ITIL problem management: can ITIL 4 finally fix the problem?

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You know about ITIL 4. And you know it’s not flawless. But how does it handle problem management? We’re excited to present this guest blog by industry expert Stephen Mann. Let’s find out his answers to the question of ITIL 4 problem management.

When people talk about IT service management (ITSM), they’ll often call out the triumvirate of IPC – incident management, problem management, and change management (or “change enablement” as it’s now called in ITIL 4). Using these three letters gives the misguided impression that incident management, problem management, and change management are of equal standing in real-world ITSM. This is far from the truth: the level of ITIL problem management best practice adoption is not as high as it should be. Why is this the case?

Problem management prevents you from mindlessly fixing issues as they occur, because it makes you look for the underlying problem that causes these issues to occur in the first place.

Explaining ITIL problem management

Let’s start off with the fact that a “problem” in ITSM terms is different from the word’s everyday use. An end user with an IT issue isn’t going to call it an “incident”; they’re more likely to call it a “problem.” And so, we start off with problem management on shaky ground in terms of its meaning.

The new best practice for ITIL Problem Management offers up the definition that:

“The purpose of the problem management practice is to reduce the likelihood and impact of incidents by identifying actual and potential causes of incidents, and managing workarounds and known errors.”

Translated to a more everyday lexicon: problem management prevents you from mindlessly fixing issues as they occur, because it makes you look for the underlying problem that causes these issues to occur in the first place. Ultimately, problem management is an investment of time and money that will save you even more time and money over time. Try saying that ten times fast.

The current state of problem management

If you were to ask 100 IT departments if they undertake problem management, you might be pleasantly surprised to find out that approximately 60-70% (think they) do. Sounds good, even if problem management lags behind incident management and change management, as seen from the HDI survey data below:

Service management processes support organizations have adopted (abbreviated list)

Source: HDI, “Technical Support Practices & Salary Report,” (2018)

One could argue that all IT departments need to manage IT issues (incidents) – most of the “missing” 22% in the HDI data above are still likely managing IT issues without calling it “incident management.” Informed IT departments also know that they need a formal mechanism and capability for effectively managing changes. However, it’s less likely that they feel compelled to manage problems – the “cause, or potential cause, of one or more incidents” – well. The 40 to 50% of IT organizations that don’t use ITIL best practice probably won’t know what problem management is anyway.

In my experience as an ITSM practitioner, consultant, industry analyst, and software vendor marketer, when I see surveys that indicate that 60-70% of organizations are undertaking problem management, I know that it’s an exaggerated statistic. Because many organizations only ever use problem management tools and techniques in a reactive way – usually in response to a major incident. This is not the same as actively looking for the root causes of issues and trying to prevent them before they occur. I’d be willing to bet that the real level of (proactive) ITIL problem management adoption is half of what surveys usually say.

The root of low ITIL problem management adoption levels

In my opinion, ITIL 4 can, and should, help drive up the level of problem management adoption in order to bring in proactivity and the ability to facilitate continual improvement and better business outcomes. So, to return to the question I posed at the start of this blog, why is the level of ITIL problem management best practice adoption not as high as it should be?

The main issue here is that the value of problem management isn’t quantified enough. While I can sit here and type that problem management is potentially one of the most beneficial ITSM capabilities, where are all the case-study-based proof points for ITIL problem management? Currently, getting started with ITIL problem management is more of a leap of faith for organizations because the return on investment isn’t clear to them. I think the benefits of ITIL problem management are definitely there, but organizations will only be sparked to embark on the ITIL problem management journey once they can quantify their potential return on investment.

The new, “more detailed” ITIL 4 best practice is now available via a My ITIL subscription. However, there’s no mention of the problem management benefits or return on investment (ROI) in the 35-page downloadable PDF. So, hopefully it will be one of the supplementary ITIL 4 publications that AXELOS is committed to offering to subscribers. To help you now though, I have some practical tips that you can use while you wait. I’ll return with another blog about how to get started with ITIL problem management, or how to improve what you’re already doing.

In his second blog, Stephen Mann gives 10 practical tips to help you get started with ITIL Problem Management