People and products: we all get old eventually

ivor graphWe all know that as we get older we lose some of our faculties and our usefulness changes. One interesting aspect of ageing workers is that it isn’t just about being good, bad, better or worse. In many jobs – and jobs as diverse as consultancy and bricklaying come to my mind – the actual deliverable usefulness changes as our strength and endurance fade but knowledge and experience grow to compensate and allow us to deliver continued, albeit different, value.

I suspect this feature, seen in the human species, is widely applicable, and extends even to best practice frameworks.

Let me try and explain what I mean.

For those of us who are parents, the first step to accepting the inevitable path to obsolescence and replacement is when we find ourselves asking our children to get something for us – because bending down or going upstairs is easier for them than us. Once past that point you have accepted not only aging but your progeny being better at things than you are. Inevitably that superior ability will spread from minor physical capability, like getting upstairs quickly, through to intellectual and perceptive ability such as understanding the world and innovation. For professional footballers, this tends to happen around 30, after which experience and positional understanding need to compensate for sheer speed and strength. For non-manual workers it is much later, but it happens just the same. The positioning of senility in best practice frameworks is less precise and perhaps still open to discussion.

Like parents, ITIL was originally young and fancy-free, and the only go-to place for building ITSM processes and practices. But in due course, ITIL spawned progeny (like COBIT, MOF and ISO2000[1]) – or alternatives if you prefer to see it that way. And some of those newcomers have now matured, as children do, to offer stronger options than ITIL for some aspects of the ITSM best practice world.

So, maybe ITIL has started to show its age, the joints are creaking a bit and we see some really interesting challenges from the next generation who understand the new environment a little better and maybe still have the flexibility to adapt more. More crucially, we see initiatives that don’t have to be bolted on to a historical behemoth of existing products and commitments.

Of course ITIL still has massive value. Like experience in craftsmen, the years of refinement, the market pervasiveness, global understanding and more mean ITIL still leads and delivers real value to those who use it to help them get better at service management. But like the aging craftsman with good apprentices, have we reached the point where ITIL has something to learn from the newcomers, rather than trying to stick to the idea that age and longevity equals right and correct and form the only way to go on?

Certainly it seems to me that some of the new ideas being floated challenge established ITIL detail in many ways but not ITIL’s experience, position and reputation. Preserving that (for want of a better word) authority in the industry will rely, to some degree, on accepting where others might now be better. Most of what originally went into ITIL came from elsewhere. Quite deliberately there was very little original put into ITIL guidance – the whole point of best practice is that it is out there working in the best organisations. Since ITIL’s launch we have seen, in turn, ITIL’s ideas instigate and invigorate new best practice ideas. That’s the good part of getting older, seeing your children be successes, perhaps even seeing them outdo your own efforts.

In practice, I wonder about ITIL in two ways.

  • It should be no surprise that in terms of basic mechanics and core strengths – like process details – ITIL is falling behind its younger children, friends or competitors. But the breadth and broader strategic focus that came with the later versions still sets it apart and gives it value – but perhaps a different kind and less exclusive value – experience taking over from strength? It is encouraging to hear Axelos talk about new white papers discussing the integration of ITIL and others best practices. But where does ITIL go? Should it compete head on with other process approaches, seek an overarching integration role, or simply claim it is the original and best?
  • Is ITIL flexible enough to take on new ideas, or should those ideas look to younger backs to carry them and just point out to them? As just one example, recent discussions questioning the merits in retaining a separation between incident and problem make real sense. But where will they get properly documented to gain broad acceptance? Because, for sure, we need a well documented alternative approach for any degree of acceptance. (Interestingly much of that idea has come from old human heads rather than young upstarts. I suspect that once the young upstarts do get going in our industry then the degree of challenge to established idea might go up by a few orders of magnitude. I’m rather looking forward to it all!)

As an ageing parent myself, I know the best chance of contentment lies in accepting my children’s now superior abilities, and in letting them do things for me. Certainly they now solve more challenges for me than I do for them. There is satisfaction that your genes – and lots of work – are actually firmly embedded into the future – the quickest route to immortality may indeed be via your children?

Of course, analogies should not be pushed too far and we need to see best practice use in its own right. We should expect much more overlap, some competition and hopefully a bit of mutual support. Oh, hang on; maybe they are like families after all?

The golden rule

But the golden rule for using best practices – be they for ITSM, cooking or anything else – has always been to look at all the relevant ideas and build what is best for you. In ITSM now we are both lucky and challenged to have a wider range of ideas than ever before. That might actually lead to diversity of ITSM approaches rather than the convergence to one (ITL based) view as we have seen in the last 20 years.

ITIL is the product in charge still, its market position makes it well placed to lead and inspire. Integration would be wonderful, but unlikely, coordination would be helpful, competition would be disappointing. Whichever way things go, ITIL made this happen, and should be proud of that. Learning from your children is a good trait, I’m learning a lot and enjoying the experience, hope ITIL will too.

[1] All of these acknowledged their basis on ITIL in their early versions

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