The Theory and Practice of ITIL

I’m always amazed when I read of some quote that is attributed to Yogi Berra. Yesterday I read something that credited the baseball legend with the following quote:

“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

This quote, like many others, might have been misattributed to Berra. It’s also been associated with Einstein and a computer scientist named Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut. In fact, another famous quote that Yogi Berra actually said was:

“I really didn’t say everything I said.”

Regardless of who initially said the first quote, when I read it I thought of ITIL. ITIL at times has a tendency to come off as very theoretical. In fact, ITIL addresses this directly in the Service Strategy book when it says that theory is often discounted because it’s associated with abstract ideas. In section, the Service Strategy book goes on to say that theory is the basis of best practice and gives examples of how different people use theories on an everyday basis.

I think Yogi Berra would agree with what ITIL says here. However, it’s fair to point out that often the practical difference between theory and practice is the human element. In other words, it’s how we choose to adopt the theory that contributes to the disconnect we often see between theory and practice.

From a standpoint of ITIL, this often leads to discounting the best practices ITIL describes as simply being “theoretical” or “impractical”, when in fact it is the way we choose to adopt the theory or approach that generates the disconnect. ITIL in and of itself is neutral; people, process, technology, culture, and a host of other factors always constrain how an organization adopts a particular approach.

For example, ITIL gives a good description of supplier management. In theory, we know that we should have a single point of contact that works with key suppliers, that we should follow up with suppliers on service breaches, and that we as service providers are still accountable for the performance of any subcontracted suppliers. Among other best practices, ITIL tells us these things are important for effective supplier management. However, organizations regularly fail to follow the “theoretical” guidance in this area, which causes them to spend more money than is necessary and causes preventable impact to services. In practice, the theory is sound, however, in practice organizations regularly violate the “theoretical” guidance.

Berra’s quote from that perspective is highly accurate. We are often our own worst enemies because of how we practice a theory rather than any inherent weakness to the theory itself.

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