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There’s much to learn about the difference between incident management and problem management in the ITIL body of IT Service Management (ITSM) best practice guidance.
For some, this statement makes sense because in ITIL, incidents and problems are two different things. However, for others, the difference between incident and problem management is not so clear. This often stems from uncertainty over the terms incident and problem—with the two words perhaps used interchangeably. After all, outside of ITSM and ITIL, if something isn’t right, then it might be called a problem.
If you want to find out more about the difference between incidents and problems, plus ITIL incident vs problem management, then this blog is for you.
When looking to differentiate ITIL incident vs problem management, there’s a need to start with what incidents and problems are. The latest AXELOS ITIL 4 Foundation Edition publication, which incorporates ITIL 4 best practices, offers up the following two definitions:
Incident = “An unplanned interruption to a service or reduction in the quality of a service.” Incidents are usually identified by end users and reported via telephone, email, or an IT self-service portal.
Problem = “A cause, or potential cause, of one or more incidents.” Problems are typically identified through the analysis of incident records and other ITSM data.
ITIL best practices indicate the proper way to handle incident management vs. problem management:
Incident management = “The practice of minimizing the negative impact of incidents by restoring normal service operation as quickly as possible.”
Problem management = “The practice of reducing the likelihood and impact of incidents by identifying actual and potential causes of incidents, and managing workarounds and known errors.”
You probably noticed that both of the problem-focused definitions also refer to incidents—which might only add to the confusion between the ITIL incident and problem terminology. And, even if it might sound straight forward, there’s still so much more to understand about the differences between problem and incident management and the ITIL 4 management practices related to them.
This is best explained by looking at how incidents and problems are dealt with in the ITIL best practice guidance.
Various versions of ITIL books over the last 30 years have all explained the separate processes (or practices in ITIL 4) for incident management and problem management (and the differences). Yet, there’s still confusion between the two—and the ITIL incident vs problem debate continues.
A good starting point for clearing up the confusion is to really understand the difference between an incident and a problem, beyond the ITIL 4 definitions above, and how they are handled.
An incident is an issue affecting one or more employees, customers, third parties, business processes or services, or another entity that can be adversely affected by your organization’s technology—or technology-based services—not working as they should. For example, a faulty laptop and an inaccessible business application are both classified as incidents. Both of these example issues (or incidents) are likely to be reported to the IT service desk—either by an affected person or a monitoring or event management tool—for resolution.
Problems, on the other hand, come from incidents such as these. But, despite how some people might describe problems, incidents don’t change state into problems. Instead, a problem is a new ITSM entity—and a separate record in an ITSM software tool—created from recurring incidents. With the original incidents linked to the problem—and here we have an issue with the ITIL incident vs problem confusion.
A problem might be an incident that repeats over time—for example, the same laptop continually experiences hard disk failures (despite repeated replacement). Or, it’s an incident that’s affecting multiple laptops, and the likely cause, or root cause, is going to be a manufacturing issue.
The fact that incidents and problems are different means that there needs to be differences between incident management and problem management processes and activities.
Incidents are dealt with as quickly as possible to get whatever (or whoever) is impacted up and running again ASAP. Incident management fixes the symptoms of the issue, but not necessarily the root cause, in an expedited way.
An example of incident management in action is an employee call to the IT service desk in respect of an app on their mobile phone not working, with the resolution being either an update to the app, the phone’s operating system or both. This can either be done by the service desk analyst remotely or the employee by following provided instructions.
Problems, on the other hand, are usually dealt with over a longer timeframe. Here, ITSM tool data and potentially other sources of information are gathered and analyzed to understand what has caused the recurring issue(s) and what needs to be done to rectify the situation. This resolution might take the form of a request for change (RFC) or if a definitive solution is known or isn’t feasible, then a known error and workaround are created to temporarily flag and fix the recurring issue respectively.
An example of problem management in action is the monthly review of the top 10 incident types to identify repeat issues. This might highlight a particular application-related incident which, upon investigation, can be pointed at a lack of end-user training rather than a technology-related issue. The resolution would be either additional training or new knowledge articles to help the end users. A workaround is, for example, a daily server reboot that prevents a problem-related incident occurring until a more formal fix can be found and applied.
This difference between the immediacy of incident management and the likely longer timeframes with problem management is an important point to note in the context of who is responsible for ITIL incident vs problem management.
If an individual or group is responsible for both incident and problem management, they’re likely to be too bogged down in the firefighting of incident handling to spend the necessary level of time on the analysis and investigation that effective problem management requires. However, utilizing ITSM software can support incident management.
Hopefully, this blog has helped to explain the difference between incident and problem management. Incident management is focused on getting people or services back up and running ASAP, while problem management is focused on understanding and fixing the root causes of frequent incidents or problems.
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John Prestridge is an accomplished marketing and product strategist focused on customer needs. He helped drive product innovation and market development within the IT service management software industry to support the digital transformation of enterprise companies. He is a firm believer that ITSM 2.0 is the critical path for companies transitioning to the Digital Workplace. Prestridge brings broad expertise in the technologies shaping the future workplace, including service management, cloud computing, application virtualization, mobility, intelligent automation, and compliance.