How IT service management delivers value

Two popular service management methodologies combine to deliver quality for customers.

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There’s more than one path to service management. In today’s technology-driven corporate landscape, the two leading methodologies come from the world of software development and information technology (IT). Implementing a service management system in a structured way brings many benefits to an organization, such as greater efficiencies and improved customer relations. It refers to all the activities, policies and processes that organizations use for deploying, managing and improving IT service provision.

Organizations generally use a pre-defined framework of best practices and standard processes to provide a disciplined approach to service implementation. More recently, however, a new approach has taken the world by storm, putting a fresh spin on how to better develop and deliver software. Enter Agile, a methodology that has given greater flexibility to the corporate world. Why is it so popular? Because it brings agility and creativity to the way we develop projects. It also dovetails neatly with more structured frameworks such as ISO/IEC 20000-1[1] for IT service management systems.

Combining the best of both methodologies may serve as the vehicle that will deliver value in today’s emerging digital enterprise. A recently published ISO handbook shows how the ISO/IEC 20000 series of standards is relevant in today’s technology landscape and fits nicely with popular methodologies such as Agile. We sat down with Dolf van der Haven, an active member of the expert group that developed ISO/IEC 20000-1, to find out how the two key methodologies measure up.


Dolf van der Haven

Service, Quality and InfoSec Management Consultant and member of ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 40

Dolf van der Haven
Service management has taken the business world by storm, promoting vigorous debate among developers about the best way to manage a project. What are the respective merits of ISO/IEC 20000-1 and Agile?
Dolf van der Haven

Two of the most popular and mature frameworks in IT service management (ITSM) right now are ISO/IEC 20000-1 and Agile. Essentially, ISO/IEC 20000-1 is the standard for service management, presenting a number of requirements for managing the design, implementation, operation and improvement of services. The perceived problem with this approach is that it can be painstaking and fastidious, and so the focus turned to more lightweight methodologies.

Drafted in 2001, the Manifesto for Agile Software Development initiated a great leap forward in making organizations more agile, not only in relation to software development but, increasingly, in other areas as well. In an Agile project, instead of defining each phase, a small piece of work across all the phases is performed within a short span of time called an “iteration”. This approach encourages flexibility, testing and change throughout the life cycle of a project. So, rather than betting everything on a “big bang” launch, an Agile team delivers work in small, but consumable, increments.

Often pitted against each other, traditional and agile methodologies are two sides of a coin. While the traditional approach defines the entire scope and requirements upfront, an Agile approach rapidly captures and incorporates change in a project, making the two processes very complementary.

Could you describe in a few words how these two methodologies operate? What distinguishes one from the other?

One of the main differences between a traditional and agile approach is how each looks at the elements of a service and manages change. Produced by ISO and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), ISO/IEC 20000-1 is designed to help organizations deliver effective, managed IT services to customers through a comprehensive process approach. There’s a belief that it’s hard to drive technical standards like ISO/IEC 20000-1 whereas agile teams work in “sprints” that are usually two to four weeks long. That’s because ISO is technically the exact opposite of agile, with heavy emphasis on processes and documentation. Where ISO management standards require reliable and accurate records, improved traceability and appropriate controls, Agile focuses on speed and efficiency, emphasizing the leanest possible development.

The ISO/IEC 20000-1 approach is often criticized for being too bureaucratic, slowing down service delivery and reducing the flexibility that developers need to do their jobs. Conversely, Agile processes are said to increase the risk of technical issues and service outages, initially produce services that cannot be managed properly, and lead to loss of management control of the organization. The mutual criticism may be valid in some contexts, yet there is a high level of compatibility between these two worlds.

Close-up of woman's hands typing on a laptop with a cup of coffee by her side.
To many, it appears that agile and traditional ITSM are incompatible. Do ISO/IEC 20000-1 and Agile have anything in common?

Both Agile and traditional service management keep customers front of mind. They deliver an enhanced customer experience by understanding their needs, which are met through a robust framework. For example, ISO/IEC 20000-1 makes it explicit that top management is responsible for “ensuring that what constitutes value for the organization and its customers is determined”. In the same way, Agile approaches every decision with the core question: “Which choice will add the most value for the customer?”

Both Agile and traditional service management keep customers front of mind.

ISO/IEC 20000-1:2018
Information technology
Service management

Part 1: Service management system requirements

  • Published(Edition 3, 2018)

But there are many other commonalities between the two methodologies. For instance, ISO/IEC 20000-1 makes sure that any operational changes are implemented without impact to customers and possible failures to the service are quickly resolved. Similarly, Agile provides a set of principles to develop services more rapidly and in alignment with customer needs.

The scope of ISO/IEC 20000-1 covers design, seamless transition, on-time flawless delivery and improvement of services, all based on a structured, documented process. The exact way in which this is done is not prescribed by the standard but is left for the organization to decide. Thus, the Agile way of delivering services in iterations, where a basic service is supplied and new functionalities gradually added, is fully compatible with the requirements of ISO/IEC 20000-1. It’s just a different way of planning and building services to provide the customer with as much value as possible as early on in the service provisioning process as possible.

So it’s all about flexibility and customer satisfaction?

Absolutely. Customers are becoming ever more sophisticated, better informed and their expectations are continually growing. It is therefore vital to keep asking them what they require from the service and whether the service, and the service provider, are delivering the value they expect. ISO/IEC 20000-1 has requirements for effective business relationships and service level management, which ensure that service targets are discussed, agreed upon and measured regularly for performance. Customer communication is even more essential at the design stage to make sure services will eventually meet expectations.

Agile communication puts less emphasis on detailed and complex documentation in favour of more regular, quick conversations with customers at all stages of the process, from gathering requirements to service design, prototyping, delivery, testing and improvement. Again, there is no conflict between the requirements of Agile and ISO/IEC 20000-1. On the contrary, both focus on the customer as a priority.

In a fast-paced corporate culture, adaptability is everything. How do these two service management methodologies approach the element of change?

Change remains an essential feature of service management. ISO/IEC 20000-1 requires a culture of continual improvement and learning, validated by measurement. In Agile methodology, “continuous” improvement (yes, that’s the Agile terminology!) identifies opportunities to streamline the work while minimizing wasteful activities. The aim is to “fail fast” so that the situation can be fixed before it gets out of hand.

In ISO/IEC 20000-1, processes are defined to be able to roll back required changes in case things don’t go as planned. This involves an intensely structured approach with a convoluted hierarchy of approvals. Conversely, Agile includes a number of software-based methodologies that automate a large part of the change management process. If the team leading the project is given the go-ahead, and automated testing and roll-back pass all the checks, then these specific requirements of ISO/IEC 20000-1 have been met. Of course, this is more straightforward in information technology environments but, then again, most of today’s services are heavily IT-based.

Clearly, the two methodologies are highly complementary. What would you say is their ultimate business value?

ISO/IEC 20000-1 and Agile are mutually supportive. While the former is best used with replicable and somewhat complicated projects, the latter is more suited to situations where there’s a lot of uncertainty or change around what is being delivered and how it shall be delivered. Agile is not a total substitute for the traditional service management approach, simply another powerful option in the development toolkit.

ISO/IEC 20000-1 and Agile are mutually supportive.

The downside of ISO/IEC 20000-1 is probably its linear sequence, which makes it a little less flexible. But what the ISO/IEC methodology lacks in flexibility, Agile makes up for with better managed changes, quicker value delivery to clients and stakeholders, and greater visibility throughout the service life cycle. It’s a great partnership. Developers and customers like it!

  1. ISO/IEC 20000-1 was developed by joint technical committee ISO/IEC JTC 1, Information technology, subcommittee SC 40, IT service management and IT governance.

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Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis
Elizabeth Gasiorowski-Denis

+41 22 749 03 25