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ITIL Practices in 2000 words: Incident management, service desk and service request management

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ITIL Practices in 2000 words: Incident management, service desk and service request management

White Paper

  • White Paper
  • IT Services
  • Problem management
  • Service management
  • ITIL

Author  Dinara Adyrbai – Lead Editor, ITIL 4 Practices

July 1, 2021 |

 9 min read

  • White Paper
  • IT Services
  • Problem management
  • Service management
  • ITIL

The incident management practice ensures that periods of unplanned service unavailability or degradation are minimized. Two main factors enable this: early incident detection and the quick restoration of normal operation.

1. Introduction

ITIL 4 includes 34 management practices, each with a 30-40 page practice guide, which are available online. This paper will explore the following practice guides:

  • incident management
  • service desk
  • service request management.

2. Key terms used in the ITIL Practice Guides

All ITIL practice guides follow the same structure and feature five main sections:

  • General information
    • Purpose and description
    • Terms and concepts
    • Scope
    • Practice success factors
    • Key metrics
  • Value streams and processes
  • Organizations and people
  • Information and technology
  • Partners and suppliers.

The practice guides consistently use the following key terms, which will also be used in this paper:

  • Practice
    A set of organizational resources designed for performing work or accomplishing an objective. These resources are grouped into the four dimensions of service management.
  • Practice success factor
    A complex functional component of a practice that is required for the practice to fulfil its purpose. (Note: in this definition, ‘complex’ refers to the multi-componential character of PSFs. Like practices, PSFs draw upon all four types of the organization’s resources.)
  • Metric
    A measurement or calculation that is monitored or reported for management and improvement.
  • Process
    A set of interrelated or interacting activities
    that transform inputs into outputs. A process takes one or more defined inputs and turns them into defined outputs. Processes define the sequence of actions and their dependencies.

(Note: each practice guide describes several processes in the ‘Value streams and processes’ section.)

The best way to understand the essence of an ITIL practice is to look at its purpose and the practice success factors.

3. Purpose statements

The purpose statements of the three practices reviewed in this paper are:

PracticePurpose statement
Incident managementTo minimize the negative impact of incidents by restoring normal
service operation as quickly as possible.
Service request
To support the agreed quality of a service by handling all predefined,
user-initiated service requests in an effective and user-friendly manner.
Service deskTo capture demand for incident resolution and service requests. It
should also be the entry point and single point of contact for the
service provider for all users.

Together these practices ensure that the organization:

  • quickly restores service when it fails (incident management)
  • effectively handles service-related requests (service request management)
  • provides the communication channels for the above and all other service-related communications (service desk).

Incident management and service request management are the classic ITIL practices; previously they were one process but later separated. The service desk practice is a newly introduced practice. Previous ITIL versions included the service desk function, but the purpose of the new service desk practice is limited to enabling communications. In some organizations, these communications serve incidents resolution and service requests, in other organizations: “The main purpose of the service desk practice is establishing an effective communication interface between a service provider and its users, with incidents and service requests being just two subjects of communication. Organizations can and should adjust the practice purpose statements and the other recommendations of ITIL according to their objectives and circumstances.1

The introduction of the service desk practice shows a shift in the service management thinking towards humanization of the services and focus on the user and the user journey. This journey should not be challenging, and communications is a key aspect to make the journey pleasant. According to the guide: “The service desk practice is involved in all value streams where the service provider communicates with users. It aims to ensure that these communications are effective and convenient for all parties involved.”

All three practices are used in the daily life of service desk function, and this may lead to some common misconceptions. The service desk practice guide says: “The term ‘service desk’ can refer to various types and groups of resources. For instance, in many organizations the service desk is recognized as a function or a team of people. As with any team, the service desk team may be involved in the activities of several practices. These may include service desk, incident management, service request management, problem management, service configuration management, relationship management practices, and others.

This practice guide describes the service desk practice. When other teams, software tools, or other processes are discussed, it is clearly indicated.”

4. Key concepts and messages

The key concepts and messages of these practices show how the respective areas of management have evolved since the last ITIL update in 2007 to 2011. It also equips organizations to address modern challenges and opportunities. Below, the most important concepts and messages are discussed.

4.1 Incident Management

Definition: Incident

An unplanned interruption to a service or reduction in the quality of a service.

The incident management practice ensures that periods of unplanned service unavailability or degradation are minimized. Two main factors enable this: early incident detection and the quick restoration of normal operation.

Previously, the incident detection was mostly based on information from end users and IT specialists. Modern good practice suggests detecting and registering (and, ideally, resolving) incidents automatically, immediately after incidents occur and before they start affecting users. This approach has multiple benefits, including:

  • decreased duration of service unavailability or degradation
  • higher quality initial data supports the correct response and resolution of incidents, including automated resolution, otherwise known as self-healing
  • some incidents remain invisible to users, improving user and customer satisfaction
  • some incidents may be resolved before they affect the service quality agreed with customers, improving the perceived service and the formally reported service quality
  • costs associated with incidents may decrease.

The detection of incidents is enabled by the monitoring and event management practice. This includes tools and processes for event categorization that distinguishes incidents from information events and warnings.

Categorization could be automatic, manual, or anything in-between. Detection and categorization is where automation comes in handy, and the practice may benefit from machine learning solutions, using the data available from past incidents, events, known errors, and other sources.

Although proactive incident detection is not always possible, the earlier an incident is reported and registered, the better.

Service interruptions and reductions usually demonstrate some patterns, based on which they can be typified. For typical incidents, service providers may define incident models, repeatable approaches to the management of a particular type of incident, to optimize the handling and resolution of repeating or similar incidents.

Use of the models help to resolve incidents quickly and efficiently, often with better results due to the application of proven and tested solutions. The creation and use of incident models are important activities in the incident management practice, described in the practice processes.

4.2 Service Request Management 

Predictability is one of the main characteristics of service requests. Unlike incidents, service requests are the ‘business as usual’ part of the service delivery, so their “results and the timelines are well understood by the customer, users, and operation teams of the service provider, and are usually predictable2.”

Predictability is achieved through detailed planning, testing, resource allocation, and optimization of the service request procedures. One of the practice success factors is “ensuring that the service request fulfilment procedures for all services are optimized.” The development of the service request procedures should be integrated early into the product and service lifecycle management. Well-planned service requests ensure easier automation and cost optimization.

Even more than incidents, there are multiple service requests that are similar in their nature and flow, which calls for the use of service request models. These describe the conditions and procedures for service request fulfilment, covering all four dimensions of service management:

  • procedures and workflows, including possible options and decisions
  • roles and teams responsible (usually as a RACI matrix)
  • automation and tools used
  • third parties involved in and supporting agreements.

Unlike the incident models, the service request models are usually produced during product and service design, with the service request management practice involved at all stages, and are tested and deployed to operations along with other components of the service.

The continual improvement of products and services may include the improvement of the related service request models.

To make service requests available to users in a convenient and actionable way, they are usually included in user-facing views of the organization’s service catalogue.

Definition: Request catalogue
A view of the service catalogue, providing details on service requests for existing and new services, which is made available to the user.

Usually, the request catalogue includes information about available service requests by service prerequisites/conditions, information required to initiate a request, approval workflow, target fulfilment time, and other information.

The service request catalogue view should to be tailored according to a user’s SLA, so that all of the information reflects the conditions and targets agreed for the user.

4.3 Service Desk

The service desk practice is all about providing and juggling a wide range of communication channels. The service desk practice aims to enable the right message through the right channel, while managing a heterogeneous communication toolset.

The practice also introduces the concept of omnichannel communications: unified communications across multiple channels based on sharing information across the channels and providing a seamless communication experience.

Definition: Service empathy
The ability to recognize, understand, predict, and project the interests, needs, intentions, and experiences of another party in order to establish, maintain, and improve the service relationship.

Automation and tools may increase the overall efficiency of service interactions, but it is service empathy that adds a human touch. Service empathy is usually fulfilled by human interactions and can be delivered through any channel.

Because service empathy is such an important factor of user satisfaction and service provider success, it should apply to all the service interactions ensured by service desk.

As a communication interface, the service desk practice significantly influences user satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and the overall success of service relationships. Key user satisfaction factors include the effectiveness and convenience of communication channels and interactions.

The service desk practice is also used for collecting information about user satisfaction through surveys or other satisfaction research tools. To collect this information effectively, the practice’s communication channels should be perceived as trusted, effective, and convenient by the users.

5. Working together

Working together

All ITIL practices can interact in the context of the value streams they contribute to. Value stream mapping is the most practical way to map and understand practices’ interaction and information exchange.

Figure 5.1 shows an example of a simplified value stream for an incident detected by a user. The diagram is a variation of a Porter value chain, based on Figure 2.22 from the ITIL® 4: High-velocity IT guidance.


Although extremely simplified, the diagram shows how practice activities integrate into a value stream. The lower part of the diagram shows practices that contribute to the value stream by information, tools, or methods. For example, service level management contributes with a guidance to service levels for incident management, information security management ensures that only authorized users log incidents, and knowledge management contributes with the methods and knowledge for diagnosis and resolution.

Figure 5.2 shows another example of a service request value stream map.


Figure 5.2 shows a simple request with a clear handling procedure. More complex value streams for a service request handling may also include a contribution from the change enablement practice (typically, for a standard change), or deployment management (for example, if a virtual server instance is requested), or service financial management (for a financial approval in the workflow).

6. Summary


ITIL 4 provides a comprehensive detailed guidance on 34 management practices. Three of them, described here, provide recommendations for managing incidents and requests, as well as managing a multi-channel or, ideally, omnichannel communication interface between users and service teams. The practices should be designed and managed in a holistic, integrated way, to contribute to the organization’s value streams and enable value creation for the organization’s stakeholders.


1. Service desk practice guide, pp 4
2. Service request management practice guide, pp 5

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ITIL Practices in 2000 words: Incident management, service desk and service request management

ITIL practices in 2000 words