by Joe Hogan, Unisys

An Autocratic Approach to User Support Will Fail

Jul 24, 200710 mins
IT Leadership

Turn end-user services departments from reactive technology troubleshooters to business process improvers.

A few weeks back I was talking with one of the pioneers in the outsourcing industry. He told me a story that demonstrates how far both end-user technology and IT management have come. Forty years ago, he said, he wrote a contract for IT support on his manual typewriter. The contract was all of six pages long. This simple document drafted on low-tech equipment outlined a relationship that was renewed time and again for 25 years.

If you fast-forward to 2007 and consider the level of complexity most CIOs face in selecting, managing and supporting information technology for their prime clients—the employees—it’s almost enough to make you yearn for the days of Underwoods and six-page scope documents.


For more about user relations and shadow IT, read Time to Rethink Your Relationship with End Users and Users Who Know Too Much and the CIOs Who Fear Them.

Ever since the PC ushered in the era of decentralized computing and its attendant complexity, many IT organizations have taken it on the chin for their perceived lack of responsiveness to user needs. In some cases, the knock against IT was deserved: The IT support function simply was not staffed by enough people with the appropriate skills to meet the expanding needs of employees as technology increasingly became an integral part of their jobs.

This trend has only accelerated in the last few years. In a recently conducted study of 243 North American organizations, Unisys found that soaring technology complexities have made it difficult for even the best companies to provide highly efficient and effective employee IT support services. Today, services groups support far more people whose jobs depend on technology devices, many more devices per person, more software applications on those devices, and more servers from which users obtain information and email access—all while having to deal with many more hardware and software vendors than last year, let alone 40 years ago.

Even when a company standardizes its hardware and software—such as requiring hundreds of salespeople to use the same laptop and applications—over time the software “image” will vary significantly from machine to machine as users load other applications they need. And when the software varies, it creates challenges and wastes time for the support staff.

Today, many employees use technologies that were first adopted in the consumer space—graphical user interfaces, instant messaging, cell phones and personal digital assistants, to name a few. This “consumerization” of technology poses management challenges for CIOs: Users increasingly demand that company-issued technology be as easy to use and feature-rich as the technology they can purchase at most retail outlets. Just over one-third of the organizations we surveyed (35 percent) allow their employees to use company-issued devices for both personal and business use. The risk is that, when personal applications begin to merge onto company technology, security and support problems can multiply.

What can a CIO to do to gain control? Come down hard and enforce across-the-board support policies that ban employees from using personal technologies for company use and vice versa? We think that such a policy is hardly possible to enforce today. We also believe it’s not optimal, because the productivity of nearly every employee now depends on information technology. This is especially true for the employees who generate revenue or keep customers happy every day: sales, customer service, field service and other workers. If they don’t have the technology and the support levels they need to excel at their jobs, not only is company productivity at risk—company market share and reputation are at risk as well.

For those reasons, autocratic approaches to fixing the end-user services problem are not the way to go. This challenge requires a different, focused approach based on the best practices we observed in our research for managing employee IT support. Those who follow this approach can turn their end-user services departments from reactive technology troubleshooters to business process improvers who substantially boost the growth and customer satisfaction capabilities of their organization’s key employees.

The Money Pit

The support budgets of most of the large organizations that we surveyed have grown significantly in the past five years. Since 2001, almost half the organizations (47 percent) increased their employee IT support services budget by as much as 50 percent and some 10 percent more than doubled it.

Recognizing that technology complexity, and the cost of supporting that complexity, will only continue to increase, many companies have adopted the rigid, standardized approach to technologies—forcing all employees to adhere to company-approved hardware and software. These organizations feel that the way to reduce mounting support complexities is to dramatically reduce the number of technology “images” in the organization and tolerate no or few exceptions.

This approach fails for two reasons. First, employees have many alternatives today and can easily get around stringent policies. Second, denying key users the non-company-standard technology they need can curb their effectiveness and erode organizational performance. It contributes to misaligning technology and business priorities, and hinders competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Tailoring Support Strategies

What should CIOs do to address this growing challenge? From our research, we suggest that organizations must decide where to take a more standardized approach to employee IT support and where they need to be more flexible. For certain, we must provide better support to the end users who have greater daily impact on the revenue, market share and reputation of the enterprise.

I suggest you always consider three criteria in selecting those users:

  • The economic value of the function. That is, its impact on the company’s ability to generate revenue on a daily basis. This is why such customer-facing functions as sales and customer service—and to a lesser extent marketing—should be near or at the top of every organization’s support chart, along with revenue-collecting activities such as accounts receivable.
  • The function’s reliance on real-time information and technology. The more the performance of a set of users relies on having up-to-the-minute information, the more critical IT support is to organizational success. A field sales force for a product line and pricing that don’t change frequently isn’t as reliant on technology as a field sales force that must download new prices and products every day to get customers to buy.
  • The importance of the specific task being accomplished through technology. A worker whose IT resources go down in trying to process a customer order is far more important for the support group than a worker trying to make online updates to her 401-K contribution.

The Unisys research found that the successful performance of a company’s IT support function correlates strongly to the adoption of such a tiered approach. We identified a group of companies in our survey as “support leaders”—those whose representatives believed they were providing highly effective IT support—and compared their responses to those of the “support laggards,” who felt they were struggling to address the support challenge. This comparison revealed that leaders were more than twice as likely as laggards (46 percent to 21 percent) to consider tailoring support to specific constituencies’ needs a high priority.

Furthermore, the users benefiting from targeted support differed dramatically between the two groups. Leaders were more than twice as likely than laggards to provide high support levels to their customer service function; nearly four times more likely to provide high support to sales and R&D; and far more likely to provide high support levels to marketing (a function for which none of the laggards provided high support). In other words, leaders are much more focused on helping employees who are intimately linked to generating revenue.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) Inc. and the City of Chicago provide good examples of such support tailoring. UL, a $680 million nonprofit product testing and certification company based in Northbrook, Ill., has two levels of support that are based largely on the impact of internal business functions to overall organizational success and their reliance on technology. The functions with highest business impact—and, thus, receiving priority support service—are customer service and field service. The City of Chicago recently moved from one to two tiers of end-user support. First-tier users—those in revenue-collecting functions—benefit from a four-hour response time, while second-tier users (those in non-revenue collecting functions) get a 24-hour response time. The New Frontier: Fixing Business Problems

Tailoring support to specific user segments is, indeed, helping organizations become less autocratic in their attempts to combat technology complexity and the rising cost of employee IT support. But it’s really only part of the equation. Our research found that support leaders go beyond simply providing quicker response to first-tier users when problems arise, and actually provide specialized productivity improvement assistance to users on the revenue “front lines.” By using remote diagnostics technology, online user training and Web portals to shift problem support from the field to a central location, leaders could reduce support costs while freeing up field support resources to focus less on fixing technology problems and more on fixing business process problems—especially those of the users with the greatest impact on the company’s revenues.

The nonprofit group AARP, for example, moved from a “ high-touch ” service structure to an outsourced centralized support model. The organization left a small support staff in the field that has helped managers and workers get comfortable with remote support. They are the eyes and ears of the support organization for qualitatively assessing service satisfaction. Likewise, the City of Minneapolis has shifted many of its IT employees away from fixing broken technologies to roles in which they could help city employees improve the way they did their jobs. For instance, the IT function recently implemented video technology around the city so that the city’s police force could watch the video in their cars before they arrived on the scene and know in advance what had happened. And, at STMicroelectronics, a $9 billion global semiconductor manufacturer, IT executives told us that the focus of their discussions with end-users has shifted from “I can’t get my work done” to “How can I be more efficient and effective?”

The preceding examples contain lessons we can all learn from and apply, just as the story of my friend the pioneer does. I asked him during that conversation how he was able to map a relationship that lasted 25 years on just six pages. His reply was simple: The CEO asked him to do what made business sense and make sure the document reflected that trust.

The research we cite here suggests a similarly common-sense approach: Providing prioritized support just makes business sense, and we need to trust ourselves to do what is best for employees, as we do for our customers and our organization’s reputation in the marketplace. By doing so, we can all gain newfound respect from users by making a fundamental and important shift: from technical troubleshooters to trusted business support partners.

Joe Hogan is vice president, Strategic Outsourcing Programs at Unisys Corporation, which provides IT services to businesses and governments worldwide. To reach Joe, e-mail him at