exam on paper was to them as they worked through the exam.

NOTE: If you opt to take the exam at home, you are not allowed to use the Practitioner Guide. Avoid this at all costs. Why take a closed book exam if you don’t have to? 

4. Avoid the Sexy Distractor Exam Questions

The key to passing the ITIL Practitioner Exam is to avoid the sexy distractors.  In other words, do your best to eliminate at least one or two of the answers that are obviously wrong.  TheThis is another area where a class can help (see Tip 1).  When you go it alone, the “obviously wrong” might not be so obvious.  But after taking a class, there are normally a couple of answers that jump out as being wrong.  We do not recommend the “process of elimination” approach for every exam, but narrowing answer choices down to 50/50, especially for the really hard questions, is a good option on ITIL Practitioner.  Sexy Distractors generally fall into the following categories: Extreme (apply the same approach to all stakeholders), Too Broad (Blindly Follow ITIL Principles), Too Narrow/Too Technical (Deploy a highly-technical solution to the problem).  And some answer choices are just plain wrong.  For example, sometimes an answer choice directly contradicts something mentioned in the case study.

5. Know your ITIL Practitioner Book and Index it

You should certainly read the ITIL Practitioner Book (officially called ITIL Practitioner Guidance) prior to taking the exam.  However, it is not necessary to memorize every single word.  It is a better approach to become familiar with key sections (e.g., CSI, Communications, etc.) and a few smaller topics in each of these sections.  The exam is open book, but you cannot flag the entire book, so knowing where to go is a big time saver.

Index the ITIL Practitioner book in a strategic way.  Flag key sections and important content within those sections.

How ITIL Practitioner Adds Value

Certifications open the door but they don’t close the deal.  Many IT professionals ask, “How does ITIL Practitioner Add Value beyond the certification?”  The biggest take-away from ITIL Practitioner is that an organization does not have to implement every ITIL process to improve.  As the old saying goes, “perfect is the enemy of progress.”  ITIL Practitioner reminds us that following ITIL blindly will not lead to success.  At the same time, ITIL Practitioner emphasizes key junctures where ITIL guidance can help improve your organization and provides practical tips for how to introduce ITIL and improve incrementally.

Ready to take the plunge?

Have a look at our upcoming ITIL Practitioner courses.
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Originally published January 01 2018, updated December 12 2019