Archive for the ‘IT Support staff’ Category

10 tips for managing the human side of IT

August 14, 2012

The success of an IT department does not solely depend on having the best hardware and latest software. In fact, these alone do not guarantee efficiency if the people working in IT Support are not managed appropriately. It is not a simple task: each Support engineer has their own personality, strengths and weaknesses, ambitions and drive. So here are a few tips to get the best out of your IT Support team in order to deliver an efficient and reliable service to the business.

1 – Understand role ‘shelf life’

Most people want to progress in their career, and in IT this process can be found to be somehow accelerated, leading to significant staff turnover. In order to be prepared to deal with this, it is important to understand someone’s longevity in a certain role, as they will only be effective whilst they are engaged. Different roles have varying shelf life – for example, a typical Service Desk role would last around 18 months-2 years while more skilled software development positions can last longer.

2 – Skills set relevance

Understanding skills sets and ensuring they are relevant to the tasks being performed ensures employees feel valued for what they know rather than being undervalued for what they don’t. This keeps staff happier and also allows them to identify areas within their skills set to develop and improve if they want to progress.

3 – Encourage personal development

To retain staff and keep them motivated, a good manager should recognise development opportunities within the scope of their roles and encourage them to improve their skills. Shadowing other roles, when possible, is also a good way for staff to experience other realities and understand where they want to go with their career.

4 – Feedback and reward

Having regular feedback sessions is imperative for all managers. This should include positive as well as negative feedback, but the most important thing is that, overall, it is constructive. Good results must be recognised, praised and rewarded when possible (it doesn’t have to be financially). This can generate healthy competition internally to naturally get the best out of people.

5 – Expectations management

Just like in any other business agreement, don’t make promises that can’t be achieved. Managing expectations is a vital part of a manager’s role and this has to be done for both sides – the business and IT staff.

6 – Equality and consistency

A good manager has to ensure the same techniques and processes are used for all staff and that they all feel that they are being treated equally. Make sure the team knows where they stand and enforce the same discipline and principles across the whole group.

7 – Differences

When there are both in-house and outsourced staff within the IT service desk, it is important that everyone understands the difference between the two. Staff employed directly and staff provided by Managed Service Providers might have different benefits, varying working hours and so on. Make sure it’s recognised and appreciated and that all expectations are managed.

8 – Relationship building

Listen. Staff like to engage with their management team on a personal front. Offer time to listen but understand boundaries and keep it professional.  Just show an interest and don’t make it “all about work”.

9 – Tailor management style

Adapt your management style so that it is fit for the environment in which you’re working. Different approaches work in different environments. Also ensure the environment is appropriate for an individual’s specific requirements.

10 – Empathy

Take time to understand the roles that you are supervising. The best managers are the ones who can understand the pressures of the people they are managing and empathise with them.

Ben Whitehead, Service Delivery Manager

Find the piece on ITSM Portal http://www.itsmportal.com/columns/10-tips-managing-human-side-it

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How to recruit IT staff (when you don’t understand IT yourself)

August 10, 2012

Having recruited more than 1,000 IT professionals over the last 20 years for our managed service teams providing IT support for businesses, I can safely say Plan-Net has learned a thing or two about how to recruit IT staff.

Hopefully this article might help those of you who are less IT-savvy still make wise IT staff recruitment decisions, and avoid costly mistakes along the way.

There is no shortage of IT people in the labour market today, but the real challenge is in finding the good ones – and then, from that much smaller pool, identifying the right one for your business.

Even those of you who don’t have a great understanding of IT will probably have a good feel for what you need IT staff to deliver. Businesses rely on technical tools and systems. We need someone to fix these quickly when they stop working, and we need someone to improve them so we can increase our business productivity and efficiency.

So the first step when recruiting is to articulate the service your business needs from its IT staff or department. The trickier next step is to convert this into an IT job description that thoroughly details all the necessary technical skills and experiences the individual or team would need. If you’re starting to get lost in technical jargon at this point, it might be wise to find an IT friend or contact that can help you do this. Even if it means paying them a small fee, you’ll avoid the first costly mistake, which is the wrong job description.

Recruiting IT staff: finding the good ones

Using a specialist IT recruitment agency is helpful as they will have a wider access to the supply pool than you, so it can expedite your search. However, a note of caution when dealing with agencies is that their interest is in securing the placement as quick as possible so they can take their fee.

So if they find and present you with three candidates, they will want you to choose one of them, even if perhaps none of them are right for your business. It’s worth ensuring agencies offer you at least a 3-month, or even better 6-month, refund or replacement mechanism if things don’t work out. You can also try scouring LinkedIn and asking your existing business network and partners.

Check, check and check again

The risk for any business looking to fill any type of role is taking on the wrong person. Arguably, this risk is greater for a small company, where you are so much more dependent on every individual to perform. It’s even more risky when you’re looking at IT roles. You are entrusting these people with your business data, systems and operations. A mistake could cost your business dearly.

I therefore cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of a thorough screening process. Interview candidates face-to-face a number of times yourself and enlist your IT contact to help with the interview too.

For IT staff in particular, it’s important to test their technical skills. At Plan-Net, we have developed our own tests in order to be ultra-confident that potential employees have the necessary capabilities. If you’re doing this yourself, you can find a variety of technical tests online. There are free tests available, but my recommendation is that you invest in paid tests. It can act as a false economy not to.

Background checking is also very important. We invest in a specialist service that carries out a number of checks including CRB (Criminal Record Bureau) checks, credit checks and reference checks.

If you decide to do this yourself rather than using a third party, make sure you check every line of the CV. Check the gaps and make sure you verify all references. We’ve found candidates who claimed they have degrees when they dropped out in the first year, some with outstanding debts and unpaid bills and others with completely bogus references. Sadly, in this economic climate, we tend to see a higher proportion of candidates ‘embellishing’ their CVs. When you’re recruiting IT staff, much like in Finance and HR roles, you are recruiting someone who will be a custodian of your critical business systems and your business information.

Almost above anything else, you must be sure you’ve found someone you can trust.

An easy option

Lastly, if anything to do with IT is Double Dutch to you and you just want to avoid the hassle and headache of recruiting IT staff altogether, you can use managed service providers to manage your IT function for you. Finding the right IT staff to adequately deliver this service is then their challenge – not yours.

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Richard Forkan, Director

This article was published on London Loves Business:

http://www.londonlovesbusiness.com/business-news/tech/how-to-recruit-it-staff-when-you-dont-understand-it-yourself/2968.article

Bring IT support back to the 1st line

March 27, 2012

In a time where cuts to organisations’ IT budget are often becoming a necessity, taking a good hard look at role redistribution and service desk management could definitely help organisations diminish support expenditure, and perhaps divert the IT budget towards new projects. Organisations can even potentially achieve more benefits by better managing incidents, gaining increased speed of resolution and improved service levels while they save money, creating even more cost-efficiencies. A way to achieve this is by bringing more support work back to the 1st line.

It is common knowledge that analysts working at 1st line level have a lower cost due to their lower skills, while 2nd and 3rd line resolvers – desk-side, network and server support staff – are more expensive, as their skills are higher and more specific. Incident resolution rates also vary: it is faster to resolve an incident at 1st line due to the simple nature of incidents that are taken care of at that level, while 2nd line analysts take longer to resolve issues as these tend to be more complex, or require physically moving to reach the user’s device.

Over time, 2nd and 3rd line resolver teams have been including support activities in their daily routines which, when analysed, often include frequently occurring and process driven tasks. These tasks probably sit where they do because at system or product implementation, all related support activities were adopted by the deploying team without any later thought as to whether some of the tasks can be moved elsewhere.

At the same time, 1st line teams have become more technical and able, with greater access to system tools and the permissions to use them. This has had a positive impact on first time resolution and we have seen the log-and-flog approach begin to decline.

Considering both of these evolutions, opportunities exist to release system specialist time, reduce the cost of service provision and increase first time fix at the Service Desk. By effectively using ticket closure category information from the service management tool, analysis can be undertaken of what 2nd and 3rd line resolver teams are actually resolving.  A likely outcome is that tasks will be identified which are process driven, and therefore can actually be performed by a more junior (or low cost) resource. As long as the process can be documented and the permissions to do it are provided, it’s more than likely that the 1st line Service Desk team can pick up the work.

As an output from some analysis, this may look like – x% of 2nd line resolutions are procedural and can move to 1st line, as a result, 1st line can increase their first line fix from y% to z%, and thereby improving the service to the user-base.

The cost savings of such an exercise could be considerable.  By moving tasks into the first line, the tasks are being moved into lower cost people. This may mean that the 1st line team grows and the other resolver groups reduce, the outcome of which will lead to a demonstrable cost saving.  Furthermore, with tasks having been removed away from the 2nd and 3rd line teams, opportunities will present themselves as a result of the increase in available time within these groups, e.g. resolver teams can improve their performance as they will have more time to work on the more complex problems, and team resource can be released more readily into project work and thereby decreasing the need for expensive contractors.

Such change, however, can’t quite happen overnight.  The analysis needs to be good, and the recommendations of tasks to be moved to 1st line need to be realistic.  Then, through the controls of a well-run project, tasks are tested as being viable duties that the 1st line team can assume, and when signed off, can permanently remain at first line.

The measures of a successful exercise will be ultimately visible in the reporting. The first line fix percentage will increase, the ticket resolution volumes at the resolver groups should reduce, and costs should reduce – perhaps by reducing staffing, project or contractor costs.

The perception of the overall quality of the IT service should also improve: frequent support activities will be completed faster, which improves customer satisfaction; and core systems will receive greater attention from their specialist support staff, leading to improved availability and functionality.

Jon Reeve, Principal Consultant

This article has been published on Director of Finance Online:

http://www.dofonline.co.uk/content/view/6131/118/

Just how much of a saving is the reduction of heads from an IT support team?

March 20, 2012

ImageIn a bid to meet the demands of an FD who needs to see cost savings across the organisation, often it’s a portion of an IT team that have to go.  On the face of it, it’s an easy choice.  Those within an IT team will often perform the same functions as one another, therefore, if one or more leave the team, it can still perform all its required tasks, albeit a bit slower than before.

But what might not have been considered in such decision making is the organisation’s profile of staff’s expected IT skills and the speed-of-service demands.  If the two are considered together, an optimal ratio of IT staff to company staff can be derived which can be used as a benchmark against any planned reductions in heads.

Definitions:

Staff’s expected IT skills – Some business environments may have a low expectation on its staff in terms of their IT skills.  A law firm is a good example as it’s more beneficial to the organisation if their legal teams are fee earning (by practicing law), instead of being able to clear their own printer jams.  Other organisations, perhaps a software house, will have employees who are more than capable of dealing with common IT issues.  In these examples, the law firm is clearly going to need a greater ratio of IT support people to staff members than the software house.

Speed-of-service demand – An investment bank, or indeed any organisation that is wholly reliant on IT to trade, will tolerate only the most minor of IT interruptions, whereas some business types might be able to suffer IT delays for hours, or even days, without any particular impact on their business.  Those with the need for greater speed of service, or even immediate need for service, will require a greater ratio of IT support people to staff members compared with those that don’t.

If these two aspects of a business’ IT culture are considered together, one can begin to determine the optimal number of IT support people to staff members.

For organisations with a low expectation of staff’s IT skills, but who need rapid IT support, a ratio of 1 support person to every 50 members of staff, might be appropriate.  The other extreme, high staff IT skills coupled with lower speeds of support, may lead to a ratio of 1 support person to every 200 members of staff.

Then, if there is a need to cut heads, a more informed choice may be made, i.e. just how many heads may be lost without: a) requiring the established IT culture to change, or b) having a detrimental impact of the organisation’s ability to trade?

Of course, this thought process and logic need not only apply to difficult times, when reducing costs is a priority.  It can apply to times of business success and be used as a means of determining the best IT support fit for the business.

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Jon Reeve, Principal Consultant

Oh no… Not another Service Management initiative!

June 21, 2011

Thanks to Best Practice frameworks, technological progress and improved knowledge of the potentials of IT, a lot can be done nowadays at Service Desk level to reduce cost, speed up operations and improve service quality – all things that can contribute to achieving business success. However, Service Management initiatives such as role changes and redistribution, adoption of new tools and technologies and the implementation of new processes to follow may not always be welcome by who in the end has to accept and embrace all these changes – Service Desk staff. Do you take into consideration what they think about Cloud Computing, Best Practice and self-service software before you sign off your projects?

Although it may seem unnecessary to seek IT staff involvement, this is actually very important, as the new tools and techniques adopted may not work at all without staff collaboration. Analysts working at your Service Desk might refuse to endorse the project as they may see it as impractical or unfit for your specific environment or just a needless complication when things are fine the way they are. It is essential, then, to think about how the organisation can get IT staff to collaborate and, perhaps, if it should listen to what they have to say before embarking on any projects and taking decisions they might later regret.

‘Change’ seen as a threat

A move from Lotus Notes to the fully ITIL-aligned Remedy or embracing the new technology potential of server virtualisation could seem sensible from a business and Service Desk manager’s point of view. However, any change can be seen as a potential threat by analysts – not only to their day-to-day work routine which they are more than happy with as it is, but often to their position. They fear they might not have the skills to use new technology or that this may easily do their job at no hourly cost (i.e. self-service software) therefore making their position redundant.

And virtualisation is perceived as the biggest threat: as it enables remote support, potentially centralised in a Service Desk located in another city or country, many in-house positions may be in danger. Although not unfounded, this fear shouldn’t become pure terror: it is still early days for complete virtualisation, so there is still place for an IT department within the office, plus some companies will want to keep their ‘virtual team’ internal anyway for extra security and control. This can also been seen as an opportunity. A need for analysts specialised in VMware, Hyper-V, Citrix and the like will arise, giving engineers a chance to acquire and practice new skills and the exciting possibility of working at a centralised, often global Service Desk.

Furthermore, as can be found in many other departments and roles, seniority has an impact on analysts’ willingness to accept change, creating a harder challenge for management. Engineers that have been working there for a long time and have gotten used to their old methods normally find it more difficult to accept innovation, especially when this is proposed by a new manager or an external consultant. More junior professionals or those who have only recently joined the company, instead, tend to be more willing to collaborate and curious to see new technologies and innovative processes in action. In fact, they might think working with new tools is a great chance to expand and update their skills, which is hopefully what the Service Desk manager will try to communicate even to the more institutionalised analysts.

This could also be a cultural issue: junior members will have grown up with a larger use of complex technology from an early age – the so-called ‘digital natives’ – whereas older personnel will have seen the origin of computing, and might find it more comforting to stick to the old ways of working.

Don’t impose – involve

If change is difficult to accept for many people, it can be even more unwelcome when it is forced into the system without previous communication, a good amount of explanation regarding its reasons, benefits and consequences on people’s roles, and perhaps a chance to express your own views and raise questions. In order to reduce resistance to change, the first step is to discuss the possible modifications with technical staff and people that will ultimately be involved in its use before taking a decision, giving engineers a chance to think it over and raise any concerns or doubts.

This can work to the business’ advantage as well. Current Service Desk employees can actually be a good source of information that you can learn from, as they might have suggestions and thoughts based on their practical experience at your company and in your specific environment. What works for one company, in fact, might not work for another, but it may be difficult to see some practicalities from a non-executive position. Instead engineers, being in direct contact with the IT system, might have reasons to believe the project you wish to carry out may be impractical or impossible to implement in your specific environment.

Listening to their doubts and fears, as well, is an important part of the process. Moreover, just by asking their opinion and interacting with them, you will make them feel that you value their opinion, that they are being considered and are therefore important.

Getting the best out of analysts

Even if you manage to convince IT analysts that the new changes are sensible and advantageous or have come to an agreement on what to implement and what not, adopting the new tools and following new procedures in a robotic manner is not enough to deliver a good service. Motivation is key to make any part of the business, the IT Service Desk included, work at their best and without it not much can be achieved. Invest in your employees and they’ll invest in you.

Reward schemes where hitting targets can lead to some type of benefit, for instance vouchers or prizes, are a good idea to keep the atmosphere competitive. However, if you do not have a budget that justifies this sort of expenditure, a monthly recognition for the best performing engineer can be sufficient. An ‘engineer of the month’ competition can increase staff’s motivation to try and reach the targets set not just for the prize, but also for fun.

You must be careful, however, when deciding which metrics to use to evaluate a good worker: number of calls may not coincide with incident resolution and call length might not be a symbol of quality, so you would have to make a balanced assessment taking various criteria into consideration before you award an engineer over another.

Adopting a holistic view

It is important to stop seeing IT as a service to the business, and adopt a more modern view where it is part of the business. If managed correctly, in fact, the IT Service Desk can be a great ally that will create strategic advantage and help companies improve their business and reach further success. This is why organisations should invest in IT staff and try to create a positive can-do attitude among them.

Managers can encourage skills improvement through workshops, training or further qualifications (for instance, ITIL V3) and turn challenges brought on by new technologies into opportunities. The introduction of new devices – iPad, iPhone etc – within the system, which might seem like an annoyance to some, should be taken as a great chance to be exposed to the latest technology and although managers shouldn’t expect all analysts to be able to support all types of devices, they may chose some engineers to specialise in supporting the latest ones in the market.

There is no need to train everyone- a good Service Desk or Delivery manager should be able to identify those engineers that are best suited for specialising in these technologies or teaching others, and have them trained accordingly.

It is not always IT’s fault

Often it is not analysts, but non-IT managers and C-executives that may be opposed to change – for instance, when the implementation of new Best Practice processes could eliminate prioritisation of calls based on ‘rank’ rather than the incident’s characteristics. Although it might be ok to adopt some level of flexibility, it is also important to ensure the possible ‘executive exceptions’ don’t have a negative effect on the Service Desk’s efficiency targets, and to do this the whole organisation, and not just IT, needs some sort of education to Best Practice.

Another difficult change could be the introduction of new software. Moving from Windows XP to Windows 7 or introducing a self-service tool to deal with simple and repetitive incidents such as password reset could throw non-technical personnel into a crisis. Again, preparation and education are essential for them to accept change. They need to understand why the change is being made, what are the benefits and how it will affect – possibly improve – their work. Guiding them in the discovery of the new tools, as well, will increase their acceptance as not being able to use the new application properly will not make the company achieve the benefits they were aiming at with its introduction.

With some good Change Management processes in place and the right communications means, it should be made clear across the whole organisation what changes will be made at Service Desk and user level and how they will affect them, what exceptions to the standard processes can and cannot be accepted and the consequences of not using a tool, not doing it correctly or making too many exceptions, not just on the Service Desk, but on the rest of the business as well. Only by communicating changes, explaining results and benefits and setting rules and exceptions it is possible for a IT Service Desk to function properly and meet efficiency targets while still keeping senior management happy, allowing the business to work fluently.

Sam Evanson, Operations Delivery Manager

This article was written for the June edition of At Your Service

IT Support: grow-your-own or buy organic?

May 12, 2011

IT support staff are for many companies what vegetables are to your body – essential elements for efficient functioning and critical to avoid major failures. Exactly like cultivating your own greens, having an in-house IT team may give you a sense of trust and control unlike other solutions. However, it is also expensive and time-consuming, therefore not always convenient.

A ‘home-grown’ solution may suit larger organisations that either have the need to train analysts to use their self-developed software, have security or strategic reasons to have total control over the IT department or have the resources (financial, human and time-related) to train and manage a large IT personnel base – although this is quickly moving away from the norm for even these sizes of business.

Other organisations, smaller and more prone to seeking cost-efficiencies even outside of the office, might find an outsourcing or managed service solution more suitable. Of course, getting engineers from a service provider is like getting veggies from a market stall or through online shopping – it is generally easier and cheaper, but the risk is that they are not trustworthy. The engineers provided by a third party are completely out of your control: you don’t know where they come from, if they were trained correctly or if they will harm your company by stealing data.

But this might 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 strict SLAs and for which data security is not a major issue. However, companies which do need security and efficiency, but also to cut down cost and access expertise they lack internally, would need a solution that merges control with delegation.

Going back to the vegetables metaphor, to balance the need for quality and reliability with the desire to delegate cultivation and management, you would probably go to a trusted organic greengrocer’s, where products feature quality labels, PDO and organic certificates, and a reliable, experienced source.

It is in fact important to carefully choose a support provider that can meet your specific needs, with certified, trained and up-to-date engineers able to meet targets measured through KPIs. Managed services, moreover, will allow the organisation to keep some kind of control over the IT department while leaving its management to the experts.

All in all, there isn’t one best choice: an organisation might find advantage in keeping the department in-house, having a co-sourced solution or outsourcing management or the whole department to a third party. The important decision is to choose carefully based on the organisation’s features, needs and goals so that IT can be used as part of their overall strategy for business success.

Pete Canavan, Head of Support Services

This article has appeared on Computing magazine and Computing.co.uk: http://www.computing.co.uk/ctg/opinion/2069345/support-grow-organic


Where is that ‘cultural change’ which makes ITSM Best Practice effective?

April 20, 2011

Most organisations nowadays have heard about the benefits of implementing an IT Service Management Best Practice framework, such as Control Objectives for Information and Related Technology (CobiT) or the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL). More than half have implemented some of the core processes, mainly Incident, Service Desk and Change Management. A good number of them believe the discipline has brought them some benefits, but many are also disappointed that they haven’t achieved the results they were aiming for.

There are two main reasons for this. First of all, as any Service Management professional knows, having all the processes, policies and tools in place is not enough if people fail to adopt them. Achieving cultural change across the organisation, so that staff at all levels understand the need to change, how the processes work and what type of benefits each process can bring to their own individual work and to the business as a whole is the most difficult task in a Service Management Best Practice implementation.

Second, even if an organisation invests in training and awareness sessions, the improvements still need to be assessed over time. The effects of the processes and cultural change cannot be seen immediately or after a few months. Real results may come after 2 or 3 years. However, investing in another traditional maturity assessment is an investment many financially-challenged organisations wouldn’t want to make.

The criteria of maturity assessments carried out by SOCITM or with the ITIL toolkit is limited and not all-encompassing – they focus more on processes adopted ‘on paper’ rather than on the actual efficiency reached. But a number (2/5, 4/5) does not tell them whether they are actually working efficiently or not. And that is what organisations want to know: how efficient are we and what can we do to improve?

To evaluate the results of an IT Service Management Best Practice implementation and its alignment with the organisation’s goals and needs, it is more helpful to carry out a Service Efficiency Review, and to adopt monitoring aids such as Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and Customer Satisfaction Surveys in order to keep a clear view of the situation. But many organisations seem to see Best Practice as a one-off, without truly understanding that its value only exists if the efforts are consistent and if the processes are continuously adapted to the changing times and needs. They take it as if it was self-serving – once implemented it should do all the work by itself, without the need of any human effort.

Cultural change should strongly address these misconceptions, and not just convince people to adopt the processes. But it is not an easy task. Many organisations are reluctant to spend money on what they believe are unnecessary expenses, and it is not simple for Service Management professionals to justify a second efficiency review. Perhaps if consultants offered a follow-up review which provided ‘real-world recommendations’ and which was not just a standard tick-the-boxes assessment of out-of-the-box processes, public sector organisations would be keener to consider doing it. And if the second review was offered at a special price so that it is less of a commitment, more results may be achieved: more organisations would want to do it, and the consultants could benefit from the case studies. But they, too, don’t seem to want to bother – most consultants would rather make the same effort for a new client and get much more money and follow-up work.

From the lack of data on IT Service Management implementations which have remained successful in time, of case studies which can show that a form of cultural change has really taken place and lasted, and from the small number of organisations who have an efficiency review at the end of an implementation or more than once, it is evident that there is little interest on both sides in changing this scenario.

But if efforts are needed on both sides, it is Service Management professionals who should make the first move in order to change things. It is important that consultants manage to reach the higher management, and not only involve those who work within IT, and change first of all their attitude towards Service Management Best Practice. It is ultimately up the C-executives and senior managers to encourage cultural change across the organisation, acting from the top with policies and agreed ethos to make change possible. That is why awareness sessions, training and software-lead experiential learning should be extended to higher management as well. Through these tools it is possible to deliver a true understanding of Best Practice and its benefits to the organisation, and hence justify all the efforts needed to reach the final aims of the discipline.

A lot of work needs to be done in order to allow for IT Service Management Best Practice effectiveness to be measured and demonstrated. Fortunately, more and more organisations understand the potential benefits of Best Practice to their business – their concern is the realistic delivery of its promise and how to maintain the results over time. To change the way both organisations and consultants think, both sides need to modify their attitude. Only this way, it may be possible for Best Practice to really deliver and, ultimately, for cultural change to take place.

 

 

Martin Hill, Head of Support Operations

Executive exceptions: Best Practice killers or just business as usual?

April 11, 2011

The principles behind ITSM Best Practice have a very clear purpose: they allow organisations to follow the most efficient route to effectively solve an IT-related incident, without wasting unnecessary time, effort and financial resources. Incidents are normally prioritised based on specific criteria, and clear processes are set out and must be followed both by end users who experience an incident and Service Desk analysts who deal with it.

If this is the theory of Best Practice, in reality things are a bit different. Prioritisation based on incident features, in fact, often struggles to overcome the one based on user ‘rank’. In many organisations some processes are put aside when it comes to the CEO needing help, even if they are just having issues opening an email attachment sent by a friend on their iPhone, or are circumvented and speeded up by users who escalate the incident to their boss in order to have higher priority.

Implementing ITSM Best Practice ‘on paper’ might not be enough to reach efficiency, then, if the culture of ‘executive exception’ kills off all Service Management efforts. But is it acceptable to have some sort of two-tiered system for IT Support where priority is often given to senior or key people, and to what extent?

First of all, it is important to note that it is not down to the Service Desk analyst to decide whether or not to give priority to a senior manager. Unless there is a known rule – e.g. ‘the CEO always comes first no matter what’ – they should always refer to the Service Desk or Service Delivery manager on a case-by-case basis. It is they who ultimately decide if the IT Director’s faulty keyboard is to be dealt with before the glitch in Joe Bloggs’ email or not.

But when this system gets out of hand and flexibility is the rule rather than the exception, perhaps it is time to reflect upon the issue and its consequences – like inefficiencies, delays in incident resolution and even financial loss. To analyse the situation, one must first identify where the problem originates and who is to blame: the indulgent IT staff who allow it to happen or senior management who take advantage of their position and expect to have a special service because of who they are?

In any case, it is more a cultural issue than a technical one, but whose culture needs to be changed and how the organisation should go about changing the system is something that needs to be given a lot of thought. Perhaps some ITSM Best Practice awareness should be delivered throughout the company, including all Service Desk staff and all end users regardless of position. Also, some strict policies should be put into place stating that only a small percentage of ‘executive exception’ can be allowed based on specific criteria – for instance, the importance of that operation to the business. If the CEO’s faulty keyboard happens during an important presentation aimed at winning new business, then it can be put before an email system glitch, if the latter does not have major negative consequences for the business.

A balance is definitely required when dealing with this problem which is so common in IT departments of companies of all sizes and across all sectors. It is down to each organisation, though, to decide whether this sort of flexibility is acceptable, to what extent it should be allowed and what to do to avoid it causing inefficiencies. Best Practice is a framework, not a step-to-step guide and should be adopted and adapted to each specific environment; an appropriate amount of tailoring is always necessary for it to produce cost-efficiency, and ultimately contribute to business success.

Sam Evanson, Operations Delivery Manager

Surviving IT spending cuts in the public sector

February 15, 2011

How to create cost-efficiencies in the post-Spending Review scenario

After the announcement of 25%-40% budget cuts last year, it is reasonable to expect IT to be one of the departments to suffer the most in public sector organisations. However, cuts in IT support and projects may bring inefficiencies and disruptions, which can then lead to real losses and increasing costs.  More than ever, CIOs and IT Directors at public sector organisations are taking various options into consideration, from quick-fixes to farther-sighted ideas, trying to find a solution that will produce savings without compromising on service quality and data security, and perhaps even increasing efficiency. Here are some common ideas analysed:

Solution 1: Reducing headcount

Firing half of your IT team will produce immediate savings since you will not have to pay them a salary the following months, but when Support staff is insufficient or not skilled enough to meet the organisation’s needs it can lead to excessive downtime, data loss, security breaches or the inability to access applications or the database. A ‘quick-fix’ such as this represents a false economy. Reviewing resource allocation and improving skill distribution at Service Desk level, on the other hand, can be a valid solution. Indeed many IT departments can find themselves top heavy with expert long serving team members where the knowledge supply out-weighs the demand. A larger proportion of lower-cost 1st line engineers with improved and broader skills and a fair reduction of the more deeply skilled and costly 2nd and 3rd line technicians can not only reduce staff spend, but also create efficiencies with more calls being solved with first-time fix.

Solution 2: Offshoring

Although the thought of employing staff who only ask for a small percentage of a normal UK salary may sound appealing, offshoring is not as simple as ABC. It requires a large upfront investment to set up the office abroad, with costs including hardware, software, office supplies and travel and accommodation of any personnel that manages the relationship with the supplier. Organisations are not able to afford that kind of investment, especially since this solution only creates cost-savings in the long term – but the public sector needs cost savings now. Furthermore, the different culture and law can represent a risk to information security: data could be easily accessed by staff in a country thousands of miles away and sold for a couple of dollars, as various newspapers and TV channels have found out. With the extreme sensitivity of data processed by Councils, charities and the NHS, no matter how hard foreign suppliers try to convince the public sector to offshore their IT, it is unlikely this will happen – it is simply too risky.

Solution 3: IT Cost Transparency

Understanding the cost of IT and its value to the organisation, being able to prioritise and manage people and assets accordingly and knowing what can be sacrificed, can help identify where money is being wasted, which priorities need to be altered and what can be improved. For instance, do all employees need that piece of software if only three people actually use it more than twice a year, and do you need to upgrade it every year? Do all incidents need to be resolved now, or can some wait until the more urgent ones are dealt with? Do you need a printer in each room, and when it breaks do you need to buy a new one or could you make do with sharing one machine with another room? These and many other questions will lead to more efficient choices, but only after having identified and assessed the cost and value of each aspect of IT, including people and assets.

Solution 4: Cloud computing

There are contrasting opinions on this matter. The Government CIO, John Suffolk encourages the use of this service, and reckons that the public sector would be able to save £1.2bn by 2014 thanks to this solution. However, many believe that placing data in the hands of a service provider can be risky due to the highly sensitive nature of the data involved, so traditional Cloud computing may not be an ideal solution.

A shared environment such as the G-cloud, where various public sector organisation share private data centres or servers, may be a safer option that allows the public sector to achieve major efficiencies and cost savings, while minimising issues related to data security.

Solution 5: Shared Services

A shared service desk is not for everyone – it can only work if the organisations sharing have similar needs, culture and characteristics, and as IT can be a strategic advantage for competitive businesses, sharing the quality may mean losing this advantage. But for the public sector, this solution may be ideal. Local councils with the same functions, services and needs will be able to afford a higher level of service for a reasonable price, sharing the cost and the quality.

Solution 6: Service Management Good Practice

‘Doing more with less’ is one of the most used quotes since the recession started. And it is exactly what the public sector is looking for. Public organisations don’t want to be ITIL-aligned, obtain certifications, and tick the boxes. All they want is efficiency and cost savings – and through the right Service Management moves, after an Efficiency Review to find out what needs improvement and how, this can be obtained through the right choices regarding people, processes and technology.

Solution 7: Managed Services

A solution where the IT Service Desk is kept internal with its assets owned by the company, but managed by a service provider is becoming more and more popular among organisations from all sectors. When the sensitivity of data and a desire for a certain level of control over IT rules out full outsourcing, but in-house management does not allow to reach potential cost savings and efficiencies, a managed service may represent the ideal ‘in-between’ choice. The post-Spending Review public sector, then, may benefit from a flexible solution that is safer than outsourcing, but more cost-effective than an in-house solution.

Every challenge can be a new opportunity

Although budget reduction may affect investment in large IT projects and shiny new technology, it also represents the ideal opportunity to analyse what is essential and what is not, and to prioritise projects based on this. The public sector, then, find itself prioritising for effectiveness over compliance, cost-efficiency over cheapness and experience over offers, when choosing providers and tools for their IT. This will lead to the choice of solutions that will help organisations run more smoothly and safely, invest their resources better and, ultimately, deliver a service that will bring maximum customer and user satisfaction.

Martin Hill, Head of Support Operations

(also on Business Computing World: http://www.businesscomputingworld.co.uk/how-to-create-cost-efficiencies-in-the-post-spending-review-scenario/)

10 things we learnt in 2010 that can help make 2011 better

December 23, 2010

This is the end of a tough year for many organisations across all sectors. We found ourselves snowed-in last winter, were stuck abroad due to a volcano eruption in spring, suffered from the announcement of a tightened budget in summer, and had to start making drastic cost-saving plans following the Comprehensive Spending Review in autumn. Data security breaches and issues with unreliable service providers have also populated the press.

Somehow the majority of us have managed to survive all that; some better than others. As another winter approaches it is time to ask ourselves: what helped us through the hard times and what can we do better to prevent IT disruptions, data breaches and money loss in the future?

Here are some things to learn from 2010 that may help us avoid repeating errors and at the same time increase awareness of current issues, for a more efficient, productive and fruitful 2011:

1- VDI to work from home or the Maldives

Plenty of things prevented us getting to work in 2010; natural disasters, severe weather and industrial disputes being the biggest culprits. Remote access solutions have been around for a long time, but desktop virtualisation has taken things a stage further. With a virtual desktop, you’re accessing your own complete and customised workspace when out of the office, with similar performance to working in the office. Provided there’s a strong and reliable connection, VDI minimises the technical need to be physically close to your IT.

2- Business continuity and resilience with server virtualisation

Server virtualisation is now mainstream, but there are plenty of organisations large and small who have yet to virtualise their server platform. When disaster strikes, those who have virtualised are at a real advantage – the ability to build an all-encompassing recovery solution when you’ve virtualised your servers is just so much easier than having to deal with individual physical kit and the applications running on them. For anyone who has yet to fully embrace the virtualisation path, it’s time to reassess that decision as you prepare for 2011.

3- Good Service Management to beat economic restrictions

With the recent economic crisis and the unstable business climate, the general message is that people should be doing more with less. It’s easy to delay capital expenditure (unless there’s a pressing need to replace something that’s broken or out of warranty) but how else to go about saving money? Surprising, effective Service Management can help deliver significant cost-efficiencies through efficient management of processes, tools and staff. Techniques include rearrangement of roles within the IT Service Desk to get higher levels of fix quicker in the support process, and adoption of some automatic tools to deal with the most common repeat incidents. Also getting proper and effective measures on the service, down to the individuals delivering it, helps to set the bar of expectation, to monitor performance and improve processes’ success.

4- Flexible support for variable business

An unstable economic climate means that staffing may need to be reduced or increased for certain periods of time, but may need rescaling shortly afterwards. At the same time epidemics, natural disasters and severe weather conditions may require extra staff to cover for absences, often at the last minute. Not all organisations, however, can afford to have a ‘floating’ team paid to be available in case of need or manage to get contractors easily and rapidly. An IT Support provider that can offer flexibility and scalability may help minimise these kinds of disruption. In fact, some providers will have a team of widely-skilled multi-site engineers which can be sent to any site in need of extra support, and kept only until no longer needed, without major contractual restrictions.

5- Look beyond the PC

Apple’s iPad captured the imagination this year. It’s seen as a “cool” device but its success stems as much from the wide range of applications available for it as for its innate functionality. The success of the iPad is prompting organisations to look beyond the PC in delivering IT to their user base. Perhaps a more surprising story was the rise of the Amazon Kindle, which resurrected the idea of a single function device. The Kindle is good because it’s relatively cheap, delivers well on its specific function, is easy to use and has long battery life. As a single function device, it’s also extremely easy to manage. Given the choice, I’d rather the challenge of managing and securing a fleet of Kindles than Apple iPads which for all its sexiness adds another set of security management challenges.

6- Protecting data from people

Even a secured police environment can become the setting for a data protection breach, as Gwent Police taught us. A mistake due to the recipient auto-complete function led an officer to send some 10,000 unencrypted criminal records to a journalist. If a data classification system had been in place, where every document created is routinely classified with different levels of sensitivity and restricted to the only view of authorised people, the breach would have not taken place as the information couldn’t have been set. We can all learn from this incident – human error will occur and there is no way to avoid it completely, so counter measures have to be implemented upfront to prevent breaches.

7- ISO27001 compliance to avoid tougher ICO fines

The Data Protection Act was enforced last year with stricter rules and higher fines, with the ICO able to impose a £500,000 payment over a data breach. This resulted in organisations paying the highest fines ever seen. For instance Zurich Insurance which, after the loss of 46,000 records containing customers’ personal information, had to pay over £2m – but it would have been higher if they hadn’t agreed to settle at an early stage of the FSA investigation. ISO 27001 has gained advocates in the last year because it tackles the broad spectrum of good information security practice, and not just the obvious points of exposure. A gap analysis and alignment with the ISO 27001 standards is a great first step to stay on the safe side. However, it is important that any improved security measure is accompanied by extensive training, where all staff who may deal with the systems can gain a strong awareness of regulations, breaches and consequences.

8- IT is not just IT’s business – it is the business’ business as well

In an atmosphere where organisations are watching every penny, CFOs acquired a stronger presence in IT although neither they nor the IT heads were particularly prepared for this move. For this reason, now the CIO has to find ways to justify costs concretely, using financial language to propose projects and explain their possible ROI. Role changes will concern the CFO as well, with a need to acquire a better knowledge of IT so as to be able to discuss strategies and investments with the IT department.

9- Choose your outsourcing strategy and partner carefully

In 2010 we heard about companies dropping their outsourcing partner and moving their Service Desk back in-house or to a safer Managed Service solution; we heard about Virgin Blue losing reputation due to a faulty booking system, managed by a provider; and Singapore bank DBS, which suffered a critical IT failure that caused many inconveniences among customers. In 2011, outsourcing should not be avoided but the strategy should include solutions which allow more control over assets, IP and data, and less upheaval should the choice of outsourcing partner prove to be the wrong one.

10- Education, awareness, training – efficiency starts from people

There is no use in having the latest technologies, best practice processes and security policies in place if staff are not trained to put them to use, as the events that occurred in 2010 have largely demonstrated. Data protection awareness is vital to avoid information security breaches; training to use the latest applications will drastically reduce the amount of incident calls; and education to best practices will smooth operations and allow the organisations to achieve the cost-efficiencies sought.

Adrian Polley, CEO

This article has been published on Tech Republic: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/10things/?p=2100