ITSM - IT Service Management / article

Help desk vs. service desk vs. ITSM: What's the difference? Part 2

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I explained the difference between a help desk and a service desk. Thankfully, the difference between service desk and IT service management (ITSM) is easier to explain - especially when you start with ITSM.

ITIL, the most commonly-adopted ITSM best practice framework, describes ITSM as:

“The implementation and management of quality IT services that meet the needs of the business. IT service management is performed by IT service providers through an appropriate mix of people, process and information technology.” Source: ITIL 2011 glossary

Not so clear? Consider this other definition:

“A discipline for managing information technology (IT) systems, philosophically centered on the customer's perspective of IT's contribution to the business. ITSM stands in deliberate contrast to technology-centered approaches to IT management and business interaction.” Source: Wikipedia 2012

I like to think of ITSM as improving business performance through better IT delivery with ITIL great for digging down into what ITSM actually entails.

The ITIL 2011 ITSM best practice framework covers a range of ITSM activities – 26 processes split across five areas (and five ITIL publications) as shown below:

It looks pretty complicated and in some ways it’s easier to jump back two versions of ITIL, to ITIL v2 (highlighted above in blue), to get a better understanding of what ITSM entails.

Why ITIL v2?

When reading industry surveys about ITSM adoption, there’s a common theme: some ITSM processes are used more than others.

Incident management heads the pack, usually with a circa 95% adoption rate, followed by change management and problem management. Very few organizations use everything in ITIL v3, what they do use is normally closer to ITIL v2.

These surveys are great for understanding that ITIL is a best practice framework not a standard, and companies should use only what they need. ITIL terms this as taking an “adopt and adapt” approach.

ITIL v2 is also closer to what Gartner calls IT Service Support Management (ITSSM) covering:

  • Incident and problem management
  • Change, configuration, and release management
  • Service request management and self-service
  • Knowledge management

In my opinion, this Gartner portfolio of key ITSM processes is a more accurate view of real-world ITSM activities and we can now start to compare ITSM and ITSSM to service desk.

Visualizing the differences between ITSM, ITSSM, service desk, and help desk

ITSM has a bigger scope than ITSSM, which is in turn bigger than service desk. It’s probably best to paint a picture rather than adding a thousand words:


ITSM covers a variety of IT management capabilities related to IT service delivery and support, with Gartner’s ITSSM covering the most commonly adopted.

Service desk is then a subset of ITSSM (and thus ITSM) and usually includes:

  • Incident management
  • Service request management
  • Knowledge management
  • Self-service
  • Strong links to problem and change management in particular
  • Reporting capabilities

Finally, help desk is a subset of service desk (depending on how a company defines it), often limited to what ITIL would call incident management, i.e. the break-fix process.

So there you have it, two blogs covering help desk through ITSM and how things differ.

Does it really matter what you call things in your company? It doesn’t in my opinion, but with one caveat – be careful of overstating what you do, and achieve, by your use of industry terminology. For instance, consider how many companies you know that “do” ITIL, I’d be willing to bet that many are “doing” ITSSM or similar. This of course might be absolutely everything they need to use, but they could instead be fooling themselves (and others) into thinking that they are already as good as they need to be – it’s the ITSM version of “The Emperor's New Clothes.”

So, these are my five reasons why a service desk is better than email for IT support. Do you agree? What would you add or change? I’d love to hear if you have time to leave a comment.


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About the author

Stephen Mann

Independent IT and IT service management consultant

Stephen Mann is an independent IT and IT service management (ITSM) content creator, and a frequent blogger, writer, and presenter on the challenges and opportunities for ITSM professionals. He has previously held positions in IT research and analysis (at IT industry analyst firms Ovum and Forrester), ITSM consultancy, enterprise IT service desk and IT product management, IT asset management, innovation and creativity facilitation, project management, finance consultancy, internal audit, and most recently SaaS ITSM tool product marketing.

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