Why IT Support Needs Professionalism
IT Support doesn’t stop at the Servicedesk; resolutions can come from anywhere in IT. We’re all in IT Support. But IT Support is in trouble.Fixes taking days rather than minutes, persistent backlogs, years of falling productivity, balancing reactive with project work, and more. The stress can affect employee health. The Business needs IT Support professionalism. Here’s how.
When it comes to the provision of consistent and responsive IT support, at the root of the problem is the method of delivering the service. Two key factors get in the way. One is built into the way support works. The other, more fundamental, is IT’s peculiar and idiosyncratic approach to self-organisation.
One-Stop Shop Illusion
By convention, since the turn of the century, IT support enquiries have been received by a front line, usually called ‘The Servicedesk’. This is invariably touted as a ‘one-stop-shop’ for all enquiries to IT, regardless of their nature. That means the some enquiries will be requests for information, others will be calls for a standard service such as hardware procurement (“I need a new mouse”), others will be entirely administrative or clerical in nature, and others will be genuine technical problems, variously reported by the lay user or the deeply tech-savvy.
There is an immediate problem in coping with that variety. Any enquiry can land on the desk of any first-liner; who may herself have a skillset in a broad range from that of an enquiry-logger, to a procurement officer, through a technical hobbyist, to an extensively trained technician. Where an incoming enquiry lands is a matter of chance; but the results can be detrimental to good service. You can bore the technician with a stack of administrative enquiries, or you can stump the clerk with jargon-laden questions relating to network topology, but you can’t have it both ways. This or that first-liner is eventually going to find himself out of his depth, while the phone continues to ring with the next incoming enquiries.
Any first line with that variety of demand is never going to be able to staff itself to deal immediately with everything. It is going to have to send some, or even most of its arriving demands to specialists elsewhere in IT who have the skills, the proficiency and the authority to resolve them. It is not unusual to have two-thirds or more of arriving enquiries being escalated to elsewhere in IT.
To focus on the Servicedesk as the provider of IT Support is to miss the point. There are second-line and network teams, systems maintenance and development groups. Absolutely everybody in IT is involved in IT Support, right up to and including the most elevated developer. All departments should be ready to deal with support. But they are not – and perhaps surprisingly, in the current, conventionalway of running IT, with good reason. This brings us to the second factor.
A first glance, it is reasonable that the Servicedesk should not have all the skills it needs to be able to answer anything the userbase may throw at it. The requisite technical skills are already held elsewhere in IT, dedicated to maintaining or developing the technology estate; to replicate those abilities at the Servicedesk would be an expensive duplication, let alone a potential security risk.
However, those downstream technical departments were created primarily to govern or create those various systems. To them, an incoming support enquiry, escalated from the first line, is an aberration an interruption to their primary purpose. So in the absence of an instruction to do otherwise, support enquiries may take a lower priority among those groups. And here, we have part of the reason for those persistent backlogs and slow responses.
But it’s only part of the reason. Another, significant element here comes from who works in those departments, and how they are organised.
The Management Question
In order to function, IT must hire technicians, and that’s fair enough. It is what the business would expect of them.
However, technicians have a certain way of thinking. They deal, by and large, with a defined object, be it a machine, an infrastructure or an app. Their purpose is to develop that system, or to restore its function when it fails, by the application of parameters that are built into the system or into the development framework in use. The technician uses his knowledge of those parameters to adjust them within their predesigned limits to achieve the desired effect. This process toward resolution is known as diagnosis. Furthermore, they do that in accordance with a job description laid down by somebody else – technicians act under instruction. The technician’s mentality is to react to instruction, to focus on a specific object, and to diagnose a solution.
As the technical workgroup grows, sooner or later it will need a manager. But because IT always hires technicians, the pool of talent from which this leader can be appointed consists exclusively of technicians – whose thinking, through no prior fault of their own, is expecting instruction, object specific, and diagnostic.
(Before we carry on, this post has some details on the roles of an ITIL service transition manager, which you might find interesting).
The perspective of the manager is very different. It is not specific, but situational. It is not under instruction but on what the business needs from the workgroup as a whole. It is not diagnostic, for there are no predesigned parameters.
Technicians are not managers, and we cannot turn one into the other just by changing his job title. Here is one reason why so many promoted technicians continue to behave as technicians. This leads in turn to an absence of management, in the sense that the forecasting of demand, planning of response, and orchestration of resources that are the forte of management, often simply do not get done. Most IT technical workgroups are muddling through a varied and demanding workload on little more than the goodwill and capability of the staff who work there. If I had a pound for every technical manager I’ve heard say, “They’re a capable bunch – I just leave them to get on with it…”
It is not hard to see how IT Support’s current problems would come about, given the industry’s circumstances. Without man-management, productivity will drift. Without resource orchestration, some demands will not be fully satisfied. Without planning and forecasting, ruts will form. While convention stops at the first line, the most important service in IT – namely, keeping the business productive through technology, which is the purpose of IT Support – is being left to chance.
IT Support urgently needs to add professionalism to its predominantly technical and reactive culture. The obvious question is how.
‘Mastering IT Support Delivery’ (MISD) is a curriculum of qualifications spanning four levels of the IT Support career. At its core is the Operational Manager Certificate (OMC), providing long-tested and widely proven, practical method for the running of an IT technical workgroup. It specifically deals with how those groups organise themselves to ensure both their primary purpose and those arriving support demands are dealt with. There is a heavy emphasis on management by measurement, collaboration with other workgroups and the business, and getting the best out of people.
Prior to that is the Aspiring Manager Certificate (AMC), designed to recognise and resolve the mental and philosophical differences between technicians and managers. It lifts the horizons of the newly promoted manager, and cements this with the deep practicality of a To-Do list for the managerial working day.
For those managers wanting to get their staff operating to the same level of professionalism, there is the Foundation & Operative Certificate (FOC). Finally, atop it all, the Support Strategy Manager Certificate (SMC) deals with the question of what workgroups are actually needed, why, how they should operate and interact, and how that can be financially justified to the business.
MISD is unique, not just in its general approach but in specific areas such as the inclusion of content for external, outsourced as well as internal support. It works happily in tandem with, or in the absence of other IT management frameworks because it addresses an area they do not. MISD works in organisations of any size, from the very smallest scaling to the largest.It is written by an acknowledged IT Support expert, whose bestselling works have documented him as the originator of much of what we now call ‘IT Support’. MISD certifications are part of the Purple Griffon training portfolio, courses can be found here.