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Learning from the Outsourcers

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 lost.

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, as well.

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] institution.”

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 desk operations.”

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