ITIL 4's Four Dimensions

What they are, how they help, and understanding how to use them

March 12 . 07 mins read

ITIL 4 was introduced in 2019 with some aspects new to ITIL, such as the service value system and the four dimensions (the latter of which is the topic for this article). Much of ITIL's value and credibility lies in its lack of originality: the ideas and recommendations in ITIL are based on common sense, proven validity, and a long history of use. The four dimensions are a perfect example of a well-proven and widely used concept articulated, documented, and formalized for application to the ITSM environment. In other words, people have been doing this kind of thing for centuries, but it has been given a fancy name so that organizations take it seriously and reap the benefits.

Later, we'll focus on the specific dimensions that ITIL 4 suggests, but it is worth first examining the generic concept behind it. The dimension idea means understanding, improving, or resolving something in a complex situation. It can be helpful to focus on one aspect at a time. We remain aware that all the elements and perspectives interact, but focusing on one aspect at a time often helps.

Dimensional concept

Anyone working on repairing a car will be familiar with the idea: electrics, fuel, mechanics, or transmission. It may be all of them or a combination of things, but following one element will mostly deliver progress toward a solution.

One application of the idea that many are familiar with - especially in learning first aid - is the human body when the typical dimensions we learn are:

  • Bones: we know what a skeleton looks like and how the human bones connect
  • Blood and oxygen: arteries, veins, heart, and lungs, and how the blood flows around the system
  • Muscles and tendons: what muscles, how the tendons transfer power, etc
  • Food: we know about the alimentary canal, stomachs, intestines, etc.

Of course, they are all connected - muscles and tendons move bones, the food system delivers energy to muscles via the blood, food processing delivers energy into the blood, etc. But in emergencies, the dimensions help - a broken bone, and we remember the skeleton model, lots of blood, we recall the arterial map, and so on.

We are constructing a model - a representation of something that we hope will help us manage the real thing. It won't be exact, but as the famous statistician George Box said, "All models are wrong, but some are useful." The idea is to build a useful dimensional approach, not an exact and total representation of the complex environment - just a tool to help us.

IT service management dimensions

The real world can get complicated; not just IT but most aspects of our lives are interconnected, interdependent, and interfere with each other. Trying to see, plan, maintain, and correct things is hard. Trying to do it while simultaneously considering all aspects in detail is usually too hard to be practical. Fortunately, the elements we can usefully focus on are often fairly obvious and easy to pick out. If you are building a house, you could see the need for bricklaying, carpentry, electrics, and plumbing. ITIL 4 has done this for IT service management and suggests four elements to help in most situations. As always, ITIL is a good place to start, but it can be a terrible place to finish. We can all examine the underlying concept and select which dimensions will work best for us in our specific situation. Of course, tweaking the ITIL 4 suggestion to suit will always be easier than starting with a blank sheet of paper.

ITIL4's four dimensions

The four dimensions that ITIL 4 suggests are:

Organisations and people

However technically focused an organization may be, it still depends on the performance of human beings. Despite Artificial intelligence (AI) advances, that will not change anytime soon. This dimension covers every aspect of human involvement in IT, including quantity needed, skills, rewards, and much more, and it means all the people involved: IT staff, managers, customers, users, and others affected by or who could affect IT service management efforts. As well as the obvious things like recruitment and reward, it should emphasize the importance of effective maintenance of this resource - physical, emotional, mental, skill refreshment, etc.

The name picks out 'organization' specifically as a reminder that assembling serious talent isn't enough. That talent has to be organized and managed effectively. Many IT and other teams have proved that bad organization can render good people ineffective. The assembly of a well-matched, collaborative, and integrated team can obtain excellent results from ordinary people. Outside of IT, sport is perhaps the most obvious example.

Information and technology

Firstly, read the name carefully; it does not say 'Information Technology.' These are two topics put together: for some organizations, they may be intimately connected and integrated; for others, they might be more usefully addressed as separate focus areas. If you use this dimension, it may be helpful to refer to it as 'Technology and Information' to clarify to all involved that it isn't just 'IT.'

Information should address the full range from data to knowledge (overlapping with the people dimension regarding wisdom). What data and information do we need, what can we capture, what do we have to capture, how do we keep it secure, how long do we have to store it, and much more? How useful has our information been, and how can we use that to improve things in the future?

Technology is, again, the whole range of technology required and used. The IT aspects are pretty clear and obvious - ITSM is clearly very familiar with IT; it's in the name, after all. But don't forget other kinds of technology may be important too. Successful service management may depend on everyday technologies, too. If the coffee machine in the break room stops working, performance will be affected - even if it is just lost time while folks go out for takeaway coffee. The supply of comfortable chairs and headsets to service desk staff is a well-known factor in staff effectiveness.

Value Streams and Processes

This is, quite simply, about focusing on what needs to be done, what the inputs are, what actions are required, and what the outputs are - the actual job. And, of course, how all the things that need to be done fit together.

Partners and Suppliers

Every organization relies on external supplies, but none are completely self-contained. Very few generate their own electricity and those that do tend to buy things like printers. The things externally sourced for each organization vary, but the need always exists. A (slightly silly) mnemonic for the ITIL foundation exam is to remember that 'suppliers are not people.' This emphasizes the difference in how external and internal people are treated. There is a responsibility and a duty of care for internal purposes, whereas for external purposes, that rests with the supplying organization.

Environmental factors

These dimensions are certainly helpful, and they reflect how most large organizations work: HR deals with people, purchasing deals with external suppliers, IT staff with technology, and so on. But ITIL is not suggesting this as a justification for building these kinds of silos within our IT departments. Quite the opposite: it is a strong argument for T-shaped people at a high level. Encouraging expertise is a specialist area, but it requires an awareness of the bigger picture and how that specialism fits into the whole, that it is just one element contributing to a genuinely complex and interrelated environment. ITIL illustrates this well by reminding us that there is a range of environmental factors that impact and affect each of the dimensions. We can see them, perhaps, as the connective tissue between the components:

  • Political - all kinds, not just the big national stuff but office politics, too. What is and isn't allowed, who will support, who will impede things
  • Economic - money is a factor for just about every organization in every situation. It's usually about reducing costs but other factors too, like cash flow and spending all your budget or else losing it.
  • Social - acceptable and not acceptable behavior, different cultures, and the need - or the expectation - to conform
  • echnological - what technology can do, can't do, and might be able to do next year
  • Legal - not just national and international laws, but company regulations, industry, ethical, and green policies
  • Environmental - those factors you can't control or predict and how they might affect you. Like the weather or government.

Some interactions are very obvious - like legal requirements affecting how data and information are stored and used or economics affecting the available technology. But looking for one-to-one links is counterproductive. Just about every factor influences all the dimensions. The influencing factors will also influence each other - political opinion influences social behavior and technology choices, for example.


ITIL's four dimensions are a widely used idea applied to IT service management, a valuable tool for those managing complex situations, and a model to help, but not an absolute description of reality: all the boundaries are loose, and all the elements overlap. Understanding the underlying principle helps maximize the value it delivers. Using it 'out of the box' will give value and may even be perfect for some, but organizations should feel free to refine it to their specific needs. And a last thought: there is no magic to the number four; more or fewer dimensions would work, too.

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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