On the IT service desk (and for anyone who studies ITIL), the words ‘problem’ and ‘incident’ are often used interchangeably. Sometimes, people throw in the word ‘issue’ to further confuse the situation. However, these two words have totally different meanings, and the difference is actually important in being able to communicate how urgent the situation is and what needs to be done in order to fix it. Here are the meanings of each word, according to the definitions used by ITIL, and how these meanings translate into the timeliness of the fix needed.

What is an Incident?

An incident is an event that leads to an unplanned disruption of service. The important part to remember is ‘disruption of service,’ because if an issue does not disrupt service, even if it was unplanned and unexpected, it is not an incident. For example, if a piece of hardware fails after hours when nobody is using the system, it is not an incident, because it did not disrupt service. However, if the same equipment failed during the regular workday, it would be defined as an incident because service was, in fact, disrupted. The IT help desk is often the first ones to be made aware of an incident, as they are usually the first point of contact for users experiencing issues with the system.

What is a Problem?

A problem is the underlying cause that leads to an incident. A problem may be something that could lead to the same incident occurring again, or lead to another incident entirely. The problem is essentially the root cause of an incident or incidents.

What Does Fixing an Incident Require?

An incident is urgent due to the fact that it is causing a service outage. Incidents have to be addressed immediately. This might mean immediately fixing the problem causing the incident, or it could mean coming up with a temporary work around to get the system back up and operational until the underlying cause (problem) can be found and corrected more permanently. Incidents need to be logged into the help desk software so that they can be monitored and tracked. Sometimes it takes multiple incident reports to get to the bottom of whatever is causing the underlying problem.

What Does Fixing a Problem Require?

Unless a problem is immediately causing an incident, it isn’t urgent, but it is probably important in order to prevent an incident or more incidents in the future. Fixing a problem often requires testing to find out what the underlying cause of the problem is and perhaps troubleshooting to find a permanent solution.

When using these terms, be sure that you’re using them appropriately. This helps IT workers understand each other better so that they can work together to get systems back up in the short term and eliminate problems that could lead to longer term issues.

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