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Problem Management in ITIL 4

Published: January 29, 2021
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What is problem management?

In the world of IT, one of the first lessons you’ll learn is that problems are inevitable. Bugs may turn up in software, or vendors might fail to meet essential targets. No matter what steps are taken to detect and resolve issues in advance, there will always be the possibility of unforeseen problems popping up.

The positive impact of successful IT management can be felt throughout a business. Disruptive occurrences such as service downtime will be minimized, while elements like risk, change, and knowledge management will be able to proceed with a greater level of perspective and reliability. All of this will contribute towards the process of continual improvement – a crucial point of focus for businesses that want to keep meeting and surpassing client expectations.

With this in mind, successful IT service managers know to employ a structured ‘problem management’ approach – one that includes a process for identifying incidents, tracking down their causes, and developing workarounds to avoid similar occurrences moving forward. Not only does this help managers to minimize the frequency of problems, but it also accelerates the rate at which teams can respond to them.

Problem management has long been an aspect of ITIL, the world’s leading IT service management (ITSM) framework. So, how do ITIL 4 practitioners tackle problem management, and what are the benefits of following the ITIL framework?

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What is problem management in ITIL 4?

ITIL 4, the latest iteration of the ITIL framework, offers a problem management approach that addresses the most pressing priorities and concerns of the modern IT and digital landscape.

To start with, there is a distinct difference between ‘incident’ and ‘problem’ management in ITIL 4:

  • Incidents – Occurrences that impact business processes or users. Managers must resolve them so that business activities can take place
  • Problems – These are defined as the causes of ‘incidents’. They must be investigated and analyzed so that effective workarounds and long-term solutions can be established

ITIL 4 teams will prioritize incidents based on the risk of them reoccurring, as well as the potential damage they can cause. This is driven by information management, which can require data from project or test teams as well as developers, partners, service desks, or suppliers as necessary.

Once the most pressing incidents have been highlighted, the next step is ‘problem control’. This can be tricky, as the interrelated nature of IT services means that problems often have a number of causes. As such, teams need a holistic and proactive problem management approach.

The next stage is ‘error control’. ITIL teams define a ‘known error’ as a problem that has been identified but, for whatever reason, has not yet been resolved. While problem analysis is taking place, teams will develop workarounds and known errors will be documented so that service operations can resume with minimal disruption. 

Depending on the complexity of a problem, it may well be that solving it will cost more time and effort than the resulting benefits would be able to justify. In this case, ‘workarounds’ that help avoid or resolve incidents may be employed on a permanent basis. While this may not eliminate problems altogether, it will minimize the impact of similar incidents in the future. Workarounds may even be automated by software development teams.

Crucially, workarounds will typically be reassessed on an ongoing basis. This allows teams to keep track of how end-users are being affected. If new solutions have emerged, they may also revisit problems that were previously left alone.

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Problem management in ITIL 4

So far in this article, we have not laid out a descriptive process for problem management. The reason for this is that, more often than that, problem management is defined not by procedures but by qualified and experienced staff able to analyze incidents and problems in order to understand why they occur and how to resolve them. 

In other words, ITIL problem management relies not only on the IT framework but also on ITIL practitioners.

Although there is no distinct module for problem management in the ITIL 4 certification path, several related activities can be found throughout the ITIL Service Value Chain (SVC):

  1. Customer communication – End-users may highlight incidents or demand updates. ITIL practitioners will need to engage with them and communicate how problems and incidents are being managed
  2. Design/ transition – Analyzing incidents and problems will generate valuable information that can be used to improve testing practices and reduce the likelihood of recurrences
  3. Identification and management – Once the defects of IT-powered products and services have been highlighted, they can be successfully managed
  4. Deliver/ support – Investing in proven problem management practices will significantly reduce the likelihood of incidents repeating themselves. Teams will also be able to resolve incidents far more quickly and efficiently
  5. Improve – To manage problems effectively, ITIL teams implement measures to reduce the frequency and impact of incidents on an ongoing basis