What is Project Management (PMP®) vs. Service Management (ITIL®)?

As a Project Management Professional (PMP), PRINCE2® Practitioner, I feel like I have a good sense of that field. I’m no guru or all-around expert, but I’ve been teaching and practicing project management for about 15 years now. One day, my boss asked me to help out by creating some training on ITIL®. “It’s IT Service Management,” he said, “you practically know this already.” So off I went to pick up the ITIL® v3 books and started reading. That’s when I discovered that there were definitely similarities, but they were not the same thing. Perhaps that’s why so many people struggle with IT Service Management frameworks like ITIL® or COBIT®.   

As an ITIL® 4 Managing Professional and Strategic Leader as well as a PMP®, both project management and IT service management are near and dear to my heart. Quite frankly they can and should complement one another, but they are different in their focus and approach.  

Before comparing the two, we should first understand what exactly the two terms mean.  

Project management 

This field only focuses on the project on hand. It's the application of techniques and knowledge for following established plans and meeting the requirements of customers and stakeholders alike.  

IT Service Management  

This is a process-based practice that focuses on delivering IT services that benefit customers. It aligns the delivery of IT services with the needs of an organization that uses them. For our intents and purposes we focus on the IT side of things and you might hear it called ITSM or IT Service management.  

What are the major differences?  

On this table we can see a lot of things, however, a few of the important differences come into play: 

First, project management deals with the temporary. All projects are temporary endeavors to produce unique products, services, or results. Project managers focus on individual projects and see them through to completion. The process of project management includes initiation, planning, execution or performing, and monitoring a project.  

Service Management is an ongoing operational activity. While projects have a beginning and an end, services tend to go on for quite a long time before they are retired. Services also utilize much of the same practices continuously. The IT service management process includes designing, creating, delivering, supporting, and managing the overall lifecycle of the IT services needed for the product or service. 

Let’s give you an example of how this might work in an organization. Let’s take Elon Musk’s company called Tesla. When Elon and, let’s face it, his design and development team created the new Cybertruck or any of the new models, that initial creation was a project. It had a beginning and it had an end. It definitely created a UNIQUE product service or result. However, once this project was finished, service management or IT service management steps in. The product requires constant feature updates and customer support. Also, remember that Tesla as a company has internal systems and services that allow them to support the different models of vehicles and even the Solar Roof systems they install on houses. As you can see, they are closely related, but there are real differences between the two different modalities. 

 Since project management is temporary and is done over shorter amounts of time, there are usually more parts to plan and manage. Because of this, project management is usually thought of as more difficult to execute than service management, but both can be challenging. 

In this video from the ITProTV YouTube channel below, I help explain the differences further.

KPIs in Project Management and Service Management 

Something else that shows the differences are the key performance indicators or KPIs. For projects, we can see this typical list of KPIs that show whether you are hitting your objectives and key results or critical success factors. 

For Service Management we see that there is a bigger influence of things like TCO, Operational and standard Service Level Agreements, Performance, and Availability. You hear terms like Mean Time Between Failure and Mean Time to Restore Service. Or perhaps a number of feature releases and upgrades. 

How to become a project manager 

Alright, so what would this look like if you wanted to continue in a career as a Project Manager? Here we see a generalized path from being a Project Coordinator which requires simply a high school diploma or equivalent secondary education.   

This can climb up to ultimately being the VP of Project Management at a major company. How high you go is only limited by your willingness to continue learning proper PM skills. 

How to become an IT Service Manager 

For IT Service Management, there are way more roles and positions that you see here, but the ones we are showing in the image below are broken down into a fairly typical Three-Point-Area: Strategic – Developmental – and Operational.  

Well, there you have it, a look at the differences between Project and Service Management.  

Train for PMP® and ITIL® at ACI Learning 

If you’re looking for certification training in either of these career paths, check out the Senior Technology Project Manager Program at ACI Learning to prepare for the PMI® Project Management Professional (PMP®), Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM®), and ITIL© Foundation certification exams. This program takes 10 days (or 15 nights) to prepare students for the exams, and is available in-person or online but always live instructor-led. You’ll have the support of an Instructor Mentor for one-on-one study sessions and one voucher for each exam is included. After classes are complete, work with the Career Services department to perfect your resume and LinkedIn profile and get in touch with local employers in our Employer Partner Network through our exclusive jobsite. Fill out the form below to request more information on our training programs and graduate support! 

About the Author 

Chris Ward 

A+, Network+, MCSE: Communications (2012), MCSE: Server Infrastructure (2012), PMP, PRINCE2, ITIL-Expert, ITIL 4 Managing Professional 

 Chris Ward is an instructor at ACI Learning. He has been an IT and Project Management trainer for 20+ years. He has authored books and created courses used worldwide. 


Learning Hub Programs

Your Fast Track to a World of IT Careers