Incident management vs problem management

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To the uninitiated, incident management and problem management might sound very similar. In fact, though, there is a lot to be gained by separating them out clearly and then increasing your focus on problem management.

So what do we mean by a problem? According to the ITIL definition, it’s “the unknown underlying cause of one or more incidents”. A problem can therefore be defined as something for which the root cause is not yet known.

That root cause is something we need to find out in order to prevent future incidents. The goal of problem management is, again according to ITIL, to minimize “the adverse impact of incidents and problems on the business that are caused by errors within the IT infrastructure, and to prevent recurrence of incidents related to those errors. In order to achieve this goal, problem management seeks to get to the root cause of incidents and then initiate actions to improve or correct the situation.”

That’s all a bit abstract, so let’s look at an example. An end-user calls your service desk about difficulties printing a document. The analyst who takes the call discovers that the document in question has caused an error in the print queue. As a workaround, the analyst enables the user to use a printer in an adjoining office, so that productivity is restored.

This means that the incident can be closed (and it certainly should be so that it doesn’t distort incident management statistics). However, the analyst should also alert the problem manager, as the incident may reflect an underlying problem. Perhaps this end-user is just the first of many who will ring the service desk today, and the problem manager may discover that the common factor in all the incidents is an update to your office software last night. Fixing this underlying issue will ensure that there are no more print incidents of this kind.

So, in a nutshell:

  • Incident management is the speedy restoration of IT services
  • Problem management is the prevention of incidents, or minimization of their impact, by tackling the root cause

More and more organizations are recognizing the value of problem management, and ITIL publications describe a sound approach. In future posts, I’ll summarize the approach and recommend some ways to make problem management even more effective. The key, as I will argue, is to look beyond the realms of IT infrastructure to find out what is really important to the business.

If you’d like to know more you can also download our Smart Guide to discover what every Service Desk Manager must know about Problem Management.


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