When to outsource helpdesks

The PC helpdesk is the interactive interface between the IT department and your business. Mark Wheeler looks at the challenges involved in outsourcing the helpdesk.



The PC helpdesk is the interactive interface between the IT department and your business. Mark Wheeler looks at the challenges involved in outsourcing the helpdesk.


Contents
The difficulty of outsourcing
Helpdesk in-sourcing?
Successful Outsourcing
How can it be done?
Who's out there?

Calling the PC helpdesk to report a problem with your computer should be a smooth operation. For some companies however, it's a process that can be frustrating, confusing, and bogged with procedure.

Outsourcing the helpdesk is commonplace in modern business. During the 1990s the IT helpdesk was amongst the first services to be cast free from the nest, and soon enough the whole of IT was dished out. These days virtually any business process can be isolated, segmented, and contracted to a third party.

"If it's the first time you are thinking about outsourcing your helpdesk, you really need to get out and talk to people. It's going to affect everyone in your organisation every day."

-- Sarah Cullen, Sarah Cullen & Associates
The helpdesk remains one of the first elements of IT to be considered for outsourcing, however there is evidence now that some companies -- fed up with the frustration and confusion -- are in-sourcing the helpdesk again. There is also an increase in the number of companies opting for a selective strategy, picking and choosing elements of their IT infrastructure to be outsourced and retaining others internally. So where does this leave the helpdesk?

What is the helpdesk?
The helpdesk is the true front line of your IT infrastructure. It's the place you call when your PC starts ticking, or an application goes down, or your mouseball is dirty, or all the monitors in the building start going blue, or if you don't quite know how to get that database to extract to Excel nicely.

Typically when the helpdesk is outsourced, it's done as part of a greater IT package. A PC helpdesk will usually offer first-level or second-level desktop, application, e-mail, Internet, network, and even server support.

However the helpdesk also often provides the first point of contact for issues ranging from spam, storage, and disaster recovery through to security, application development, and communications.

This places a helpdesk in a unique position at the coalface of the IT interactions within the business. As an outsourced consideration the helpdesk is a department that is going to have high interaction levels with every individual across business.

When it comes to outsourcing the helpdesk, this high-interaction level needs to be carefully considered -- and what is apparent is that in the past, this hasn't always be done effectively.


Contents
What is the helpdesk?
The difficulty of outsourcing
Helpdesk in-sourcing?
Successful Outsourcing
How can it be done?
Who's out there?

The difficulty of outsourcing
The mistakes of the past highlight how pursuing the cost benefit can be dangerous. A 2000 survey by Melbourne University showed that nearly 60 percent of companies cite cost reduction as their main reason for outsourcing their helpdesk, yet only 42 percent of these companies demonstrate any expense reduction -- most only claim moderate or marginal savings. Twenty-two percent said their costs were greater.

A recent white paper released by United Customer Management Solutions (UCMS) claims: "The problem with most outsourcing deals is the focus on saving as much money as possible. In the past, when organisations outsourced a business process, they defined how the process was to be handled and the results they expected. Typically, they would use the outsource organisation that offered the cheapest price. No real innovation was expected and no real value was added to the process and what it contributed to the organisation."

According to the white paper, companies who manage their outsourcing relationships badly are likely to be impacted heavily. This includes poor service, increased costs, more complaints, inflexibility, a messier contract, strained relationships, and limited economic benefit.

Many organisations found their helpdesk demonstrated these symptoms only too well. For many the helpdesk was where this impact was most vivid.

Complaints about the quality of service became enough to dispel any enthusiasm about the cost benefit.

Sarah Cullen, MD of consultant firm Sarah Cullen & Associates, says that first-time outsourcers tend to make easily avoidable but long-term mistakes. "You don't know what you don't know. It's like having a baby, you have no idea what you're in for and it's difficult for you to understand without actually going through it. Once you've had three or four you're pretty experienced and know exactly how to go about it."

"If it's the first time you are thinking about outsourcing your helpdesk, you really need to get out and talk to people. It's going to affect everyone in your organisation every day," she says.


Contents
What is the helpdesk?
The difficulty of outsourcing
Helpdesk in-sourcing?
Successful Outsourcing
How can it be done?
Who's out there?

Helpdesk in-sourcing?
Market analyst Aprajita Sharma from IDC says: "What is really interesting to see is that some companies have used the opportunity of selective outsourcing to bring the helpdesk back into the business. They have actually in-sourced the helpdesk."

VicRoads is one such organisation. CIO John McNally says that they started a contract in 1994 with ISSC who then became IBM Global Services. At this time the political atmosphere under Jeff Kennett touted outsourcing as the way forward. The contract was born in the fledgling days of helpdesks, and there was not a great deal of experience in outsourcing IT.

"We sat down and spent some months actually identifying what the benchmarks for the contract should be."

-- Liam Davidson, John Paul College
"We had a situation where we were paying a fee for services that in many instances (around 60 percent of calls) were simply logged at the helpdesk and passed back to our organisation for action at a higher level. We were just paying for calls to be logged," says McNally.

"We felt that the helpdesk was not viable. It really is finding that balance between cost and the quality of the service, and the quality of the service depends on local knowledge. The sort of service we were getting was not worth it. By moving our helpdesk back we were able to reduce our cost by around 30 percent and link more closely the user experience with the support mechanism."

VicRoads now retains three providers (EDS, Telstra, and Mincom) for its IT infrastructure. The helpdesk however remains in-sourced. McNally says "The only way we can run multiple providers was to be in control of the processes, so we have implemented a framework for incident, change, and configuration, and have upgraded our helpdesk so that it can address a lot of the problems at the first contact."

McNally accepts that there are disadvantages. "There is always a challenge when you have a small group in being able to provide your expected coverage -- which is knowledge and resources at the drop of a hat when things start to go."

While the VicRoads example remains fairly uncommon, it validates the nervousness that can plague anyone considering outsourcing their helpdesk. There are real chances to be taken, however since the eager days of the '90s, a lot has evolved. Outsourcers speak now of partnerships, relationships, and holistic approaches. Experience has brought the outsourcing strategies for helpdesks a long way. Successfully outsourced helpdesks indicate that it can be done -- it just might depend on the approach that you take.


Contents
What is the helpdesk?
The difficulty of outsourcing
Helpdesk in-sourcing?
Successful Outsourcing
How can it be done?
Who's out there?

Successful Outsourcing
For most companies there remains compelling reasons to outsource the helpdesk. There can be genuine cost, time, and quality benefits.

When John Paul College (JPC) in Melbourne faced the prospect of staying on top of its evolving IT infrastructure, principal Liam Davidson involved one of the schools suppliers, Volante, to discover how it might outsource the school's IT. He says: "This came about as a result of an independent audit of our technology. Heath checks revealed that our networks were not in the sort of condition we wanted. We wanted to bring in specialists who could stay abreast of technology and we soon came to the view that it would be more cost effective to outsource the whole management."

The college's sophisticated network of around 300 PCs and 120 wireless notebooks runs a diverse array of applications. During several months of discussion and planning, Davidson says JPC and Volante developed a strong relationship and that formed the basis of what is now an effective support arrangement. JPC was able to enter a contractual agreement with assurance that the service delivery expectations detailed aligned with what it required.

"The accountability structures seemed to be open enough for us to be confident that we were getting what we're paying for. Volante had to really understand what we wanted. We are able to go to them and be confident that there is a good understanding of what our needs would be. They bring technical expertise that we simply couldn't afford to maintain," says Davidson.

"We sat down and spent some months actually identifying what the benchmarks for the contract should be."

Prabhakar Rajagopal, national practice manager for Volante also believes the initial stage is critical for successfully outsourcing the helpdesk. "JPC had to be discerning in terms of what they wanted from the helpdesk. From mainframe to mouse the helpdesk is really vital for the internal business and when they looked at the contract and looked at assigning responsibility, the emphasis had to be very clear. Even if there were multiple partners involved in delivering the eventual overall support service, the helpdesk is the crucial pivot," he says.


Contents
What is the helpdesk?
The difficulty of outsourcing
Helpdesk in-sourcing?
Successful Outsourcing
How can it be done?
Who's out there?

How can it be done?
Outsourcing your helpdesk needs careful planning, and it needs to involve the vendor. What is important is finding what suits your needs and your business. There are many different contractors around. They will all have their advantages. A full supplier or prime contractor (providing a whole IT solution) may tend to sub-contract their operations. You may find your helpdesk outsourced twice over! The whole-of-IT solution, however, brings the resources and management advantages of one provider.

A best-of-breed contract might give you the field leader in particular disciplines, but you will probably have to engage with multiple vendors and therefore multiple contracts and this can be more difficult to manage.

Managing it all yourself can assure you of control and intimacy within the business, but might prove difficult in terms of keeping your helpdesk staff skilled up, available, and resourced to the same level that a specialist outsourcer could under obligations of an SLA (service level agreement).

Expectations of the helpdesk have changed over time. IDC's Sharma, says that employees are more used to operating with outsourced elements in their business. "For employees it's not who's handling the complaint so long as the call is managed within the agreement. If I'm getting that kind of service, within the time frame, then it's fine with me."

As such vendors need to maintain a focus on the SLA, Sharma says. "Most of the time the problems are not just the service providers fault, you have not set a proper definition of the service level in the beginning. This becomes critical when the helpdesk is required to interact with the business on a daily basis with these expectations of service."

She says that there will also be a lot more convergence in IT -- within the desktop space itself. "You see employees using different devices and gadgets such as PDA's, mobiles, handhelds. This will increase more and more. Everything has to get linked to the desktop or laptop. It becomes quite difficult to manage that in-house. If the organisation has outsourced their helpdesk this becomes the responsibility of the outsourcer -- and it's usually much simpler for them to stay ahead of the technology."

All parties are these days far more aware of the process required to successfully outsource one of their business' functions. Mistakes are rarely made twice and most of the analysts believe that outsourcing vendors will continue to refine their approach, bringing experience from the past 10 years during outsourcing's infancy to the partnerships they make. How successful your outsourced helpdesk is depends greatly on the relationship that you cultivate with the vendor, and that can depend a lot on how you prepare for the event and what you document about it. Since it is the real interface between IT and your business, there is real value in getting it right.


Contents
What is the helpdesk?
The difficulty of outsourcing
Helpdesk in-sourcing?
Successful Outsourcing
How can it be done?
Who's out there?

Who's out there?

ACS
Global provider of business process and IT outsourcing to commercial and government .

Accenture
Global management consulting, services, and outsourcing company.

CSC
Full-scope global IT company offering consulting, systems integration, and outsourcing.

Datacom
New Zealand-owned Datacom focuses on systems management, software development, and consulting.

EDS
Multinational services company operating in Australia since 1985.

HP
HP offer extensive services including innumerable outsourcing IT solutions.

IBM
The well-known giant offers comprehensive solutions including IT services.

Infinity
Australian/US company that provides outsourcing solutions from helpdesk to the whole of IT.

KAZ
Australian company operation through Asia-Pacific. Specialises in business and outsourcing solutions.

Volante
Australian IT service and procurement company. Volante offer custom electronic business solutions.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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