Practices and capabilities in ITIL® 4 – a critical view

Julkaistu 4.3.2019
Lukuaika noin 4 min

In the new ITIL 4 there is now less emphasis on processes and more on what is needed to get things done. That’s a good thing. Many of the so-called ‘processes’ in ITIL V3 weren’t really processes anyway. While incident management certainly could be considered a process, many others didn’t fit within the definition.

Instead of processes and procedures, ITIL4 defines collections of abilities, skills, people, tools, etc. with specific responsibilities. We may need processes and specific procedures too, but it’s more interesting for a framework to define what needs to be done than to prescribe a particular way to do it. In a DevOps company they do things differently than in a traditional one, they will not use the same processes and procedures, but they may have the same set of capabilities.

What is a capability?

For years enterprise architects have been interested in defining organizational capabilities. The “theory of the firm” sees an organization as a collection of capabilities. A capability is what a business needs to execute its strategy. Another way to put it is:

“A capability is an assembly of people, process, and technology for a specific purpose.”
(Ric Merrifield, Jack Calhoun and Dennis Stevens ”The Next Revolution in Productivity”) 

ArchiMate defines it similarly and so does ASATE, adding brands and natural resource deposits to the definition.The standard Leonard-Barton view defines Capability management as identifying core capabilities that consist of physical technical systems, managerial systems, skills and knowledge, values and norms. Business capability modeling involves taking industry standard capability models as a basis for developing organization-specific capabilities, and if needed, break those down into specific processes, procedures, and activities.

In plain language: capability planning is defining the skills, resources, information, technology, culture, partners, etc. we need to accomplish whatever we are doing.

What does it have to do with ITIL 4?

So far so good.

This is exactly what ITIL4 provides. A high-level capability model for service management, intended to be adapted to specific needs. Brilliant. Even beautiful.

For some unknown reason, the lead architects chose to call these collections of abilities, technology, etc. ‘practices.’ Not ‘capabilities.’

One wonders why.

One reason I saw in the advance material I reviewed was that the word ‘capability’ is too hard to translate and everybody will have a different view of what it means.

That’s obviously just a lot of Bravo Sierra.

Of course, it’s true that the word ‘capability’ has a lot of different meanings and may be difficult to translate, but that’s true for all words. It’s certainly true for the word ‘practice.’ So no, that is not the real reason.

Capability may for instance, depending on context, refer to only the “soft” dimension: skills, knowledge, and abilities, without the “hard” dimension: technology, systems, money and other resources. Or it may include, as in most business contexts, everything needed to be able of something. There is an easy solution – a definition. How about: “In the context of ITIL4, capability means a set of organizational resources designed for performing work or accomplishing an objective.” 

Problem solved

That would have been nicely aligned with TOGAF Capability-Based Planning and Business Capability Modeling, ASATE Business Capability Framework, and ArchiMate, to name a few.

Instead, ITIL4 chose the word ’practice,’ and created a much worse problem. What is a practice? How do you translate that?

COBIT 2019 defines a process as an organized set of practices and activities. ITIL 4 now defines that processes are one of the dimensions of a practice. Merriam-Webster has a number of definitions for the noun practice. It may may refer to a usual way of doing things, as in ‘common practice’ or a systematic exercise for proficiency as in ‘practice makes perfect,’ but closest to the ITIL definition is ‘the continuous exercise of a profession,’ as in ‘a doctor’s practice.’ ITIL 4 describes it this way:

“A practice is a set of organizational resources designed for performing work or accomplishing an objective. These resources are grouped into […] organizations and people, processes and value streams, information and technology, partners and suppliers.”

While I like that ITIL encourages establishing a set of practices, it’s a pity ITIL 4 chose the term ‘practice’ over ‘capability.’ This would have been a perfect opportunity for ITIL to align the terminology with other business frameworks. To start talking about capabilities at the core of organizations. 

To add to the conundrum, ITIL 4 defines service management as “a set of organizational capabilities …” What? Wait! Suddenly we use the word ‘capabilities.’ These service management capabilities include the same four dimensions as practices (people, processes technology, partners).

Oh, well.

It is what it is

So, a ‘practice’ in ITIL4 is basically what everybody else in the industry calls a ‘capability.’ Except for the definition of service management where a ‘capability’ is what the rest of ITIL 4 calls a ‘practice.’ In theory, according to ITIL, a practice is the same thing as a capability. In practice, it’s not. (That was intentional, haha)

OK, I can live with ‘practice.’ It would be cool, though, to know the real reason for this. Politics? Bad chemistry between lead architects? A compromise between conflicting views? Maybe there was a vote, and enterprise architects lost. We’ll probably never know.

We just have to get used to it. Adapt and adopt.

PS. Don’t get me wrong. I like the new ITIL. It has value. It’s adaptable and adoptable, as long as you take it with a grain of salt and try to understand the thoughts behind the words. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain. If ITIL were too consistent and easy to understand, there would be less demand for ITIL training. So maybe it’s in my best interest that it is what it is. But we do have a huge translation problem now.

ITIL® is a registered trade mark of AXELOS Limited, used under permission of AXELOS Limited. All rights reserved.

Tietoa kirjoittajasta:

Ben Kalland

Ben Kalland is Accrdited Trainer: ITIL4, COBIT5, TOGAF, LeanIT, Resilia. Axelos ITIL subject matter expert