Consulting » Dare to Repair

It used to be the case that no IT director worth his or her salt would contemplate allowing a user to load an application, much less an operating system patch, on to their desktop PC or notebook. If users needed something done, they had to phone the help desk, log their request and wait in a queue until the IT department got around to actioning the item.

This was undoubtedly a safe approach. Banning users from lifting the lid on their PCs and, indeed, fitting the PCs with alarms that flashed up on the IT director’s console if the user did succumb to a DIY urge was a great way of avoiding major desktop snarl-ups and crashes. However, it has also proven over time to be a Rolls-Royce approach to a relatively simple problem. The bill for maintaining an army of technicians to run around hundreds of user desks fiddling with PCs is exorbitant. The wheel of fashion has turned and companies are discovering there are substantial savings to be made by empowering users to do all manner of things they would have been fired for a decade earlier.

Adrian Horne, ThinkVantage marketing specialist at IBM (ThinkVantage being IBM’s suite of desktop management and cost evaluation tools for corporates), says research by IBM shows that making users ‘self-healing’ is key to achieving major reductions in the total cost of owning PCs for corporates. This does not mean adopting an anything goes policy, where users can do whatever they like with their desktops. What it means is taking advantage of modern wizard-based tools and internet technologies to give users the ability to help themselves in a structured way.

Take, for example, the classic case where a user sits down at his or her desk in the morning, switches on and gets a ‘Windows failed to load message’ because the registry has crashed. In the old days, the user would have taken an extended coffee break and waited for a technician to rebuild the PC. Today, one of IBM’s tools, RapidRestore PC, creates a hidden partition on the disk of a healthy PC and compresses and mirrors the contents of the disk to that partition – and it’s free.

IBM PCs have a special blue button on them which the user presses if Windows is corrupt, which can occur for myriad reasons. The system restores to the user’s last available backup when the button is pressed. Similar tools can be triggered remotely from some central IT sites. They can also be set to operate if a user goes to a colleague’s machine, logs on to a URL and identifies themselves and their machine to the restore wizard on the website.

The restore process is automated and triggered by the user directly. No technician has to be called in. Of course, if the hardware itself is toasted, the procedure will be more elaborate. But again, the user could simply use an alternative machine to log on to a prescribed URL on the corporate website, which will trigger whatever replacement deal the company has with its PC supplier.

These deals usually have clauses whereby the supplier agrees to put a replacement machine on the user’s desk within a specified number of hours, depending on how key that user is to the company’s processes.

Norman Green, FD at Oracle UK, says he hasn’t seen an IT technician in his company for about 18 months, thanks to the implementation of an IT self-service regime. “We started moving to an internet-based, self-service regime in a variety of areas from the mid-1990s. We had two focuses – one customer-facing and the other employee-facing. We found there were some quick wins, as far as cost savings were concerned, that came from moving to a self-service model,” he says.

In fact, Oracle discovered there were far easier, larger wins to be found in this area than there were from using internet technology to win new customers. “Winning new customers was the mantra of the dotcom boom and its failure led to the bust. Self-service, on the other hand, creates better satisfaction ratings from customers, which increases customer retention and satisfaction ratings from staff. It also leads to direct cost savings by enabling you to strip out transaction layers from processes, so you win on every front,” he says.

IT self-service is no different from any other area of self-service, he argues. The trick is to get the relevant buy-in from employees. You can do this by making the roll out of a self-service regime beneficial to employees. One example of this in IT is to put all the ‘nice to have’ applications on a particular web page as optional downloads. Users can navigate to this page from their browser and trigger an automatic download and install routine that will put the relevant application on their computer.

This way, the user gets, say, Adobe Acrobat reader on their PC, without the assistance of any technician.

The company benefits, too, from the fact that it is better placed to control licenses. It knows who has downloaded what and can update the application licenses accordingly. “If there is a hardware fault, you simply put in a call to the help desk and the support centre takes control of your PC automatically to run a set of ‘test-and-fix’ routines, he says.

The help desk could be in Dublin or India, which means it’s possible to cut back on the costs of even the IT support.

Gordon Thomson, Cisco Systems country manager for Scotland, agrees. “We have found across Cisco worldwide that there is more money to be generated through focusing self-service on our employees than there is new money to be made through giving self-service to customers. It really is a huge area of savings for us,” says Thomson.

Cisco definitely does not allow users to add whatever they like to their PCs. Each application added to the desktop profile of a Cisco PC has been tested by its IT department prior to release. What it does do, though, is enable a choice of applications through a self-service web download area. “We lock down the desktop PC and do not let people load up anything they want from, say, a PC magazine cover disk. The conformity of the desktop image gives you important economies of scale, and you jeopardise this at your peril. However, there are various levels of conformity we can achieve. Giving staff an approved suite of downloadable applications to choose from still fits with the idea of a standard desktop image,” he says.

Thomson points out that with modern technology, self-service can be extended to encompass what would otherwise be thought of as technical tasks. Take, for example, the damage caused by the latest worm – Blaster. The thing that made Blaster so damaging was that, unlike a conventional virus hiding in an email attachment, users caught Blaster by simply being connected to the internet through a vulnerable Windows PC. Blaster polled internet connections in a continuous sweep, looking for Windows PCs that had not had the latest Microsoft operating system patch installed. It used the vulnerability it found to download a copy of itself to that PC.

The dilemma that Blaster poses to corporates running conventional IT department-driven support is that the patch has to be on every PC, which would entail a huge number of man-hours. However, with a self-service model, all the IT department has to do is email users with a link to a web address, where they can find the new Microsoft patch. Clicking on the patch URL initiates an automatic download and install procedure. The IT department can log each PC doing the download, so it can send email reminders to users who are slow to fix their own PCs.

According to Thomson, Cisco got employee buy-in to its IT self-service initiative by making its first application a self-service expenses claim system. “When users claimed expenses through the system, they got cash in their back account within two days. Under the manual system, it would take three weeks. The idea of getting your money in two days was appealing and we had tremendous staff buy-in to the scheme,” he says.

“We are not kidding when we say that employee self-service generates fantastic savings. In Cisco worldwide, we estimate we saved $500m through employee self-service last year. On annual revenues of $20bn, that represents a huge sum directly through to profit and had a tremendous impact on earnings per share,” he comments.

However, Thomson warns that companies looking to deploy self-service IT need to be aware of the kind of culture that exists in their organisations.

“It has to be possible and reasonable for employees to comply with a self-service regime. The internet is not there to replace human expertise; it is there to guide people to human expertise where problem-solving routines are automated and employees can trigger those routines with a click of the mouse. That beats having to wait for a technician,” he concludes.