Are you Off-Sure about your IT Service Desk?

No matter the economic climate, or indeed within which industry they operate, organisations are constantly seeking to lower the cost of IT while also trying to improve performance. The problem is it can often seem impossible to achieve one without compromising on the other and in most cases, cost cutting will take prevalence, leading to a dip in service levels.

When things get tough the popularity of off-shoring inevitably increases, leading many decision-makers to consider sending the IT Service Desk off to India, China or Chile as a convenient solution financially – low-cost labour for high-level skills is how offshore service providers are advertising the service.

In reality things are not so straightforward. The primary reason for off-shoring is to reduce costs, but according to experts average cost savings only tend to lie between 10-15%, and what is more, additional costs can be created – research shows, in fact, that they can in some cases increase by 25%.

Hidden costs, cultural differences and low customer and user satisfaction are reasons which have made nearly 40% of UK companies surveyed by the NCC Evaluation Centre change their mind and either reverse the move – a phenomenon known as ‘back-shoring’ or ‘reverse off-shoring’ – or think about doing so in the near future. Once an organisation decides to reverse the decision, however, the process is not trouble-free. Of those who have taken services back in-house, 30% say they have found it ‘difficult’ and nearly half, 49%, ‘moderately difficult’. Disruptions and inefficiencies often lead to business loss, loss of client base and, more importantly, a loss of reputation – it is in fact always the client and not the provider which suffers the most damage in this sense.

Data security is another great concern in off-shoring. An ITV news programme recently uncovered a market for data stolen at offshore service providers: bank details and medical information could be easily bought for only a few pounds, often just from call centre workers. Of course information security breaches can happen even in-house, caused by internal staff; however, in off-shoring the risk is increased by the distance and the different culture and law which exist abroad.

Not a decision to be taken lightly, then. Organisations should realise that the IT Service Desk is a vital business tool and while outsourcing has its advantages, if they do it by off-shoring they are placing the face of their IT system on the other side of the planet, and in the hands of a provider that might not have the same business culture, ethics and regulations as they do.

So before thinking about off-shoring part or the whole IT department, organisations would be wise to take the time to think about why their IT is so expensive and what they could do to improve it, cutting down on costs without affecting quality, efficiency and security and moreover, not even having to move it from its existing location.

Here are some measures organisations could take in order to improve efficiency in the IT Service Desk while at the same time reducing costs:

Best practice implementation

Adoption of Best Practice is designed to make operations faster and more efficient, reducing downtime and preserving business continuity. The most common Best Practice in the UK is ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) which is divided into different disciplines – Change Management, Risk Management, Incident Management to name but a few.

ITIL processes can be seen as a guide to help organisations plan the most efficient routes when dealing with different types of issues, from everyday standard operations and common incidents up to rarer events and even emergencies.

Whilst incident management seems to be easily recognised as a useful tool, other applications of ITIL are unfairly seen by many as a nice to have. But implementing best practice processes to deal with change management, for example, is particularly important: if changes are carried out in a random way they can cause disruptions and inefficiencies, and when a user cannot access resources or has limited use of important tools to carry out their work, business loss can occur – and not without cost.

Every minute of downtime is a minute of unpaid work, but costs can also extend to customer relationship and perhaps loss of client base if the inefficiencies are frequent or very severe.

Realignment of roles within the Service Desk

With Best Practice in place, attention turns to the set-up of resources on the Service Desk. A survey conducted by Plan-Net showed that the average IT Service Desk is composed of 35% first-line analysts, 48% second line and 17% third line. According to Gartner statistics, the average first-line fix costs between £7 and £25 whereas second line fixes normally vary from £24 to £170. Second and third line technicians have more specific skills, therefore their salaries are much higher than the ones of first line engineers; however, most incidents do not require such specific skills or even physical presence.

An efficient Service Desk will be able to resolve 70% of their calls remotely at first line level, reducing the need for face-to-face interventions by second line engineers. The perception of many within IT is that users prefer a face-to-face approach to a phone call or interaction with a machine, but in reality the culture is starting to change thanks to efficiency acquiring more importance within the business. With second-line fix costing up to 600% more, it is better to invest in a Service Desk that hits a 70% rate of first-time fix, users for the most part will be satisfied that their issues are fixed promptly and the business will go along way to seeing the holy grail of reduced costs and improved performance simultaneously.

From a recent survey carried out by Forrester for TeamQuest Corporation, it appears that 50% of organisations normally use two to five people to resolve a performance issue, and 35% of the participants are not able to resolve up to 75% of their application performance issues within 24 hours. Once you calculate the cost of number of staff involved multiplied by number of hours to fix the incident, it is not difficult to see where the costly problem lies. An efficient solution will allow IT to do more with less people, and faster.

Upskilling and Service Management toolset selection

Statistics show that the wider adoption of Best Practice processes and the arrival of new technologies are causing realignments of roles within the Service Desk. In many cases this also involves changes to the roles themselves, as the increased use of automated tools and virtualised solutions mean more complex fixes can be conducted remotely and at the first line. As this happens first line engineers will be required to have a broader knowledgebase and be able to deal with more issues without passing them on.

With all these advancements leading to a Service Desk that requires less resource (and therefore commands less cost) while driving up fix rates and therefore reducing downtime it seems less and less sensible for organisations to accept off-shore outsourcing contracts with Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) that guarantee a first-time fix rate of as little as 20% or 30% for a diminished price. It seems the popularity of such models lies only in organisations not being aware that quality and efficiency are something they can indeed afford – without the risk of off-shoring.

The adoption of a better toolset and the upskilling of first-line analysts, especially through ITIL-related training, will help cut down on costs and undoubtedly improve service levels. However while it will also remove the necessity to have a large amount of personnel, especially at higher level, the issues with finding, recruiting and training resource will still involve all the traditional headaches IT Managers have always faced. With this in mind it can often be prudent to engage with a service provider and have a co-sourced or managed desk that remains in-house and under internal management control. Personnel selected by an expert provider will have all the up-to-date skills necessary for the roles required, and only the exact number needed will be provided, while none of the risks associated with wholesale outsourcing, or worse, off-shoring, are taken.

Improving IT infrastructure and enhancing security

Improving efficiencies in IT does not begin and end with the Service Desk of course. The platform on which your organisation sits, the IT infrastructure itself, is of equal importance in terms of both cost and performance – and crucially, is something that cannot be influenced by off-shoring. For example, investing in server virtualisation can make substantial cost savings in the medium to long term. Primarily this arises from energy saving but costs can also be cut in relation to space and building and maintenance of physical servers, not to mention the added green credentials. Increased business continuity is another advantage: virtualisation can minimise disruptions and inefficiencies, therefore reducing downtime – probably the quickest way to make this aspect of IT more efficient in the short, medium and long term.

Alongside the myriad of new technologies aimed squarely at improving efficiency and performance sits the issue of Information Security. With Data Protection laws getting tougher due to the new 2010 regulations, forcing private companies to declare any breaches to the Information Commissioner who has the right to make them public, and facing them with fines up to £500,000, security is becoming even more of an unavoidable cost than ever. Increased awareness is needed across the entire organisation as data security is not only the concern of the IT department, but applicable to all personnel at all levels. The first step in the right direction is having a thorough security review and gap analysis in order to assess compliance with ISO 27001 standards and study any weak points where a breach can occur. Then workshops are needed to train non-IT staff on how to deal with data protection. Management participation is particularly important in order to get the message across that data safety is vital to an organisation.

Taking a holistic view of IT

Whatever the area of IT under scrutiny, the use of external consultancies and service providers to provide assistance is often essential. That said, it is rare to find an occasion where moving IT away from the heart of the business results in improvements. The crucial element to consider then is balance. Many organisations, as predicted by Gartner at the beginning of this year, are investing in operational rather than capital expenditure as they begin to understand that adoption of the latest tools and assets is useless without a holistic view of IT. When taking this methodology and applying it to the Service Desk it soon becomes apparent that simply by applying a Best Practice approach to an internal desk and utilising the new technologies at your disposal, the quick-fix cost benefits of off-shoring soon become untenable.

Pete Canavan, Head of Support Services

This article is featured in the current issue of ServiceTalk

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One Response to “Are you Off-Sure about your IT Service Desk?”

  1. IT Support: grow-your-own or buy organic? « Plan-Net's Blog Says:

    […] not be a huge problem for small companies for which IT is not strategic. A full outsourcing or offshoring solution could suit organisations which do not need engineers with very specific knowledge or […]

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