Air Time: IT Support: Who You Gonna Call?

How do you prevent system providers from becoming totally disengaged from the people who rely on their services? Here are several steps that can be taken to improve the status

Dave Molta

January 19, 2007

3 Min Read
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Remember Nick Burns, the "computer guy" made famous on "Saturday Night Live?" Nick is a systems administrator whose caustic attitude leaves no doubt about how much contempt he has for computer users. After spouting some technical drivel, he pushes users away from their keyboards with an order to "MOVE!" Then he fixes their problems with a few keystrokes and exits, stage right, only to return and chide his customers with: "Oh, by the way, YOU'RE WELCOME."

While touching a sensitive chord, Nick is hardly representative of the IT pros who fix our computer problems daily. In fact, most front-line support folks display an inordinate amount of patience in answering simple and repetitive questions. Unfortunately, as the complexity of information systems increases, the questions get a lot harder, forcing us to reconsider existing support models.

Recently, a Network Computing editor, fresh off an unpleasant tech-support experience, asked whether we could play a more constructive role, helping our readers better understand the human side of the systems they build and support. I liked the idea, but most didn't, concisely summarized by one colleague with: "It's not us."

If it's not us, then who is it?Communication and support problems exist in almost every sector of IT, where disruptive changes are made to systems with little advance notice and hardly ever a clear explanation. The phenomenon is felt most viscerally when it comes to changes in security practices, where hurdles are often erected between information and users. Users understand the need for IT policies that protect enterprise assets, but providing a rational connection between policy and operations often requires more creative interpretation by users than we have the right to expect.

In most organizations, the roots of the problem lie in the organizational structure of IT and in efforts to enhance operational efficiency. Managers try to insulate their most knowledgeable application developers, system administrators and network engineers from direct contact with end users. If these highly paid professionals had to answer simple and repetitive questions all day, how would any "real work" ever get done? Thus, conventional best practice is to implement multitiered problem-escalation models, where only the toughest, most obscure problems make their way to senior staff. And communication about system changes is filtered through many levels.

This support model may be efficient, but it is seldom effective. By protecting the senior staff from end users, a vital feedback link is severed. Taken to its extreme, system providers become totally disengaged from the people who rely on their services, hardly a recipe for success.

There's no easy solution to this problem, but several steps can be taken to improve the status quo.

First, organizational boundaries must be redefined and technical competence of support staff elevated, to improve problem solving and to establish better internal communications. Systematic internal IT training programs must be implemented, not only to help front-line staff understand systems and associated policies but also to help backroom staff feel the pain of supporting users.Second, organizations should consider distributing support to business units where possible. Doing so fosters a more constructive environment, one where IT users are supported by people with whom they work on a daily basis. This model encourages more disciplined communication, providing opportunities to bridge the large chasm that often exists between business units and IT.

Finally, backroom IT pros must develop a more user-centric view of IT. This means acquiring a better understanding for how business goals and strategies intersect with IT and developing a deeper appreciation for human factors, the cognitive and psychological mindset through which nontechnical people interact with technology.

And if there happens to be a Nick Burns in your shop, show him the door.

Dave Molta is a Network Computing senior technology editor. He is also assistant dean for technology at the School of Information Studies and director of the Center for Emerging Network Technologies at Syracuse University. Write to him at [email protected]

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