Developing a Strategic Support Plan

There are many arguments for campuswide help desk consolidation; herewith, a few of the best.

A CALL FOR SUPPORT comes into a university IT group, and is reported to three or more different operating units of the department. All three units assign the case to one of their staff members, who each takes a different approach to analyzing the problem. Some, perhaps all, of the assigned staffers conclude that the issue really isn’t in their area of responsibility, and close their files. All assume that someone else will take care of the problem and inform the user as to problem resolution status.

Or…Perhaps the case is reported directly to two or three different resources, all of whom devote some time and energy to resolving the problem. When each reports back to the caller, they then discover that another group has already handled the matter.

Or…A very senior IT staff member is pulled away to respond to a reported issue, and finds herself running around the campus to get the basic information required to define the problem. In the meantime, the progress of a vital implementation project is threatened by the loss of her time.

Or…A local “guru” decides to “help” a colleague install an application or make changes to an environment. In the process, oops! The system stops working. Additional guru help is invoked, along with assistance from one or more campus help desks, each attempting various fixes. Unfortunately, no guru or help desk resource is aware of the “contributions” the others have made.

Sound familiar? It should. These and other unpleasant scenarios are often discussed (and have been for years) whenever IT support people get together. What’s a harried IT Support executive to do? Let’s examine how one school addressed the underlying issues.

Evaluate and Change

King’s College (PA) is a small, Roman Catholic institution in Wilkes-Barre, with a student body of 2,200 full- and part-time students. Not long ago, the college’s CIO, Paul Moran, put together a project team to evaluate the role and process of the IT help desk. The assignment: to come up with a proposal for dealing with a range of perceived strategic and tactical issues.

The team met weekly to talk about scope, technology, hours of operation, staffing, definition of what services could be offered, quality levels, and process. Recognizing that all technology carries asupport burden, the team worked to balance the need for support against the pool of available resources. The final report and proposal was submitted six months later, and was accepted.

The key strategic points covered by the report included the establishment of a single, campuswide point of contact for all support, and implementing a robust tracking system to both manage all cases and capture the vital data that would enable management of the department, staffing levels and skill sets, and overall quality.

Single Point of Contact

Early on, the team saw that all of the various existing support channels needed to be consolidated into a single point of contact for students, faculty, and administration. The recommendation was that all incoming requests would be entered into a case-tracking system, to which the entire organization would have access. A tiered organizational structure was designed, and escalation policies and procedures were drafted as part of the team’s report.

Clearly, the need to consolidate resources for greater efficiency is a key strategic issue that other schools ought to seriously consider. Most universities typically have several separate help desks of varying sizes that have grown up over time, due to the vagaries of budgeting and departmental empire-building. Yet, Moran and his group realized that a single consolidated help desk would not only be able to give far better support than three or four separate units scattered about in different departments across the campus, but consolidation of the groups would result in lower costs overall.

Capturing the Data

By recording all pertinent details of all cases, the new incident tracking system enables Moran and his team to make some informed choices.

“One change was the purchase and installation of a software system to enable users to reset their own passwords,” Moran comments. “The justification for the purchase came from the fact that the most common call to the help desk was for forgotten passwords.” The team now analyzes the number and types of calls to determine the timetable for moving resources from support to development and innovation.

Staffing

The team’s report defined the number of professional staff members that would be needed, and summarized their duties and the new workflow. The restructuring of the organization showed Moran that other changes would be required as well.

“Hiring has changed,” he says. “We look first for teamplayer mentality now. The team is everything. The ‘lone techie,’ no matter how smart, will simply not work in this scheme.” The CIO even admits that a few of his staffers have left because they knew they wouldn’t fit into the new scheme, but he notes philosophically that “you can’t change what people are. You have to accept what talents they have and don’t have, and create an environment that allows them to perform.”

Universal Principles

The re-engineering of King’s College’s IT support benefited from some significant advantages that should be recognized: First, King’s College is a small institution, making the endeavor more straightforward than it would no doubt be in a larger institution. Second, the effort had presidential backing—no minor detail in the success of any initiative. Finally, the budget was made available to implement the recommendations, in terms of purchasing technology to enable the changes to work. But strategic details such as presidential and financial support are no less crucial at any higher education institution, and the specific points of the recommendation of Moran’s team are equally valid for any school. Consolidation of disparate help desk units into a single cohesive unit, if properly thought through and executed, can result in newfound efficiency. What’s more, the ability to analyze the data from all support requests campuswide will allow the IT group to make better decisions about technology purchases, training, and allocation of support resources.

Perhaps the key question you now should be asking yourself is: Can you get presidential backing for an IT support re-engineering effort at your school? We’ll save that one for another column.

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