An alternative source of talent for your service desk?

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Due to the advances in healthcare and longer life expectancy it is estimated that within 15 years of the date of this article almost a third of the UK workforce will be in the over 50-age bracket.

Do you have an apprentice working in your IT department? Perhaps on your Service Desk learning the ropes, planning their rise through the ranks to Database Administrator or Network Engineer? I of course am generalizing and there may well be many apprentices out there wanting to pursue a career purely as a Service Desk Analyst it’s just that I have never met one.

I did however once meet a man called Paul who started working with me, not in IT admittedly, but who, having been made redundant and failing for over 18 months to procure a similar role, decided to apply for an entry level position in a very different sector to one he had worked in before. Paul was 58 years old.

The Office of National Statistics estimates that in July of this year approximately 325,000 people in the UK age between 50-64 were unemployed. Although this is thought to be about half of the number of unemployed 16-24 year olds, the prospects for the 50+ demographic finding long-term employment are considerably bleaker with almost 50% of those over 50’s having been unemployed for one year or more or forced into underemployment working part-time or to zero hour contracts.

Paul was extremely able, had an excellent manner and was very patient with the callers on the end of the line. His customer service skills were exemplary and in contrast to others, including myself at the time, he did not see the role as a rung on a ladder to somewhere else. He just wanted to help people and do the job to the best of his ability.

Looking back I can see that Paul would have made an excellent Service Desk Analyst. I very much doubt though that at the time, when this particular IT Department contained only one person over the age of 50 who was widely regarded by his colleagues as a dinosaur treading water until retirement, that Paul would ever have been considered.

Despite possessing a healthy interest in IT and possessing good IT skills, pretty much all that can be hoped for when attempting to employ an apprentice, the suggestion that Paul could take on the apprentice role would have no doubt received much laughter.

Luckily things are changing…

Although traditionally apprenticeships have been for young people fresh from education, the 50+ demographic is moving in. In the last year more than 34,000 people over the age of 50 have started an apprenticeship, with many applying for a ‘professional’ apprenticeship in areas that would normally be dominated by graduates.

Please don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly support helping young people into work, my own working life started out this way and I am forever grateful for the opportunity but I think that organisations are missing a trick!

I believe that this older age group is an excellent fit for the Service Desk. With more decision-making and problem solving experience older workers already have a lot of the skills that would need to be taught to a young person alongside technical skills. And then there’s the general life experience aspect. Website Customer Champions carried out a survey on below average customer service and found that people over 50 are the most dissatisfied. It stands to reason that if you have received poor customer service you will work hard to ensure that your customers do not receive a similar service.

Opening up apprenticeships to the 50+ demographic also helps to create a larger pool of suitable candidates, something which in my experience is greatly needed and, as I previously mentioned, with older workers more likely to see working on the service desk as a career rather than a stepping-stone to other things your return on your investment will be far higher.

So do yourself a favour when looking for an apprentice and actively encourage applications from the over 50’s…they have a lot to offer

Types of apprenticeships

Currently in the UK there are over 200 different types of apprenticeships in areas such as retail, education, manufacturing, engineering and of course Information and Communication Technology.

Specific ICT Apprenticeships:

  • IT Application Specialist – providing apprentices with the competence, skills and knowledge to work effectively and efficiently with IT systems, communication and productivity tools and software applications
  • IT, Software, Web and Telecoms Professionals – with the choice of focusing on either telecoms or IT this apprenticeship covers work in a broad range of digital technologies that help to use and share information.

Less obvious apprenticeships that may also be considered by an IT organisation:

  • Customer Service – teaching the apprentice the skills to provide excellent customer service as a customer facing employee
  • Contact Centre Operations – providing the apprentice skills in customer service, communication, problem solving and team working

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Why is configuration management so tough?

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IT Hoarders – do you really need all those old IT items that you no longer use?

Overheard at a recent conference:

“Oh, we are working on configuration management…Why? Because it’s an ITIL process”

I cringed.

The conversation continued with “…yeah, I don’t know why it’s not going well. We bought <well-known tool name here> which has a CMDB. We have been adding configuration items (CI) into the CMDB for the last two months. Nobody in the IT team is using the CIs for incidents or change…”

I walked away, no longer wanting to hear any more of the gory details. Unfortunately, I feel this is more the norm than the exception. Let us take a few moments to examine why.

IT is a version of “Hoarders

IT is notorious for buying lots of stuff (that is a technical term) and equally notorious for not decommissioning items. Working in Higher Education, I often see departments who have plenty of funds and those departments who have to do whatever necessary to survive. This culture propagates surviving on the “scraps” thrown off by the “rich” departments when they get new items. IT often helps “repurpose” equipment to defer costs. Unfortunately, we end up with rooms full of devices, some of which may be running important business operations, with limited knowledge of what/how they are connected, the service they help provide, or why. Sometimes it may even become difficult to know who supports the device.

These actions have positioned IT to have a “hoarder” mentality. Don’t think so? We all know the team mate who has a copy of Windows 3.1 on 3½” disk who is hanging on to them because “…you just never know when the might be needed…” The spare equipment room, items sitting on inventory shelves, unappropriated devices in communications closets, servers under desks, overhead desk cabinets full of various versions of software, all adding up to “a big ol’ mess”.

With this much stuff, the task of building usable CIs becomes daunting. The sheer volume (thousands of items) becomes overwhelming and dooms the thinking of the configuration management team to “…we can’t do this…”.

It’s all about the CMDB

Ask this question “Are you doing any type of configuration management?” There is a good chance you will get a response of “Yes, we’ve got a CMDB”. This is just maddening.

I do not blame vendors for this. It is the vendor’s job to promote its products, but unfortunately, too many folks take the information provided by the vendor and translate it into “…to do configuration management we need a CMDB…”” to making your configuration management process work. Configuration management is about understanding the items that make your services work and their relationships. The CMDB should help the IT team mitigate risk during change decisions, help in trending during problem management, and allow the IT team to understand the impact of their operational decisions.

Education on Configuration Management

Where is the education? Now before all the ATO send me hate mail, I’m taking about where are the practitioners talking about configuration management? Formal training is not the issue. There seem to be very few good storytellers out there when it comes to configuration management.

In fairness, the reason there may be so few good storytellers may be due to how much context plays in configuration management. Let’s be honest, the context of my organization is different from the context of your organization. Incident management runs pretty much the same across all organizations. Simple premise of “get the issues resolved as quickly as possible” translates to everyone. The stories are transportable to each organization regardless of context. Because of this, ideas become quickly adaptable and usable.

With configuration management, we do not see the same ability to be transportable. Configuration management begins with the relationship of your services to the business. It becomes difficult to adopt an idea that does not match with your context.

Configuration management also seems to be the place most people really want a “recipe” for. “Just tell us how to do it”, the phrase uttered from many configuration management teams who realize the level of work they will need to do just to figure out where to start. Education on configuration management is most likely not a fair phrase. Configuration management does require a “deep dive” into the method and diligence to obtain desired outcomes. Make sure your team has the passion and the “intestinal fortitude” to make the tough decisions to build a configuration management process for your context.

“Ownership” of CIs

When you start discussing Configuration Management, you will undoubtedly run into folks in your organization who feel they “own” whatever CI you may be discussing. Sometimes their attitude may be perceived as “…this <device> is my responsibility…how dare you have an opinion on what I should do…” or “…I don’t report to you…you can’t tell me what to do…” They come by this honestly. For many years, IT perpetuated “silos” and one did not simply cross boarders without permission. Because of the way IT has worked in the past, many people see the items that they manage as “personal” pieces of their work and change for those items “require” a personal level of collaboration with the individual.

As we know, ITSM breaks down this paradigm and promotes a spirit of service across departments. Unfortunately, this does not always hold true when it comes to people managing devices. Depending on your organization culture, you may have teammates who do not buy in to the concept of configuration management. The configuration management team must do everything they can to break down these walls and ensure all teammates understand configuration management is not about taking away authority. Building a plan that helps IT deliver great services depends on team member participation at all levels. If your organization culture values individual performance over team achievement, you will have problems getting configuration management to stick.

Final Thoughts and Tips for Configuration Management

Configuration management is tough because:

  • Everyone in IT must commit to the process
  • It depends on organizational context
  • It may require big organizational change AND individual change

Tips:

  • Understand the services your organization offers. Have discussions regarding CIs around how they relate to services.
  • Find people who are willing to do the deep dive into Configuration Management and who are willing to change the organization. Having a few “cynics” who are willing to challenge ideas is a good thing as long as they are working for the betterment of the business and not disrupting progress.
  • Repeat with me, “IT’S NOT ABOUT THE CMDB!” The CMDB should be something that helps accelerate other processes.
  • At some point, someone is going to take the change personally. The Configuration Management team should practice dealing with this issue. Have a script on how to respond when challenged with why the change is necessary. Remind others, it’s about us looking good.
  • Take the time to move a CI through its lifecycle manually. Doing so will help the Configuration Management team understand how CIs are used with other processes, the relationships CIs have with services, and if your process meets your context. Once you have perfected the flow, use the CMDB to accelerate processes.

Configuration management is not impossible but it does require commitment, compassion, and compromise. Be sure to build a team that has the passion to build a configuration process and to help IT commit to using it.

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Collaborative IT Support at the University of Reading

Joel Bomgar, CEO of Bomgar & Gordon Roberts, Customer Services and Communications Manager, IT Services for University of Reading
Joel Bomgar, Founder & CEO of Bomgar with Gordon Roberts, Customer Services & Communications Manager, IT Services for University of Reading

Since 2012 British Universities have been able to charge £9,000 (about $15,000) per year for tuition fees. I wrote last year, following the itSMF regional at the University of Exeter, that this charging policy shifts the relationship between undergraduates and institutions and further elevates students to ‘customers’ with buying power. Students have new expectations and demand higher standards of their Universities, including IT services.

This is sentiment echoed by Gordon Roberts, Customer Services and Communications Manager at the University of Reading, who I met with Joel Bomgar, CEO of the $50m enterprise remote support company that bears his name. Joel was in the UK to visit the EMEA office and talk with clients including the University of Reading (UoR) who have recently joined the ranks of around 8,000 other Bomgar customers.

Gordon stated his team were under increasing pressure to increase service levels: both to satisfy their staff and students but also manage external reputation. Bad vibes about support spread like wild fire amongst prospective IT savvy students.

The UoR team admit that they stumbled across Bomgar whilst on the search for a new service desk (Recently replacing BMC with TopDesk), Gordon said “All the ITSM vendors we spoke to during our ITSM tool selection process said they integrated with Bomgar, but we’d never heard of it. However after researching further we immediately saw the value and have been using it since May”.

IT services at UoR act as a central point of contact for all IT requests and incidents, even for those faculties that may have their own IT support resources. Gordon stated that the lines between first and second line support had begun to blur as the first line support team were encouraged to learn more. “There has been an effort to move away from log and flog and increase the skill levels of frontline staff”

Bomgar facilitates collaboration between support teams by:

  • Allowing 1st and 2nd line to collaborate in real time on issues and learn from each other during calls rather than passing batons between teams with no real increase in knowledge
  • Recording calls and clipping the video to a knowledge base article for future reference
  • Doing all this whilst meeting their security and regulatory requirements. An audit trail of Bomgar activity records all interactivity.

I was surprised to hear that anyone in IT support can use Bomgar; it is not restricted to a few specialists. In fact Bomgar is also used for hands-on 1-2-1 training sessions outside of IT support, for example when training staff on tips and tricks with Microsoft Office, CMS systems or Blackboard.

Once upon a time we pushed plugs in a telephone exchange and called the operator to make a phone call – now we click on somebody’s face in Skype and talk to them immediately on the other side of the planet via a free video link. Bomgar paints a vision of a similar immediacy. Service request portals have provided scope for great steps in automation; remote support of this type allows the human touch to return and vastly accelerate support by allowing collaboration in real time.