What Can We Learn From Corporate Support

A true challenge in higher ed IT support is the ability to make a strategic, connect-the-dots case to senior-level administrators.

As a 25-year veteran of the support/helpdesk/service community in corporate America (and now, with an eye to support in higher education), I’ve accumulated a good deal of experience in support strategy, operations, structure, and technology—and I have the gray hair to prove it.

Now I’d like to use a bit of my background in corporate IT support as a “crystal ball” of sorts, for one thing apparent to me as I survey higher ed support issues is the tendency of campus support organizations and help desks (generally) to lag a bit behind the evolution of support in corporate America. That means that in many cases, I can pretty much predict what issues and changes you may be dealing with next, and what those solutions may be, down the road. After all, I’ve already followed the pattern in business support. Granted, there are distinct differences between support on campus and support in the commercial sector—but not as many as you might suppose. Here’s one glimpse backward that may get you thinking about how to move forward:

A War Story from the Commercial Sector

Some years ago, a new corporate president and CEO (who had a reputation for being both tough and sharp) was getting briefed by her department heads. As the IT director was going through his presentation, explaining his department’s organizational structure and mission, the CEO suddenly stopped him. “Back up two slides,” she snapped. Somewhat nervously, he complied, redisplaying the data prepared by the help desk manager that showed the operational stats for the group. “That slide,” the CEO said after a moment, “tells me that at any given time, around X percent of our employees are sitting idle, waiting for their computers to become available again, and costing us money. Am I misreading those statistics?”

The director quickly reviewed the reported numbers of cases, severity/priority levels, average handling times, escalations, and resolution times, and realized that there was only one answer he could offer the CEO. “No, you’re not misreading the figures; that’s an accurate picture of the situation,” he said, bracing for an unpleasant reaction.

The CEO’s reply, however, surprised him. “What would it take to cut that percentage in half, and how long would you need to do it?” she asked. As it turned out, the director had the answer ready; in the course of a request for additional staff (a request that had been turned down at the time), he had recently been briefed on the subject by the help desk manager. “If I had three additional staffers and about 45 days to bring them up to speed,” he said, “we could do somewhat better than the 50 percent reduction you want.”

The director was expecting to be told that there couldn’t be any staff increases; that he would simply have to deliver the improvement with what he already had, or less. (He’d been through similar discussions in the past.) As it turned out, though, he was wrong.

“Hire them,” the new CEO said, “Immediately. And I want to see that report, brought up to date, every Monday morning until you make your goal. After that, send it to me every month unless the downtime percentage exceeds that new threshold for a week.”

Clear-cut (and Not So Clear-cut) Connections

The IT director in my corporate IT support story got lucky. He received an immediate authorization to increase help desk staff (and he hadn’t even requested the increase!), all because his company CEO immediately made the connection between the cost of lost productivity, and the (on the surface) “dry” statistics from the help desk manager.

One of the challenges in higher ed IT support, is the ability to make that same kind of case to senior-level administrators such as CFOs, when the direct connection to lost dollars isn’t quite as clear-cut. D'es ineffective or underfunded IT support on your campus impact users as distinctly (for purposes of funding arguments) as, say, when Verizon Wireless customer support falls short, and consumers flee to Sprint and Cingular? Maybe not, but that d'esn’t mean that negative impact d'esn’t exist. Are there “typical” or “model” arguments that campus IT support directors can use, to make the case for more resources and better tools?

According to Phil Verghis, president of The Verghis Group Inc. (www.verghisgroup.com), there is no such thing as a typical higher education help desk, and he should know. Verghis ran the help desk at Duke University (NC) for years, and is a veteran practitioner of global support. He is the only two-time winner of Service News’ Service 25 Award, given to those who have made a significant impact in the field of service and support, and he has been recognized for having made some of the most notable contributions to the support industry over the last decade. His teams have won a number of international awards for excellence in people, process, and technology in the customer support arena. Verghis has also managed and supported the world’s largest distributed IP network, with 15,000 servers in over 60 countries.

Says Verghis: Only at a help desk for students at a for-profit institution can the relationship between lost productivity and the profit-and-loss picture be easily and directly connected in hard-dollar fashion to the purpose and management of the help desk. For the manager of a faculty help desk at a state university, making those clear connections would be a different challenge, as it would be for the manager of a help desk dedicated to the support of the administration staff at a mid-sized private institution. What’s more, adds Verghis, campus IT organizational models are scattered all over the map: Some colleges and universities have moved to a consolidated IT organization, while others have independent fiefdoms loosely connected. Clearly, in the effort to tie IT support process and structure back to strategic foundations, in order to secure more dollars and resources, one argument model will not fit all.

Reality 101: Find Your Connections

The fact that one argument model will not fit all, however, d'es not excuse the campus IT support director or help desk manager from the need to connect what they do at their level, to the long-range goals and objectives of their institution’s senior management. Am I suggesting that the burden of communication, and of aligning your tactics to the overall strategic goals of the institution, is on you? You bet I am. It is incumbent upon you to position yourself to present to senior administrators—using language they will understand and appreciate—what the meaning of your work is in terms of overall institutional strategy, whether they have stated it for you or not.

For instance: You know that in order to respond to X (percent) of all incoming service requests within S (seconds), you need P (people) available to meet a (volume) level of V, where the average (handling time) is H. Erlang (www.erlang.com), working for the Danish telephone company, had the basic approach for those calculations worked out before 1917. Yes, these are concepts and terms you understand, but presidents, chancellors, and CFOs probably won’t care much about your Erlang tables. They speak in strategic terms, and you’ll have to match your language to theirs if you want to communicate with them, build resources for your support team, and deliver improved service. What d'es the difference between a 60-second average response time and a 15-minute (or greater) average response time mean to senior management? If you resolve 60 percent of all faculty or administrative requests for support within one hour, is that service good enough?

You tell me. The best way to bring you an effective column tailored to the support problems of your own campus is to design this column as a forum for an ongoing conversation about issues at all levels of the university support management structure, from CIO/VP, to support center/help desk supervisor. Consider me your IT support consultant, and send in those questions and comments. Then I’ll present you, the readers, with a conversation that brings value to us all.

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