by David Weldon

Welcome to the ‘always-on’ IT department

Dec 21, 2015
Enterprise ApplicationsIT StrategyTechnology Industry

As enterprise IT departments slowly pivot toward IT as a service, customer service scheduling software can make the difference in efficiently deploying an always-on technical staff.

Mix the terms “software” and “customer service” in the same sentence, and many individuals on the other end of a phone call might wonder what they ever did to you. 

Still, on-call scheduling software is being used by a growing number of organizations. And it’s not just for frustrated external customers who want to vent at somebody … anybody. Many IT organizations are using the software to match up internal users with much-needed tech expertise in the IT department. 

Those, in fact, are the two most common uses for on-call scheduling software, according to Katherine Jones, a partner in the Talent Information Systems practice at research firm Mercer, in San Mateo, Calif. Basically, any situation that involves somebody having a question or needing assistance is what on-call scheduling software was made for. In the case of IT, it is also helping to usher in the new era of IT-as-a-service.

 “I think it’s pretty common now,” Jones says. “Any place where you’ve got the potential for a user asking a question that would impede their progress at work, and the question is answerable, there is often a help desk of some sort to move them through the process to a solution.” 

It certainly sounds simple enough. But the real challenge is how to customize the software program in the most efficient, and least objectionable, way. By that, Jones says that IT managers need to “layer” prompts into the system that get a user to the right tech resource quickly, and correctly. Too few layered questions and the user may not be connected with the right IT staffer. Too many, and they won’t want to be. 

The ‘always on’ IT department 

Think of this new IT-as-service model as the “always on” IT department, says Geoff Woolacott, principal analyst and practice manager at Technology Business Research. 

“The easiest thing I can think of is like the deli counter, and taking a number. The customer comes in and says, ‘I need this.” But not just any meat slicer will do. “The on-call scheduling is looking at the number and matching it to the right slicer. I need the turkey slicer guy up in 15 minutes, because that’s what the customer needs,” Woolacott says. 

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The same principle holds for IT-as-a-service. 

“Within the IT department, if you think of the different technical skills that an enterprise shop would have, [it becomes a matter of] what task has the end user requested, who has the skills to get it done, [and how do we best schedule that expertise],” Woolacott says. 

A perfect environment for on-call scheduling is agile development and daily scrums, Wollacott notes. Think in terms of “what needs to get done, show is going to do what, and what is the logical sequencing.” 

In many ways, on-call scheduling is a throw-back to the days of the mainframe and time-shared services, Wollacott says. 

“It’s like wide ties, narrow ties – it’s popular again,” he says. 

But there is also a difference – the pace of today’s IT organization versus that of yesterday. 

“The pace is far faster, so that scheduling component is going to be far more necessary for efficiency as well as for customer responsiveness,” Woolacott says. “It’s the consumerization of IT, baby!” 

Getting your ‘buckets’ right 

So how does the CIO best make on-call scheduling work? 

“They work best when – and this has to do with the programming of it at the organizational level – they first have very clear ‘buckets’ that the person is calling into,” Jones says. These “buckets” are the quick choice options that enable the user to proceed through each layer, with each subsequent layer getting more specific in detail. That enables IT to quickly narrow the topic and potential remedy and hand the user off to the right staffer. 

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To be effective, and considerate, the IT department should have no more than four to six layers for the user to navigate through. Fewer than four and the user’s problem really can’t be identified with enough certainty. More than six, and the user is probably going to get very perturbed. 

“The first thing is programming [the on-call scheduling system] as explicitly as possible,” Jones says. “We know people don’t want to sit through 10 different choices, but the more choices you have, the more likely you are to get somebody to the right place. Still, there’s a limit to the number of buttons on a phone – and usually we don’t want 10 choices – you can’t use a zero because that will call an operator, theoretically.  This is the dilemma, because to be explicit and to be quick and to the point, and also be easy to program are often totally at odds with each other.” 

Whatever the organization ultimately does, it should be driven by the user experience. 

“The key point of all of this is to ensure that the continued productivity of the worker – whether at home or at work – is not impeded,” Jones says. 

“We should probably put all of those things to together because efficiency, productivity and revenue generation is all tied together,” Jones says.