IT Support as bite-sized learning opportunities

In the dim and distant past, I used to work for a large utility company as Information Systems Support Coordinator for their Engineering department.  My job functions included 1st, 2nd and 3rd level support, IT training, a bit of development work and managing relations with the outsourced IT support partner organisations.  One thing which always struck me was the number of repeat customers we had, with similar or even identical help-desk calls.

This was around 1997, which was when we chose to move from a mixed environment of DOS, Windows 3.1 and OS2 (and a couple of Unix boxes of different flavours) to a more uniform Windows 95 desktop, with Microsoft Office, and Lotus Notes.  As you can imagine, this was quite a large change in user-facing technology for our colleagues, and, as is so often the way, we were under pressure to minimise the cost of training.  Against this backdrop, we decided to train our own staff to train their colleagues, a system which worked extremely well.  A side benefit was that we had some 15 very highly experienced staff, who were able to carry on as local experts providing guidance and mentoring to their colleagues.

Another initiative I instigated at the time was to insist that all help desk calls were closed off only when the support staff had explained the problem and ways to either avoid it, or fix it, to the caller.  Obviously, this can take a little longer when resolving individual problems, but we also made sure that the resolutions were fully documented on the help desk system.  This documentation meant that there was also a knowledge base available, which helped new support staff find solutions to problems which might otherwise have required more substantial investigation, which helped offset some of the time spent educating the people who had found a problem.

Overall, this period of change was expected to cause an increase in the number of help desk calls, and consequently to increase the time-to-resolution for many calls.  By providing access to local experts and implementing a procedural policy of offering advice and guidance to callers, we managed to significantly decrease the number of help desk calls, by about 2/3 if I recall correctly.  The bulk of the savings here were on calls to the outsourced providers, but it also bought time for our local support team to be able to fully investigate other problems.

It may not be feasible to put in place the “local experts” in quite the same way, but it will be interesting to see whether our IT support team can replicate the bite-sized learning approach to help upskill staff and students, whilst allowing themselves to put more time in to all the work which so often goes unnoticed and continue their programme of ongoing improvements.

About patparslow

I am a researcher in the School of Systems Engineering, working in the fields of social media, digital identity and learning. I have previously worked in IT training/education, land survey, civil engineering, IT support, and as a software engineer.
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5 Responses to IT Support as bite-sized learning opportunities

  1. Anton Lawrence says:

    I like the idea. Its about creating a local-guru. Some of the IT Supporters at UoR fall into this category – it’s not their full time job, but they are able to help and advise those around them.

    Their are two problems. The first is what happens when they are away or too busy to help, or feel that they are being asked to do too much. The second is getting information out to them, and back to the centre in a way that isn’t too onerous.

    Coincidentally, last week I was contemplating a Blackboard group for Outlook/Email users – a way of transferring information out to people if they were interested, and of getting information back from them. Would that be a way to do it?


  2. patparslow says:

    Thanks Anton,
    The local guru is half of the equation, certainly, and you are right that there are issues with it. We found that on occasions, the local experts were spending a lot of their time helping their colleagues, and this wasn’t always particularly welcomed by their management (!). However, it has to be said that the local experts were also particularly good at meeting their own deadlines because they saw the help they gave as improving their own skills and employability. Indeed, one issue we did find was that the improved employability meant that we often lost local experts to other companies. However, over all, I think it was still the correct approach to take.

    Something like a Blackboard Organisation would help – or a stand alone wiki. I know it is hard to believe, but those who don’t have to use Blackboard tend to prefer to avoid it. This was one element I feel we were missing when we did this; we had no direct feedback mechanism from the local experts to either support or training so common issues were only picked up because we coffee-networked.

    I think that having the feedback mechanism in place (and I think a wiki would be the best option here) would also facilitate the recording of help desk solutions and act as a knowledge base. This would overcome a limitation I believe exists in Remedy (our help desk software), and may be an opportunity for a simple client side browser plugin which allows content to be simply added to both a wiki and Remedy at the same time. Alternatively, we could make use of a tool such as Clipmarks, Amplify or Diigo to achieve the same sort of results?

    • Anton Lawrence says:

      I take your point about BB. I don’t use it much myself.

      We have a wiki for IT Supporters, but it has tended not to get used that much. See http://twiki/cgi-bin/twiki/view/ITSup/WebHome and I think you will see what I mean…Its a shame as it could be a great resource. Our (ITS) own Wiki is more heavily used for docs, but is dominated by Systems and Comms use.

      One solution to creating the critical mass needed would be to have a multi institution solution. That might create enough traffic to make it useful and dynamic.


  3. We seem to have a proliferation of BB sites, blogs and Wikis and perhaps not enough time to keep logging in (separately – get on and sort that out Santa!) to these different fora. I’m a local BB supporter but admit I log in to the forum very rarely. Lack of use can be self fulfilling – log in three times and find nothing new and do you log in again, probably not. I’ve been tinkering with Google+ which could the new Facebook but low activity among the people I communicate with means Facebook is very much the better medium for me. I wonder if Google+ will be the equivalent of Betamax for video? How long will I keep looking?
    So my preference is for fewer and more general fora that allow subject tagging so it would be easier to log in and see activity.

    • patparslow says:

      Single log in always sounds so appealing. Until you have to manage separate user accounts and find a reliable way of getting the system to let you log out so you can re-authenticate as the right user! I realise that is probably a minority concern, and there are other ways around the problem, but it is something the existing web-based single sign on system in use already plagues some of us with.

      Notifications from systems are important – BB can (and should) be set up to provide notifications of new posts.

      I tend to agree about having a more general site which can have tagging or threading. The LinkSphere project ran in to issues with staff telling us they wanted lots of privacy, so the system had to have the capability to ‘lock down’ fora (et al), and, to be honest, also had issues with almost nobody wanting to use it. I think, perhaps, the cultural barriers need to be managed before any technical opportunities to improve communications can be resolved?

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