Developing a Strategic Support Plan
- By Mikael Blaisdell
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
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.