The perils of commoditising IT Support

The term ‘commoditisation’ seems to rear its head whenever there is a perceived trend for technology to become standardised and, however unlikely it is to become prevalent, there are often many positives that can be identified from its methods. After all, standardisation should mean technology becomes more affordable and reliable in the first instance and easier and cheaper to support once implemented. However, when this trend spills over into IT Support and Service Delivery, then the positives become much more difficult to identify.

Its stealthy advance into the marketplace is understandable. For a large-scale, multinational provider of IT Support, being able to implement ‘off-the-shelf’ models means quicker turnaround and less upkeep once the service is underway. It is also easier to market – do you want the gold, silver or bronze package, sir?

In fact, not only is it easier, due to the sheer size of these providers and the inevitable lack of mobility this brings, it is often the only type of solution they can offer. It is in their collective interests to tell you that your environment, and therefore the solution they provide, is the same as the business next to you.

The obvious problem they then experience is differentiating themselves from their competitors. Better customer service? More experienced account managers? They simply care that little bit more? The spiel is varied and endless but it never really answers the question any IT Director assessing Support providers should ask. What will your service do to meet the specific needs of my individual business?

For a convincing answer to that question, it is likely you will have to turn to a smaller, niche provider of IT Support. With an ear to the ground and, in many cases, a specialism in a specific vertical or business type, they will soon debunk the myth of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to IT Support.

Of course, tailoring the model is only part of delivering the right IT Support service. Not only should the set-up be right in terms of balance, but the processes used also need to be considered. Again, here lies an area fraught with danger when it comes to standardisation. Best Practice guidelines such as ITIL can undoubtedly provide many benefits, in terms of both performance and efficiency; however, simply implementing ITIL to the letter, as many providers will, is likely to not only be a waste of money but inhibitive to the service in the long run. Even ITIL, the benchmark for Best Practice in IT Support, needs tailoring to the environment in question before it truly performs to its capabilities.

Once the service is up and running, the single largest and most important component is the people that staff it. As a result of technological evolution, advancements in software and the trend towards remote fixes, there has been a cultural change in the way engineers have to work, and the skills they need to bring to the table.

With advanced software able to take care of the most common incidents, the first-line engineer will have to take on some of the responsibilities usually attributed to second-line technicians – especially as virtualised environments allow so many more fixes to take place remotely. As a result they will have to acquire the skills necessary to resolve more challenging issues, therefore need to always be up-to-date with the newest technologies and have a broader but shallow knowledge, as more technical problems can be left to the provider to deal with remotely.

Now many of the larger IT Support providers will no doubt claim this standardisation of skills will lead to IT Support becoming what in economical terms can be described as a ‘perfect market’, where a broader, shallower skill-set will mean lower salaries for engineers, price-war between support providers to win a tender, and competition not only within the same city or country, but extended globally to places where the standard skills can be accessed at a lower cost.

But where the problem with this argument lies is under their ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach – the way to deal with more calls resolvable at the first line is to overload the Service Desk with these ‘commoditised’ engineers to deal with them. With people always the biggest cost, this increase in headcount will inevitably lead to more cost, negating the efficiencies involved in this approach which are generated from so-called ‘less-expensive’ engineers.

A law firm, financial institution and a charity need IT staff with different experience, skills and even mind-set, in line with the organisation’s environment, business culture and goals. Staffing a service desk is never as simple as matching a skill set to a CV and a niche provider should recognise that and provide the right mix of resource to keep numbers (and therefore cost) as low as possible.

Needless to say, there are huge differences between support providers and it is not always the case that the big boys are the wrong choice. Many smaller organisations provide standard services and are unwilling to create the service that best supports each individual client. The fact is, though, that unlike software and hardware, which could potentially benefit from a degree of commoditisation, a service does not come in an out-of-the-box package. Not all businesses are the same –they all have their individual needs, goals, ethics and indeed, technologies and therefore need someone that has the right skills and expertise to understand their unique features and design the best strategy for them, tailored to the client and not rolled out from a standard blueprint.

It is unusual for a support provider or indeed, an individual engineer to have experience in all sectors, hence it is essential to find someone ‘niche’ enough to really be able to add value to a business. Sure an organisation could save money when compared to insourcing by partnering with a standard support provider but they are unlikely to deliver any real assistance in driving the business forward.

Organisations are beginning to see IT as a vital part of the business, including it in their overall strategy and recognising its place as the number one tool for business success. An IT Support provider that can understand the particular needs, aims and environment of the organisation in question and be part of their business strategy is able to create business value simply by bucking the trend for standardisation.

Richard Forkan, Director

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