When we take stock of the productivity gains resulting from IT, it is often technology that gets the credit. A closer inspection, however, reveals that it is the management of IT that does much of the heavy lifting. If management is the art of performance then IT management is the vehicle for turning technology’s complexity and specialisation into productive performance.

You do not need a license to practice IT. Instead, IT managers are all too often relegated to learning through on-the-job training. To illustrate, we’ve always had doctors, but it wasn’t until medicine became a discipline that we came to expect much more. Only when the trade became codified - taught, practiced and improved upon - did we significantly raise the level of performance. Of course, few could now conceive of sending a surgeon into an operating room without proven levels of performance.

Similarly, IT-based services have become vital to the fabric of business and society. The manner in which information-based services are conceived, produced and distributed has given rise to new business models. IT service management has grown from an operational concern into a strategic tool. So it is not surprising that the growth and prosperity of IT service management is accompanied by its codification.

For many years, the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) has played a notable role in connecting technology with its management. Many books and frameworks focus on IT topics, but often they focus on a single idea, without broader context.

The latest version of ITIL differs because it presents a coherent view of IT services. Its purpose is to provide practical guidance while explaining the underlying theory and practice of managing IT services. Written for a wide audience it lays out the fundamental principles and processes of a discipline that makes modern life possible.

IT organisations accomplish business outcomes that none of us could achieve alone. Version 3 of ITIL offers a disciplined way of thinking about those outcomes and offers viable guidance for achieving them. Re-architected into a five-phase lifecycle, it begins with Service Strategy, the discernment of an IT organisation’s strategic purpose; a topic that often gets short shrift in the pursuit of day-to-day practicalities.

It helps senior managers understand how their organisation will differ from competing alternatives and thereby satisfy both customers and stakeholders. It offers insight into the service organisation and establishing the rules of engagement that aligns all the participants in the common pursuit. Properly done, these core strategic concepts can and should lead to powerful and practical examination, such as: where is the organisation headed and what does it need to do to get there?

The next book, Service Design, converts strategy into blueprint – a phase that requires both rigorous analysis and insight. It is where strategic goals meet the reality of constraints and coalesce into design. The Service Transition book, is the brake of the lifecycle. High performance automobiles have oversize brakes not to go slow but to go faster. Similarly, an IT manager with a Service Transition capability has the confidence to enact organisational change at a faster pace, secure in the knowledge that controls are in place.

The subsequent book, Service Operation, is where designs are translated into execution. While it may sound like following a recipe, execution requires both discipline and judgment. And, as is often the case when achieving high performance, the actual doing is harder than it looks. The final book in the lifecycle is Continual Service Improvement. Are managers balancing short-term and long-term performance? Have prior resource commitments played out as expected in the face of uncertainty? As course corrections are made and resources are re-deployed, managers must keep the organisation moving forward.

ITILv3 is theory and practice for IT managers. The word theory is used with some apprehension. Getting organisations to perform is not hard science. But without theory it’s difficult to make sense of certain situations. Theory helps you see patterns and ask the right questions. Common sense may help you help cope with a well-defined problem, but few of the important problems that afflict IT organisations arrive precisely labelled. Mastery of IT management comes from understanding why and how IT organisations and its services work.

The word practice is also used with some trepidation. While we all want to know “what to do on Monday morning”, the rest of the week may not be as cooperative. So while ITIL offers useful checklists and guidelines, it takes care to present complex ideas simply, not simplistically.

The ability to make clear choices is increasingly vital for IT managers. It is this capability excellence that propels the field forward. Take ITILv3 as your guide.

Michael Nieves is a senior manager from Accenture and is one of the authors involved in the latest release of the ITIL Refresh (V3) Advisory Group. Nieves is a board member of the itSMF USA.