What's the Real Difference Between ITIL and ITSM?

Erika Flora
Written by Erika Flora

What is ITIL? 

ITIL is an acronym; it stands for Information Technology Infrastructure Library. It’s a set of books created by the British government after they embarked on a huge research project to improve their own internal IT departments. Their research turned into the largest collection of “best practice” in IT, collected from organizations around the world. So, when you hear “ITIL” – remember it’s the set of books.

What is ITSM?

The most important thing about the ITIL books is their subject matter: the concept of IT Service Management (ITSM). ITSM is about providing great services to customers – services that add value. Practicing ITSM helps IT organizations better understand their customers’ needs. It helps them put sensible processes and structure in place to manage the chaos, leverage and deepen what they are uniquely good at, and continually improve as an organization. An easy way to remember the difference between ITIL and ITSM is as follows:

  • ITIL = Books (the encyclopedias)
  • ITSM = Subject of the books (what we practice as an organization)

Why Should My Organization Care?

Organizations are increasingly turning to the ITSM concepts found in the ITIL books because they’re finding you can’t spend your way out of every problem. You can’t hire more people or buy additional infrastructure to increase availability, for example. You have to look at how your people are working – and what processes are in place – to solve these problems. This is where the ITIL books excel. They contain loads of ideas on ways to improve how you manage change in a complex environment, how to best handle issues, problems, and requests as they come in from customers, how to measure what you are doing and show tangible improvement, and how to write great Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with customers and users (more on that in another article) – just to name a few.

ITIL is a framework designed specifically for tackling and solving those issues commonly plaguing IT organizations just like yours.  The books are full of practical knowledge that can benefit any IT organization. In fact, organizations that invest the time, energy, and resources to put those concepts in place and stick to them (any kind of organizational change is hard, including implementing ITSM) find they provide higher quality of service to customers and save time, money, and stress while they’re at it. Plus, since it’s a framework, you can use what works for your organization and ignore the stuff that doesn’t. Not a bad deal.

What’s In It For Me?

ITIL Foundation is becoming the norm in IT organizations (US government agencies are including ITIL in many of their RFPs), and more and more people are finding this requirement show up in job descriptions. Want to make it to an interview these days?  You need to have training in ITIL and ITSM. It also gives you perspective into all areas of IT and allows you to “speak the same language” of those around you. Oh, and it will most certainly make you better at your job, so there’s that.

Ready to take the plunge and get trained up?
Here’s an overview of the ITIL Certification schema.


Originally published September 09 2015, updated December 12 2019