Learning from the Outsourcers
- By Mikael Blaisdell
Outsourcing, in general, has been discussed on campuses for some time. Too
bad those conversations have seldom involved the help desk.
IT'S TRUE THAT that in the corporate world, the internal help desk manager
and the staff often see the suggestion of outsourcing IT support as the harbinger
of doom; the beginning of the end of their jobs. The siren song of the outsourcer
is a simple one: “Let us handle all of your IT support needs,” the
salesmen chant, “for we can do it cheaper than you can do it yourself,
with much less stress all around.” And all too often, the decision to
outsource is quickly made on the basis of the claimed economic benefits, and
the opportunity to take a serious look at the role of IT support (sadly) is
Within the academic community, however, while outsourcing as a general strategy
for the bookstore or building maintenance operations has been seriously discussed
on campuses for some time, the conversations seldom involve the help desks.
The absence of equally serious discussion about outsourcing and campus IT support
is unfortunate, not because significant money could be saved by outsourcing
the help desks offshore, but because the careful cost-benefit analysis that
such a discussion should bring could reveal a substantial opportunity that has
been overlooked for many years. Am I saying that college and university administrators
could learn a lot from the outsourcers? Yes, I certainly am. Am I also suggesting
that higher ed institutions should consider outsourcing their IT support? Indeed
so; some should, in any event. For others, I’m advocating something even
more radical: that they should consider becoming providers of outsourced IT
support services. In either scenario, far from being a threat, the IT help desk
outsourcer could be an excellent teacher.
Lessons to Be Learned
What are the lessons that the outsourcer can teach? First, let’s break
down IT support into its fundamentals; after all, IT support can actually be
viewed as a problem in inventory management. On one side, there exists a knowledge-and-skills
inventory which resides in the heads of the support reps and in the call-tracker
and knowledge base repositories. This inventory is somewhat volatile, given
the ceaseless advances and changes in technology throughout the academic and
corporate worlds, and therefore requires constant renewal and extension in order
to remain of value. On the other side, administration staff, faculty, and students
demand access and utilization of that inventory.
The demands for access to the support inventory will come via one or more channels.
The most common routes are by phone and e-mail. Another access channel offered
by many schools is a campus Web site, where users may search a knowledge base
to find solutions to problems or submit requests for assistance. Apart from
these formally recognized approaches, there are also the unofficial access routes
of tapping the expertise of the department (or dorm) “guru,” or
going directly to some known resource in the IT development group. Unofficial
support is a serious problem for every institution because the quality of the
“support” provided is highly variable, the costs are significant
and largely invisible, and the inefficiency of the unofficial channel is substantial.
Regardless of the route, the interaction between the user and the help desk
involves accessing the knowledge-and-skills inventory. Here is where the outsourcer
can teach the university two basic and very important lessons: The first is
to consolidate your support resources and manage your inventory, since one combined
team is inherently more efficient in utilizing its people than two or more separate
ones. The second is to pay strict attention to the economics of the operation.
Organize for Efficiency
In many schools, the skills-and-knowledge inventory is fragmented: IT support
resources are scattered piecemeal across the campus across several separate
help desks and administrative support teams. While there are a variety of explanations
for this—including the vagaries of funding/ budgeting cycles, and organizational
politics—the result is wasteful. Applying some basic queuing theory will
quickly show of the value of consolidating the teams. A centralized team would
require fewer resources to deliver more responsive service.
Another unfortunate effect of the scattered teams is that the data they develop
over time about the actual support needs of their customers—which would
be vital for accurate planning and budgeting if it were consolidated—typically
cannot be used for global questioning. As a result, issues such as “What
was the Total Cost of Ownership for the last two years, for the university’s
desktop computing resources?” can only be answered with rough estimates.
Follow the Money
In terms of financial management, the outsourcers are the champs of the IT support
world. They know the costs of building and maintaining their knowledge-and-skills
inventory, and they are very sharp when it comes to maximizing their profits
from that investment: Every interaction between the support team and the customer
base is carefully tracked and fed to the billing system. While outsourcers are
not likely to volunteer information to their clients about how they could reduce
their users’ need for support, they will certainly have the data.
The key pitch of the outsourcer is financial, and it’s based on their
use of cheaper labor. There is no question that salaries in India, Pakistan,
or the Philippines are lower than in the US. That d'es not mean, however, that
a university cannot successfully compete against offshore outsourcers, for the
university itself not only has access to lower-cost labor (students, alumni,
local volunteers), it also has significant advantages in reduced overhead costs,
From Consumer to Provider
Yet, could an institution move from being a consumer of IT support services
to being a provider of same? Let’s take a high-level look: A typical college
or university will already have built up an inventory of knowledge and skills,
even if that inventory is somewhat dispersed, and therefore inefficient to access.
Consolidating the teams and managing the inventory as a whole would correct
that problem in time. There would be a need for a suite of appropriate support
technology, including a good phone switch, call-tracker/logger and knowledge
base software, and a solid Web site. Some or all of these items may already
be in place as well, or could be added, making use of open source software or
donations by manufacturers.
The challenge is the missing piece: the decision plus action plan. Extending
to the faculty and students of another nearby school fee-based access to your
powerful IT support resource, would be an easy next step. Past that point, the
same logic applies; after all, a consolidated resource is more efficient than
a fragmented one.
Could it be done? I ran a “reality check” of the idea by talking
to the dean of a university’s college of IT, a campus IT support director,
and one of my senior consulting colleagues, and the response was consistent
across all three individuals.
“I’ve often recommended to universities that they pool resources,”
said the consultant. The IT support director agreed with the logic of having
a unified resource that could serve more than one school. “If we had the
appropriate resources on campus,” he noted, “I would be willing
to ‘rent out’ our help desk support staff to any [state system]
In truth, even if all you wanted to do was make your own school’s IT support
resources more effective, the lessons of the outsourcer would be very applicable.
Maybe that’s why the dean of the IT college—who is already successfully
competing with outsourcers in the area of programming and development services—commented
to me, “It certainly is time that we analyze and rationalize our help