ITIL’s history

An Interview about ITIL history with John Stewart: how it was back then

An interview with John Stewart, by Oleg Skrynnik and Stepan Hrulev, with Brian Johnson participating.

November 2013. Published at the ITSM Portal, a knowledge platform of InformIT 

John Stewart

John Stewart studied at the University of Glasgow and at York University, where he became Ph.D. in quantum chemistry. After the five year academic career he worked for a long time in OGC (Office of Government Commerce), where he held different positions up to the position of Procurement Policy Director.
John belongs to a small group of people who worked on ITIL and PRINCE2 development from the very beginning. He led a team of well-known experts, including Ivor Macfarlane, Brian Johnson and others, when they created the books, promoted ITILv1 and worked at market development.
Currently John works with his Dutch colleagues on IBPI projects (International Best Practice Institute). These projects are aimed on bringing information about different standards, methodologies and best practices together in one place to make it as simple as possible to understand and select the ones most suitable to your situation.

 Brian Johnson

Since 2004, Brian works for CA Technologies, where he is an ITIL practice leader. The company he worked for previously was Pink Elephant, and before that he worked for UK Government as OGC board member. Brian led a large project aimed on creating the first service desk in UK Government.
He worked with John Stewart on the 1st version of ITIL, and after that he participated in creation of a number of books of the 2nd and 3rd version. Brian was one of the founders of ITMF – a community of users, which was renamed to itSMF and in which he is an honorable director.
Brian is also an excellent speaker and he is well known in many countries of the world.

Stepan: Today ITIL is very popular and there is a market that has grown around it. Young people start their career and become professionals in ITSM, ITIL and other related areas. But there was no ITIL market or Best Practice market when you were a young specialist. How was it back then? What sources of management information did you and your colleagues use?

John: It’s amazing how ITIL has grown; I was always optimistic about its prospects but it has far outstripped my wildest dreams. I think that’s because it filled a gaping hole in IT providers’ armory.

When we started thinking about it in 1987, there was a lot of interest in IT projects, particularly application development projects. Projects inside and outside the UK government were prone to being late or over budget or in other ways disappointing or unsuccessful, so it was right that the government should do something about its own projects. Responsibility to act fell to the government’s IT agency, CCTA; but to a different part of CCTA from mine. CCTA was charged with improving efficiency and effectiveness in the government’s IT spend, in other words value-for-money. The responsible CCTA division pioneered the introduction of methods and frameworks into government IT, with the introduction of PROMPT2 (precursor of PRINCE) and SSADM as government methods. From the outset, they had the idea of fostering the creation of an open, competitive supply market of products and services to support organizations’ take-up of the methods, which would mean they could be promoted outside government, by suppliers who could make money out of selling their wares related to our methods.

Some of the big companies like IBM and CSC knew about IT service management, of course, but there was little talk of putting a standardized framework into the public domain.

Pete Skinner’s team, in which I worked, was responsible for the operational part of the IT lifecycle. We had a feeling that something similar would be a good idea, based on very simple reasoning. The operational part of the lifecycle is or was normally far longer than the development project phase, a lot of money is consumed and the scope for affecting the business (of government, in our case) is huge. Moreover, business dependency on IT was growing, although we may not quite have realized how much it would grow, so the need to get operational IT right would become ever more compelling.

You’re right, though: there wasn’t much out there in the marketplace. Some of the big companies like IBM and CSC knew about IT service management, of course, but there was little talk of putting a standardized framework into the public domain to provide a kind of lingua franca for the IT industry. Everybody had to invent their own approach or buy in support, which we didn’t think was efficient or effective. With the idea of possibly developing such a framework for UK government, with potential for use outside government too, we commissioned 4 companies to advise us on scope and content based on their experience: CSC, IBM, ICL (later incorporated in Fujitsu) and PA Consulting.  We were heavily influenced by IBM, who offered to let us publish and promote their excellent IT service management checklists, and to a lesser extent CSC, who among other things were keen to promote a standardized framework as a basis for managing outsourced IT provision (although that didn’t have much bearing on the early development decisions about ITIL).

So summing up, we thought there was a need that the market wasn’t providing for. We wanted to develop a framework and create a supporting supply market, so we took advice on its scope and coverage. Now all we had to do was persuade our Board to fund the development.

Oleg: We’ve heard from Jan van Bon and Brian Johnson a story of ITIL (or GITIMM) creation. Is it true that it was your and Peter Skinner’s idea to create some kind of method to establish best practice processes in IT management?

 John: Yes it was Pete’s idea and mine. I should probably say that we were aiming to pull together known good practices rather than develop everything from scratch.

CCTA’s job was to facilitate the achievement of efficiency and effectiveness in government IT. Individual government departments were responsible for buying and running their own IT; our job was to help. Pete was responsible for supplier management and operational IT infrastructure, so his job was to help with those aspects. Based on the reasoning I explained in the previous answer and taking into account the state of the marketplace, we came to the view that we should set a standardized government framework for what Pete termed IT Infrastructure Management. We couldn’t do every Government Department’s IT service management for them but we could set out ‘what good looks like’ to help them do it themselves without reinventing the wheel.

I was toying with the idea of publishing just checklists but Pete wanted something more like codes of practice, and as he was the boss that’s what we developed. It was a good thing he steered us that way.


Our first attempt at presenting our ideas to the CCTA Board for their approval to go ahead didn’t go to plan: on the October day in question, 26 years ago, my first daughter decided to be born 2 weeks early, so I couldn’t go and we had to reschedule. When we did get the chance to present to the Board, not everyone was immediately in favor, but we did get the go-ahead and so here we are today!

When Roy Dibble took over as my boss, he was in agreement with people who didn’t like the name ‘Government IT Infrastructure Methodology’, GITIMM, because it wasn’t a ‘methodology’ and besides, reference to Government would probably put off potential users outside government and outside the UK. It was a set of written codes of practice – a Library – so it should be called IT Infrastructure Library, ITIL.

I was toying with the idea of publishing just checklists but Pete wanted something more like codes of practice and as he was the boss that’s what we developed.

A set of books won’t change the world, however good the advice they contain. You have to find a way of spreading take-up. We decided to develop a training and qualifications scheme to provide a basis for institutionalizing ITIL principles in the IT provider community. The private sector companies offering training and other services based on ITIL would promote it outside UK government. We were lucky to attract the attention of Dutch companies, starting with Pink Elephant, and they did a great deal to spread the word outside the UK. We fostered the creation of a user group, which subsequently became itSMF, to engage the user community that we wanted to act as our ‘critical friend’.

Brian: The role of Pink Elephant in the Netherlands was very important for us; they arranged for John and me to appear on Dutch TV—we could not even comprehend how the Dutch guys even got anyone interested in that.

Oleg: Is it true that the original purpose for such a method was to drive down costs and spending on IT in UK Government?

John: Some astonishing stories have circulated over the years about our rationale for developing ITIL. The truth is that we conceived the product in furtherance of CCTA’s role of catalyzing value-for-money from the government’s expenditure on its IT. You can look at this in a number of ways: to help Departments avoid the need to develop their own approach to IT service management, which is wasteful; to put out a framework representing a common language, thus helping with personnel training and mobility; to improve the quality of IT service management; and more widely to spread good IT service management practice both inside and outside UK government, which would in turn help strengthen ITIL and further benefit government departments as a result.

It wasn’t so much a matter of driving down IT costs as helping not to waste the money that the government did spend on its IT.

It wasn’t so much a matter of driving down IT costs as helping not to waste the money that the government did spend on its IT. That’s an important point because what really matters to organizations that use IT, which is more or less all of them, is that IT supports their business effectively, with as few failures and faults as possible, and at a fair price.

Oleg: Looking at more than 25 years of ITIL evolution and implementation, do you think that this main goal is being achieved? Of course ITIL books are very useful and a lot of practices described there are now common practices. But what about helping in increasing cost efficiency?

John: Well, a lot of people have spent a lot of money taking ITIL principles into their organizations, so some people might say ‘case proven’: why would businesses spend money on ITIL take-up if it wasn’t beneficial to them? That’s like saying every organization’s take-up of ITIL is successful and that the benefits always outweigh the costs, which would be a miracle!

I don’t know if anybody systematically gathers figures on ITIL benefits across the community. Individual organizations should know what they expect to get from ITIL, at least qualitatively, and check whether they’re getting it in practice. There are also intangible benefits, such as standing in the marketplace, which some organizations will perceive themselves to be experiencing.

What’s most important to me is the effectiveness and efficiency of IT provision for the benefit of the business. We’ve seen all too many examples of IT failures that could have been avoided through better adherence to ITIL principles, some of them causing huge embarrassment and financial loss. You wouldn’t send a jumbo jet out without making sure the flight crew were adequately trained: the same should apply to your IT.

Stepan: You managed to get together a great team of experts, Ivor Macfarlane and Brian Johnson amongst them. How was the original project organized? Were there any special rules? Did someone maintain consistency of the library?

John: Yes, I was lucky to get such a good team, including the distinguished gentlemen you mention and various others, both outgoing zealots and unsung heroes. I remember Pete Skinner asking me if one potential recruit would fit in and saying “Probably not; let’s have him!”, which was the right decision (but would have been the wrong one if it had been about me having a quiet life).

At the peak of ITIL development around 1990, we had a team of around 10 people, some of them working on the books and a smaller number on the supporting infrastructure (eg qualifications, training, user group) and marketing.

We were early converts to quality management and were one of the first government units to be certified to ISO9001. That meant that the many heated arguments we had in the team centered on what we were writing rather than how we were doing things! I allowed myself the final say, including on matters of consistency across the Library. This seems to have earned me an entirely unjustified reputation with some team members of being a dictator; well, perhaps not completely unjustified, but I only had the product’s best interests at heart.

Our qms helped ensure we consulted relevant internal stakeholders and it provided for Pete Skinner and his management team to have approval rights over our publications.

Brian: As for being a dictator, John, as usual you underplay your position. I once wrote an outline ‘script’ you might remember, Indiana Stewart and the Temple of ITIL, in which you were the star, the director, the producer, the writer, etc. etc. This was entirely accurate for most of version 1, until Ruth Kerry took over!

Incidentally, that is not a criticism (although yes, John could and did drive me nuts from time to time); without John directing this from a visionary standpoint, ITIL would NEVER have been established. We were a team in the best sense, John was THE Leader, and we had a unified goal. In many ways we were a working model of the John Kotter method.

Stepan: There were several dozen books in ITIL v1. Did you plan the creation of every book, or were books added to the library after they were published?

John: Influenced by IBM and to a lesser extent CSC, we planned a core set of books, including Service Level Management, Capacity Management, Availability Management and Cost Management, Change Management, Configuration Management, Problem Management and Help Desk, Planning & Control and Software Control and Distribution. Viewing ITIL as a basis for controlling outsourced IT provision, as advocated particularly by CSC, we added Managing Facilities Management, which was consistent with the language of the time but would nowadays be Managing Outsourced IT. There was a drive at the time to have unattended (operator-less) computer rooms, which we supported with Unattended Operations.

One of Pete Skinner’s other teams was responsible for what they called the environmental infrastructure (eg computer rooms, air conditioning, fire precautions) and Pete suggested their advice be included in a multi-volume ITIL Environmental Infrastructure set. These were very much on the periphery, with lower sales figures.

One particular downstream title springs to mind. Ivor was a great advocate of small IT organizations and he wanted to make ITIL principles accessible to them without them having to wade through the full ITIL documentation, so he led the development of ITIL in Small IT Units.

Later, Brian and I worked with colleagues from Pink Elephant Netherlands on a set of three volumes on the ‘Business Perspective on your IT’, which had always been important but was becoming more so as businesses were starting to buy in their IT services from external sources.

Brian: The Business Perspective series incidentally (and some of the other v1 books such as Software Lifecycle Support, Testing IT Services for Operational Use, Planning & Control, and Quality Management) were very much ahead of their time and it may seem odd but they are now generating interest in the DevOps community. A lot of good materials were never publicized in the same way as the service support processes.

Oleg: Perhaps it will be hard to recall now, but do you remember whose idea it was to separate incidents from problems, one of the corner stone principles of ITIL v1 and v2?

John: It’s an idea we took from CSC, who worked for us, inter alia, on the Help Desk volume. They suggested the Help Desk scope should revolve around incident management, meaning that the Problem Management volume would need to fit closely with it. It was a bit of a revelation. Not only was it the right approach for IT to deal with incidents and manage down problems; it was right in other fields too. So it was interesting to see it already being deployed in more mature industries, such as running the railways, as we found one evening soon after we’d started work on the ITIL volumes when our train broke down!

Brian: I am not certain of who precisely came up with the event/incident/fault/problem distinctions but I do remember Don Page (Marval) and Guus Welter & Michiel Berkhout (Pink Elephant) being the authors of the Incident and Problem chapters in the v2 Service Support book and they led all of the discussions around changing the definitions and processes against considerable opposition from a whole bunch of people who would now claim to have been the originators!

Stepan: Which of the books appeared first and why?

John: I can’t really remember which was the very first but among the first were:

  • Service Level Management, which in a sense pulled it all together in terms of what the users receive
  • Change Management, Help Desk and Problem Management, which provided the foundations.

Some of the other core volumes were harder to scope (eg Planning & Control, Cost Management) or more complex to write (eg Capacity Management), so these took longer to develop or clear for publication.

Oleg: Did you expect such dramatic growth of ITIL popularity?

John: If in 1988 when the first volumes were ready for publication, you’d have asked anybody on the team to project forward 25 years, I don’t think any of us would have predicted the level of take-up of the books or exams: over 300.000 exams taken in 2011. I think we did an initial print run of 1.000 or 2.000 copies per core volume, which I hoped we might be able to sell.

I think we did an initial print run of 1.000 or 2.000 copies per core volume, which I hoped we might be able to sell.

Brian: We really thought selling 1.000 books was a big deal and when sales figures were published when a book reached 100 it was considered a milestone!

John: We owe a lot of this success to APMG, TSO and the exam institutes, as well as the many providers of ITIL-related services across the globe; to the Dutch who played such as strong role in internationalizing ITIL; and to numerous individuals including Brian, Ivor, Dave Wheeldon and others from the early ITIL teams, who have done such a lot to promote ITIL. Tony Betts drove the product for several years in the late 1990s and from 2000 onwards and he set in place arrangements that provided a foundation for setting up the Axelos Joint Venture.

I should have known we were onto a winner, when in the 1990s 2 or 3 US companies mooted the possibility of buying ITIL.

Stepan: Today there is a lot of frameworks, practices, methodologies, etc. which are complementary or somehow substitutionary to ITIL. Why is it happening? Is it good or bad? Could you point some interesting practices or frameworks?

John: ITIL is one of the biggest IT-related frameworks around. However, it doesn’t cover the whole scope of IT management, let alone related domains like business management and project management. You can get a sense of ‘ITIL in context’ from the work we did last year classifying frameworks at the International Best Practice Institute (


At IBPI, we found there was a vast array of frameworks as you suggest; IBPI only scratches the surface. This plethora of standards can be very confusing for user organizations. The problem is worsened where there are frameworks with overlapping, underlapping or competing scope. I’m not a great believer in frameworks deliberately competing with each other for the same domain-space and I certainly wouldn’t advocate ‘unnatural’ scope creep to encroach on somebody else’s framework.  There is in my opinion an onus on framework owners to make it as simple as possible for users to benefit from the frameworks relevant to them.

So, in my view, the owners of ITIL should aim for it to co-exist harmoniously wherever possible with other frameworks. With such huge take-up, you could argue that ITIL’s owners have a particular responsibility to act with that in mind, for the greater good of the community.

There is in my opinion an onus on framework owners to make it as simple as possible for users to benefit from the frameworks relevant to them.

There are some pre-conditions for an approach in which frameworks complement each other and owners cooperate with each other:

  • general understanding and agreement, especially among framework owners, on scope (where one framework starts and another ends)
  • framework owners ‘covering the ground’, without glaring omissions
  • framework quality: effective and up-to-date coverage of each framework’s domain-space (otherwise the ground is laid open for competitors).

I leave it to others to express opinions on where ITIL and its owners stand in relation to points 1 and 2. On point 3, I hope we can count on Axelos to develop ITIL such that its strength is sustained and enhanced. There’s no shortage of advice from the community on how they should do that: may wise judgment prevail!

Stepan: Whose idea it was to create IBPI?

Oleg: And what are the main goals of IBPI? What are IBP’sI main products, or outcomes? How can someone participate?

Strangely enough, IBPI brings us back to the Dutch! It was Ivo van Haren, of VHP Publishing, who came up with the idea, supported by Quint and also for a while EXIN.  His customers were telling him how baffling it was that there were so many frameworks around and they didn’t find it easy to decide which frameworks applied to them. At the same time, publishers, trainers and service providers wanted to know the frameworks that were going to grow and those on the wane. So there was a clear need for a resource to make sense of all these frameworks. In 2011, Ivo asked Hans van den Bent, John Verstrepen and me to work with Annelise Savill, then a VHP employee, on a budget provided mainly by VHP and Quint, to develop IBPI. You can see how far we got and what we were able to achieve at Unfortunately, development is now stalled for lack of funding but there is a Linkedin group in which you can still participate.

Stepan: You have experience of creating and developing very useful codes of practice and now with IBPI you look for, select and classify different practices. What is more interesting – to observe and analyze different practices or to develop your own?

This is a very different development from that of a single framework like ITIL or PRINCE2. It’s a bit like the shopping mall with separate ITIL, PRINCE2 and other shops. Our job at IBPI was to attract the best shops and bring them altogether in one place for the benefit of the users (shoppers). The frameworks make money for providers who can base their wares on the frameworks. Making enough money out of the IBPI ‘frameworks shopping mall’ to cover the mall’s costs is difficult because at the moment there is little demand for services that bring the frameworks together; eg training is ITIL-based or TOGAF-based; there is no pan-framework qualification or training. But there is still a need for something like IBPI, in my view, so if we can find a way of funding it I think we’d be able to provide a really useful basis for pulling frameworks together for users’ benefit, going forward.

Oleg and Stepan: Thank you very much, gentlemen! It is a great honor for us to do this interview with both of you. We are very grateful for your thoughts and insights, and especially detailed, emotional and vivid answers.