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Keeping the IT Help Desk In-House

University IT departments are facing ever-growing demands for support. Bring-your-own-device policies, distance ed students in multiple time zones, evening and weekend classes, and students pulling all-nighters all keep IT staff on their toes and increasingly require 24/7 support. Faced with these growing demands, some universities choose outsourcing as a way to increase service while controlling costs, but the Division of Information Technology at Washington, DC's George Washington University (GWU) is achieving those goals and more, while bucking the outsourcing trend.

The university began the process of reevaluating its support services several years ago. "We knew we had to expand our services because we were getting more and more of a demand from the students, and we had to figure out a way to do it," said GWU CIO David Steinour.

At the time, the university was providing IT support until 10 p.m. nightly, and services were divided across a number of disparate teams, including a data center operations team, which provided production control and server and system monitoring; a console traffic team, which was already providing support for phone services 24 hours a day; and the student technology services team, which provided extended hours of service to help students who required support for academic and research pursuits outside of normal business hours.

When the Division of IT began developing plans to reorganize its IT support services and extend its hours of service, the administration engaged all levels of IT staff, from part-time hourly employees to senior managers, as well as partners from across the university. The team also called on multiple departments within the university to provide feedback and assistance.

The result was the new IT Support Center, which opened in June 2011. By taking staff from the existing teams, centralizing them within a single support center, eliminating unnecessary positions, and retraining those people for new positions, the division was able to expand its tier-one support service to a 24/7 operation without increasing its budget.

A Responsibility To Provide Support
Steinour and Deputy CIO Edward Martin both said they believe IT has a responsibility to provide this level of support.

"I think a lot of people are looking at options to outsource," said Steinour, "but we felt we had the resources internally. Our focus was to say, who knows our operation better, and who can build the relationships better? I think it adds value to the customer service of our organization to know that people are being serviced by people who work for the university and are internal."

While the new 24/7 IT Support Center helped students, faculty, and staff, the move to a unified in-house service center model also improved the operation of the Division of IT itself.

"Internally, the shift to a support center has improved our coordination of service interruptions, degradations, correlation of events, and monitoring of key Web services," said Martin. "From the customer's point of view, we have more timely escalations and more accurate access to performance data."

Although there was some initial resistance from staff about relocating to new workspaces, filling new roles, and, in some cases, moving from a day shift to a night shift, people have adjusted well, and many of them appreciate the change, according to Steinour.

"Our staff have been able to grow professionally by being given the opportunity to learn their new positions, and we provided the training for them to grow into the positions themselves," said Steinour. "I think it was a win for them as well."

Communicating Change
For other universities considering a change like this one, Steinour and Martin offered some words of wisdom.

"Step back and do a full study and really understand what services you're going to provide and when and what resources you need, not to mention the tools and training you need to provide to make it successful," said Steinour.

Martin also pointed out the importance of communicating the change to people effectively. "It's a change, so you have to have consistency of message and intention so people lean into the change," said Martin. "On top of that, because it's a change, don't let the search for perfection be the enemy of good enough."

More change is in store for the IT Support Center at GWU.

Right now the center handles most of its support requests over the phone, but Steinour and Martin said they want to augment the service with more options. The team will add chat and e-mail-based help, a Web interface for creating trouble tickets, and a self-service system for things like password resets.

They were quick to point out, however, that these new services will add to, rather than replace, their phone support. "A lot of people like a human being when they make a call," said Steinour. "Even though we don't necessarily think their emergency is an emergency, it could be something as simple as a keyboard issue, but to the caller, it is an emergency, and we like to meet that with a human being where we can, as long as we can."

According to Martin, however, the university isn't ruling out the option of outsourcing in the future as it expands its service from a tier-one help desk to more of an operations center.

"Right now it's highly reactive. Come to us for help around the clock," said Martin. "We want to monitor our services and do more predictive analysis to prevent service disruptions. If this is done well, and I expect it will be, we'll be moving to a point where it can be packaged up and we can consider the cost options of outsourcing versus other opportunities."

Steinour pointed out that they constantly strive to strike a balance between staying on budget and providing the best service possible to university community. "In a university environment, you have to be conscious of your customer base and really understand what they need and want," said Steinour. "For us it was about providing a service that we weren't providing in the past, and that was 24-hour service, especially to our students and faculty who are working late at night. We recognized that early on, and it took us a while to get to where we are, but I think it's been a great success."

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