When is a little ITIL knowledge, no longer a dangerous thing?

Tony Gannon

Many of us lucky parents out there have faced this one; a young, bright eyed, excited, enthusiastic, and mostly, very dangerous teenager! With their eyes on my brand new shiny vehicle, so before very long your faced with a question; “Dad, I just passed my driving test, can I take the car?”
Many people who first get involved in practices laid out in the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) face something of a similar dilemma. The current UK driving test has both a theoretical challenge around knowledge and hazard perception and a practical challenge around demonstrating some very basic vehicle handling and driving competencies and on successful completion they get a certificate. A Certificate of Competence to Drive.
It’s my view the ITIL Foundation course is not a certificate of true competence; the training content is primarily an introduction to service management concepts and principles, so it’s like the driving theory test. So in my view your only half way there, you need to build on this with some practical experience, but in a timely fashion.

Clearly some value comes from the theory element on its own. However, maximising the benefits are best achieved by building on the training as a part of a wider learning and development initiative or larger organisational change programme. This provides greater opportunity for stakeholders to gain some practical experience and build on this basic theory.
As we compete to survive in a challenging recession, it’s often difficult to justify expenditure especially on learning and development initiatives. So it’s important to understand or maximise the value when considering training. So with that in mind, would the level of competence attained on completion of a formal ITIL foundation training course be enough for you to give somebody the keys to drive your improvements? Yet it is apparent, this is common practice in the IT industry.

A Sheep Dip?

A common starting point for many organisations when adopting best practice is to put everybody through a formal foundational training course a favoured approach advocated by the business development executive, particularly if large numbers of staff are involved! “You need to get everybody to the same level of knowledge they cry”! And they are right of course, but sheep dipping everybody at the same time might not always be the best course of action and the foundation course has limitations as well as benefits.

Of course, any formal training course has value and can be beneficial, in my view all learning is worthwhile. However, I am often asked about the real tangible value and in particular, levels of competence that can be attained on an ITIL Foundation Certificate. This is not so easy to answer as much depends on the level of competency going in to the course.

Additionally as the industry has advanced and service management training has become a utility and mass market product, significant changes were introduced into the service management qualification scheme during the transition to ITIL Version 3. An important change was the increase in scope of topics covered at the foundational level. Some argue that the training itself has become much more dilute than in earlier years as a result.

Broad Scope

In my opinion, even the best of instructors struggle with the amount of time they have to cover the extent of the current syllabus. Especially when needing to explore the concepts in any real depth typically when students are struggling to understand. The end result is a lower level of broad understanding than would of previously been possible, a reasonable degree of common language is normally attained, and with the assistance of a good quality instructor, a degree of inspiration to push forward and learn more. it could be argued at this point that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!

However many students don’t have the opportunity to develop their learning further and risk forgetting what has been learned and increasingly I am seeing organisations throwing their newly qualified “ITIL Foundation” staff into some tricky service improvement projects with very high expectations of progress and success. These are real risks associated with the “sheep dip” mentality.

Gaining Traction and Momentum

Often when I am leading a change programme I don’t deploy foundation course training during the early stages, but begin with more simple, targeted and focused  workshop or ad hoc one to to one type learning. this is commonly delivered by the subject matter experts involved, this is aimed at getting some practical or deeper practical understanding in the area of the programme needed and can in many cases generate more benefits than shutting down for three days to attend a formal ITIL Foundation training course. Typically this kind of learning can be quickly followed up by an initial overview or experiential training session linked with aspects of the programme status (so providing elementary knowledge but also relevance) to aid traction amongst internal staff and to help cement understanding and increase cross functional engagement. Once some traction has been achieved then the time is often right to to support this by taking more of a broad brush approach and at this time then the foundation course can be deployed much more effectively.

So in summary on its own and ITIL Foundation course, it has some value, and is worthwhile doing, but the best way to maximise the value of an ITIL Foundation training course is to build this into a wider programme of improvement or change, so attendees are not swamped with the broad nature of the course and subsequently the timing of your foundation courses are important too.

For the record, I consider some of the principle benefits that can be gained from the current ITIL foundation course to be:

  • A broader understanding of the concepts and value of Service Management best practice helps everybody to understand the benefits of successful adoption. It helps them understand what’s in it for them, or any other interested party.
  • Understanding the framework gives you a model around which you can begin building your own service solution.
  • A degree of common language will be achieved which can facilitate useful and productive dialogue within your organisation. It’s very difficult to discuss or debate Service Management challenges if they are not properly understood.
  • Gaining qualification provides personal benefits. If you’re in the business of IT then you’re more than likely in business of providing services, that makes you an integral part of a service provider’s proposition and in which case you really need to understand what is and is not best practice. This inevitably takes you down the path of considering the guidance documented in the ITIL core publications.
  • Most organisations around the world are beginning to recognise that developing its Service Management capability as a strategic asset can prove to be a key market differentiator. Subsequently an increasing number of companies now consider ITIL knowledge is a mandatory competence.