ITIL evolution

A deep dive into the history of ITIL

February 28 | 08 mins read

I was asked to write about the history of ITIL - the 30-year journey from the first ideas to the wide acceptance of the latest version, ITIL 4. To keep the size manageable, this will necessarily be a shallow dip into the vast range of history, stories, arguments, and even the occasional scandal around ITIL, as well as organizations such as itSMF, etc, over the years.

Almost every section of this article could be expanded to a story in its own right—with many interesting stories to tell, but the aim is to give an overall picture.

Rather than a complicated timeline, we can explore several threads within the history of ITIL: a range of aspects, all connected, of course, but each with its own story to tell. Everyone has their perspective, but I see these threads winding through ITIL's development:

  • Development and progression of the written guidance
  • The ITIL community that developed worldwide
  • Software and technology to support IT service management (ITSM) professionals' use of ITIL
  • ITIL's relationship with other frameworks and initiatives, especially the ISO/IEC20000 standard

In the very beginning

Firstly, though, what got ITIL started? The project was the brainchild of Pete Skinner in the UK Government's Central Computer & Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), who had the idea, built the business case, and oversaw it all.

Government creation of software applications had been revolutionized by developing and applying a systems analysis method - SSADM; the UK government now created good applications but somehow didn't get the benefits expected. So, things would be better if an equivalent set of good practices was developed for running these applications in Operations. Therefore, a team was set up to identify and document those good practices, and that became the ITIL team, about a dozen people headed up by Dr John Stewart.

Notice 'identify and document'; it wasn't about new or innovative ideas but capturing what successful organizations did so others could copy those good ideas.

Written guidance

The first five books were published in 1989. Initially called GITIMM - Government IT Infrastructure Management Method, it was never going to be a method, but rather a library of books, so the name became the 'IT Infrastructure Library.' Dropping the 'government' wasn't so deliberate but - as it turned out - highly significant. How many longtime ITIL fans would be happy using something labeled 'government'?

The first version was function-based, focusing on teams that worked on the elements of delivering IT services; for example, no incident management book, that topic was covered under Help Desk, the people who actually did incident management.

Books were published as completed over the next few years, and by 1996, it was time for new thinking: management was outsourced to EXIN, who started consultation with key players about updates. Influence from the work on an ITSM standard meant a new process-based approach - focusing on what needed doing rather than who should do it. The EXIN reign lasted a couple of years, and then ITIL returned to CCTA: Version 2 appeared as a few large books rather than many small ones at the start of the 21st Century.

A second outsourcing exercise saw ITIL, PRINCE2, and more managed by APMG and a major rethink of what ITIL could be, resulting in the project to create ITIL v3. By now, ITIL was a worldwide de-facto standard, and consultation was wide-ranging, with focus group meetings in the USA and Europe facilitated by itSMF International. This time, the focus was on service, using a service lifecycle concept to anchor it.

Version 3 launched in 2007 when everything ITIL seemed to be thriving, with a big fanfare and a world tour of events. The service lifecycle put ITIL as the overarching framework for the rest of IT. Not a modest approach but sensible at a time when silos and internal rivalry were becoming a major source of IT inefficiency. Version 3 had a facelift to create ITIL2011 (V3.1, really) and remained the live version for 12 years.

Eventually, it was clear the IT world had moved on with initiatives like Agile and DevOps to the fore. ITIL was, by now, owned by Axelos, and they created a new version ITIL 4, launched in 2019. This contrasted with V3 by being designed to sit alongside the other frameworks rather than compete or subsume them. Most of the ITILV3 vs ITIL 4 changes are meant to accommodate that collaboration. While ITIL4 still addresses the traditional elements of IT Service Management, it also has much more generic guidance, such as the guiding principles and four-dimensional approach.

Finishing the function → process → service journey, we can see ITIL 4 as being value-focused. However, value was already a key concept in V3.

The Community

The books are the core, but what made ITIL work was the community that grew up around it. A collaborative, supportive global village providing a range of forums for exchanging ideas, it was also a major driver, through QA and consultation, to the quality of the core materials.

There was always industry interest and contribution to the guidance. In the early days, IBM donated internal documentation on Configuration, Change, and more. IT departments volunteered to trial the guidance, and there was much demand for draft versions in exchange for feedback and comments.

There was a need for some formalization of this community interest, resulting in the creation of the IT Infrastructure Management Forum in 1991, a not-for-profit group owned by its members producing monthly newsletters, one-day seminars, and an annual conference. Membership grew in the UK and internationally, especially in the Netherlands, where the adoption of ITIL was pervasive - more so even than in the UK and so quickly there was also ITIMF Netherlands. That internationalization grew with chapters forming worldwide - around 40 national chapters with an international body to help coordinate things. Along the way, there was a name change to recognize the new term of service management, so ITIMF turned into itSMF.

Software and consultancy

Once the ideas in ITIL became seen as a good thing, services helping organizations use ITIL guidance sprang up quickly. There were two - not always independent - elements: software and consultancy. These have been critical to the success and expansion of ITIL.

Software that supported many aspects of ITSM was around when ITIL first launched. In 1990, the first such company saw ITIL and revamped its tool to use ITIL terminology, definitions, and interfaces. Many more followed: ITIL awareness helping sell the tools, but critically, the tools sellers recommended their customers learn about ITIL to get the best value from the software. This synergistic relationship was a key driver of international expansion.

Similarly, organizations seeking help found consultants suggesting ITIL-based approaches and therefore helped ITIL take-up worldwide. As a consultant, getting your ideas across is much easier when your customers share and understand the concepts and terminology in the ITIL books and qualifications.

Those commercial companies had the money to support industry events through sponsorship, buying conference exhibition space, and contributing to best practice development. Without that source of revenue, the materials and the itSMF community would have foundered early on. One of the strengths of the ITIL/itSMF community in the early years was that, while there was perhaps a vested interest in a company promoting ITIL, that was never hidden, and companies worked together to grow the marketplace for the benefit of all.

In short, it would be hard to overestimate the importance of the ITIL community's private, commercial profit-making in creating and delivering success.

Delivering what ITIL suggests as good practice is only possible via effective integrated service management software, and advances in that software have enabled more advanced good practices. The software tool requirements set out in the first five ITIL books looked fantastic and impossible, but now they seem simplistic, the features every tool would have as routine.

Certification, training, exams

For many, talk about ITIL means training, examinations, and certification. Having an ITIL foundation is seen as the entry point for serious ITSM professionals. The initiative for examinations and training to prepare for them came from CCTA very early on, with funding to help ISEB (part of the British Computer Society) develop the exam syllabus and run exams and for the Civil Service College to create the first training materials. This was the managers exam: two three-hour handwritten papers! The college also ran the first courses (Service Support in November 1990 and Service Delivery in February 1991), leading to the first exam in March 1991.

The managers exam required time commitment and was expensive to take and mark since it relied on experienced examiners to read and evaluate every answer. In the Netherlands, EXIN identified a need - and a commercial opportunity - for an entry-level exam aimed at a much wider range of ITSM professionals. This was the Foundation exam, launched in 1993, requiring only a three-day course and an exam of 40 multiple-choice questions - much cheaper and easier to mark.

ISEB and EXIN collaborated initially, but as the market widened, many other examination institutes came on board, and the industry became very competitive, with training companies typically competing on price as much as quality.

As later versions of ITIL changed the core materials, the exams also changed to reflect the revised syllabus. The foundation course exam is still the entry point, as it has developed from ITIL V1 to ITIL 4 and broadened its coverage.

Friends and relations

While ITIL is synonymous with IT service management for many, other IT service management guidance sources exist, such as COBIT from ISACA, which first appeared in 1996. But more relevant for the history of ITIL are those related to the core ITIL guidance in a range of ways:


The British Standards Institution (BSI) commissioned and published a document (PD0005) on ITSM in the early 1990s independent of ITIL (although similar in many aspects). This was due for revision in 1998, and an agreement was made between BSI and ITIL: those developing revised ITIL guidance would volunteer with BSI and produce a new version to introduce ITIL. That worked, and the book produced then progressed to become the first formal standard on ITSM: BS15000 in 2000. That British standard went forward as an international standard: ISO/IEC 20000, first launched in 2005 and now in its third version.


Apart from the actual ITIL books, many publications have been interpreting, expanding, commenting, and - occasionally - criticizing ITIL. Despite some occasional bickering over copyright, for those actually working in ITSM, these books have often provided a more accessible route to understanding the guidance.

One particular book is the ITIL pocketbook. The original materials were created by CCTA but offered to ITIMF to publish, thus forming an important revenue stream for the forum. ItSMF developed a new version to reflect later versions of ITIL.


ITIL has come a long way from Pete Skinner's first vision in the 1980s. Starting as an internal UK government set of guidance, it became a worldwide and commercially successful product. Expanding from a few books to an integrated set of guidance, training, and qualifications under the current ownership of Peoplecert. But, in reality, ITL has become much more than that via the community support and the commercial products that support and adapt it; it is more of a philosophy than simply a product.

About the author

Ivor Macfarlane

Since starting work in 1976, my focus has been on building, delivering or supporting services to help others do their work. I learned a lot before getting involved with IT, and see IT as just one element of a bigger service creation and management concept.

In 1989 I joined a CCTA team building and promoting the new IT Infrastructure Library set of best practice; I have stayed involved with ITIL and ITSM ever since. I was an author for ITIL V1, V2 and V3 and had my work published in many places: by BSI, VHP, itSMF and in numerous white papers and blogs.

While I've written a lot, perhaps my best contribution to our community is via the many training courses I've delivered over the years - since the first ITIL course in 1990. And I have especially good memories of speaking at over 100 events and conferences across the world.

Now I am mostly retired - too old for the Monday-Friday every week game, but still keen to do more things, especially fun stuff. Conferences are still fun and discovering new things to evangelise about has helped: like Devops, Intelligent Disobedience, Knowledge management and more.

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