“So, Mr User, how good do you find IT Support here?”
“Depends on who you get.”
The user needs technical assistance with printing, with his laptop, his phone, an app, or an ongoing development. The official channel requires that he call the Servicedesk. This he does, but with concern, for he knows that it is a matter of chance which responder will answer his call. If happens to be Operative A, then an immediately usable resolution is typical; but if Operative B answers, then his request will invariably have to be logged and passed on elsewhere. Nobody can predict how long that ‘elsewhere’ will take to produce a resolution of this enquiry. Some resolving departments are quicker than others, and some individuals in those departments are not known for their diligence and communication.
This is the ‘Depends on Who You Get‘ (DOWYG) effect. It is common in internal, less so in external support. Among the experienced, clever technicians of the first line are also a few lowly-paid, poorly trained, non-technical, or contractors with little to no understanding of the business. It is a curious, standing IT Support norm that we put our least capable, least experienced staff closest to the users, where they can do most damage to already impeded user productivity.
Call Centre Confusion
The predominance of DOWYG is largely a product of the rise of the ITIL and vendor-promoted ‘Servicedesk’ from about the turn of the century.
In the latest version of the ITIL framework back at the time, it was postulated that IT Support be seen not for its ability to fix user computer problems, but in light of its apparent similarities with the recently popular concept of the ‘call centre’. The flawed logic went, that as both IT helpdesks and call centres take telephone call requests, they broadly do the same job. The flaw is in confusing the means of collection with the purpose of output. While both services answer the phone, the helpdesk diagnoses and solves problems, while a call centre merely provides information from a known catalogue of knowledge. The outcomes, and thereby the structures and skillsets needed, are very different.
Nevertheless, ITIL advocates proposed that the Servicedesk could act as a single point of contact for all types of user support enquiries. There was some acknowledgement that this might engender a lack of specific expertise in the Servicedesk, but that did not matter – for this new call-handling group would serve simply to re-route all incoming technical enquiries to expert groups for resolution.
In a development that had more to do with a market-share land-grab rather than an expression of what business users actually needed, this new format began to replace the ‘Helpdesk’. Another potential benefit came from another trend of the late 1990s – that of outsourcing. If the Servicedesk would commonly route calls elsewhere, then it was not a strategic resource – so it could be outsourced and even offshored. This happened in a number of larger companies. The rise of the Servicedesk had more to do with exploiting opportunities in the IT services business than it did with supporting IT users.
The results were so commonplace as to be almost universal. As ‘IT Support’ became falsely synonymous with the ‘Servicedesk’, development of IT Support as a cross-IT function ceased. Industry bodies and service software vendors piled onto the ITIL bandwagon and focused on the Servicedesk. The Helpdesk Institute Europe changed its name to the Service Desk Institute. Under this ‘one-stop-shop’ idea, first line fix rates plummeted, as technicians ended up taking clerical or admin calls, and administrative operatives were often left out of their depth by technical enquiries. With the lean toward call-handling rather than enquiry diagnosis, salaries suffered too.
Users started to distrust the Servicedesk, unwilling to join a call centre queue only to have their enquiry taken and passed on. Instead, they started to cultivate direct relationships with IT technicians, and bypass the Servicedesk. This caused second line departments to find themselves taking work from both the Servicedesk and from users direct. That in turn impeded workload prioritisation in those technical groups, leading to backlogs.
As the staff in the Servicedesk were now often held to be largely non-technical, training opportunities in that area were not routinely forthcoming, limiting career development. Outside the Servicedesk, technical staff were allowed to drift further away from the users. The cost of a fix rose sharply, as more calls had to be handled at least twice and ultimately dealt with by more expensive second line staff. With IT Support no longer being strategic, management was downgraded to a supervisory or team leader function, leading to developmental stagnation. Across the industry, considerations of an ‘IT Support Strategy’ evaporated.
In the early days, it is safe to say the the ITIL-sponsored ‘Servicedesk’ was, in terms of IT Support quality on behalf of business users, a catastrophic failure.
That failure is still often the case, with the inherent shortcomings of the 1990s Servicedesk approach still apparent. As a result, many support services have chosen too move away from the original ITIL Servicedesk doctrine, to find more efficient ways of delivering support. As this happens, vendors have responded by providing tools to automate some types of IT Support enquiry. In a service-driven backlash, IT support departments are doing it their own way.
The ‘Mastering IT Support Delivery‘ (MISD) curriculum offers numerous techniques and a structured approach to help with this. Because of its focus on IT Support, MISD can operate without ITIL, or in parallel with it. There are techniques for building first-time fix rates by using on-the-job realities. MISD offers statistically-based ways for technical workgroups to reduce their backlogs and speed up support fixes, while retaining resources for their other duties. Methods for managing single points of failure and skills redundancy help to remove the ‘Depends on Who You Get’ effect. Science exists for deciding approaches to service delivery. MISD can inform management decisions, for example, on whether or not a Servicedesk is needed. The ‘Advanced Manager‘ syllabus directly addresses the formulation of a support strategy.
It is gratifying to see how the industry has responded to the damage done by a flawed doctrine, and makes encouraging efforts to improve itself. MISD stands to assist with this, both in showing IT support staff and managers how to succeed at and enjoy their jobs, as well as describing a proven methodology for delivering world-class IT.
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