We'll learn how automation and ITSM-driven insights endow help desk personnel with more knowledge and provide a single point of support for end users, regardless of their needs while still catering to their preferred method of help.
Here to share the latest on how IT support is advancing in the era of bring your own device (BYOD), cloud, and tight budgets, are three experts, David Blackeby, Program Solution Owner for Cloud Services at Sopra Steria, based in the UK; Diana Wosik, Group Program Manager at Sopra Steria, based in Poland, and Mark Laird, Group Technical Architect at Sopra Steria, based in the UK. The discussion is moderated by me, Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: Let’s start at a high level and talk about how support has changed, and why enabling self-service is so important nowadays. Mark, why is self-service such an important issue when it comes to IT help desk?
Laird: For us, there are probably a number of issues. We have a range across our customer base, from millennials, who are used to dealing with websites, mobile, tablets, who really don’t want to call a call center, and don’t want to end up talking to somebody on the phone, through to the legacy users who are much more used to picking up the phone, asking for help, and talking through a problem.
So they're looking for a more human approach, human interaction, versus the millennials who want to fix it themselves, want to do it quickly, and really don’t want to talk to somebody about it. That’s introducing a range of problems and challenges.
Gardner: It sounds as if you need to deliver support in a spectrum of ways, but perhaps with a common core to that support function.
Laird: The underlying answer to the problem, whatever the problem is, is likely to be the same. If you have a log-on issue, it will be a password reset or an account issue. It’s how you get that information out to the person who has the challenge.
If it’s a person on the phone, it's easy enough to talk them through it. But if you have somebody who is coming through a self-service portal, you have to provide them with that same information. So yes, at times, you connect a single call, a single database, and send your knowledge environment to a range of callers.
Gardner: David, we're being called on here to deliver support across the spectrum of modalities, methods, or even latency, but at the same time, many of the world governments are asking for austerity and savings in their budgets for IT. How are we able to reconcile this need for more variety and the delivery of help desk services, but cutting costs at the same time? Is there any way to reconcile them?
Blackeby: It’s part of the core challenge in the current world with austerity, where both our public and private customers are looking at how they can do more for less money.
IT has continuing cost pressures to reduce cost and overhead of providing IT. At the same time, we talk about new methods of self-service, different types of platforms and different types of devices and this multi-channel effect that costs time, effort and money to invest in these technologies.
That’s the underlying driver for how it comes down to the service provider to do that. The only way we can do that is looking at industrializing that service delivery and automating processes, moving activities that may have previously been done by Level 2 and Level 3 resources. We're looking at how we can move those to cheaper or lower-cost resources, such as a service desk, or in an ideal world, remove them entirely from the cost chain and drive the automation. So the activity increases the speed and the agility while reducing the cost of delivering the service.
Gardner: Diana, another variable in the mix here is the increased use of mobile devices, of fluidity of the user in terms of their geography, their location, even the time of day that they might be working, and of course there is a plethora of devices, if you want to bring your own device organization. How is mobility affecting this equation for a more complex approach to help desk?
Wosik: Mobility is very important nowadays, because everybody uses mobile devices, every single day. We need to ensure a single point of contact, so they all can approach their help desk at
any time they need, and they need the availability 24×7 for that.
Gardner: So, we've established that we have a need for more variability, addressing more types of help from more types of users. Tell me a bit more, Mark, about automation and self-service and how they support one another? What is it about automating processes that endows the user with more access to help, but then maybe that same feedback loop between the user and the support infrastructure can be brought to bear on future issues?
Laird: Automation is doing the same thing in a repeated, controlled fashion. Whether it’s a password reset or the delivery of a service or a server, what you're doing is scripting. You're putting into a workflow a process that a user can call on. Whether that user is an end user, an end customer, or in fact one of the operations team, it allows them to do that fairly standard process in a repeated quality controlled fashion.
And that can allow lower cost, potentially, as David said, bringing the tasks from maybe a qualified Level 3 expensive support person into an operations center, or in fact, maybe on to the self-service portal, where you're not having to give access to systems to end users, but you are allowing them to run a script.
Gardner: David, perhaps you could help me understand why self-service is a benefit to both the receiver of the help, the end user, as well as the organization. What is it about self-service that refines process and benefits the deliverer of the help, but at the same time, gives more speed or perhaps options to the receiver of the help?
Blackeby: Essentially it supports both sides of the equation. From an end user perspective, it’s that instant gratification, I can go into a centralized portal. I can do my search or raise my request and I can be instantly satisfied with the response. I could be presented with a knowledge article that tells me how to fix my particular issue.
If I'm requesting a new service to be delivered through orchestration in the back end, I can make my request, and the orchestration comes in and drives the automated delivery of that service to me. So it increases the agility for the user and it reduces delays.
From the other side of the equation, looking at it from a service provider’s perspective, the more work the user can do themselves takes cost away from us as a service provider.
Historically, a user would have called the service desk, so as a part of that conversation you need to understand who the user is to provide them the service. Make sure it’s a service that they are potentially allowed to have and sort of help through the process. That means that we need a body to answer the phone, and the amount of time that we spend on a typical call from the user drives the cost from a support center perspective.
Even if you have a scenario where a user using the portal today, and still need ultimately a human interaction to deliver that service, we already know who they are, and will have asked relevant questions upfront which means we don’t have to ask the questions later on down the line when we try to deliver a service. That reduces the handling time by our agents and by the people who are delivering them the service.
Gardner: Before we dig into the how you do this, now that we have established why it's an important new aspect of helpdesk, Diana, perhaps you can tell us a little bit about Sopra Steria, the organization, and to what degree they are supporting help desks in your markets?
Wosik: I can give you a good example of how it works in Poland and how the automation helps us out regarding the functionality of help desk.
We apply quite a few solutions, like virtual machine (VM) provisioning that has been automatically provisions the machines aligned to customer needs. There is a monitoring tool that is automated. So not only we monitor whatever is going on, but we're also able to answer the needs very quickly, thanks to our automation services.
And then there's the thing regarding the automatic deployment of our releases. Whenever there's a new release of the system, we don’t need a bunch of people who are going to work on it. We can also deploy it very quickly in production, and that helps us to bring the solution as quickly as possible to our customer.
Gardner: Could you give us a higher-level view of Sopra Steria, the organization, and to what degree help desk support is part of a larger portfolio of services?
Laird: We're a European IT company. We run IT for a wide range of European customers. We deliver services. We write software. We do business process outsourcing. Essentially, if there's a computer involved in there somewhere, that’s what we do.
We have a presence in 27 countries across Europe, in India, and then smaller offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, and China. We have 36,500 staff, and an annual turnover of about 3.5 billion euros. So, we're a reasonably large company, one of the top 10 European IT companies.
For us, the service desk is the single point of contact. For all of our customers, that is their point of contact with us, whether it’s through the Global Delivery Center in Poland, where we're offering French, German, English, small amounts of Spanish and Italian, or through some of the in-country service desks, such as the ones we have in France and the UK. So that is our single point of contact and it’s of key importance to us.
Blackeby: Just to follow on from that, the key piece of that is that it’s an intelligent service desk as opposed to a help desk. It’s really about having the phones manned by intelligent people who are able to both try and fix or resolve issues straight away, as opposed to just logging a call, creating a ticket, and passing it off to someone else.
Gardner: How is it that we're providing those individuals on the front line with better knowledge? Are they getting more tools? Are they getting more data? Is this really just correlating a single point of access to the existing data? Is it all of the above? How do we empower those people to do this difficult help desk job better?
Blackeby: In the same way that we try to have a single point of entry for users, for a portal, it’s really the same piece for our support staff as well.
While there are many systems that underpin our service delivery, the key element we try to strive for is that the operators have a single place to work. It’s very much thorough the integration of various systems and data sources into a centralized repository, so that the person that’s trying to act on a ticket, request, or other activity has everything they need in one place, so they can immediately see what the issue is, see what the request is, and then deliver the service to that end user.
Gardner: It strikes me that whether it’s a help desk’s person or the end user, the more they use this, the more the data can be collected, the more knowledge can be harnessed from the interactions, and therefore brought back through a feedback loop into the next level of support.
Is the cost savings on this ultimately about you're better able to understand the market because of the self-service, because of these portal approaches? Is that a big part of it?
Blackeby: It feeds into that. If you're looking at industrializing or automating, you're really looking for repeatable activities that are done time and time again. The data helps to support that. It identifies suitable candidates that are high volume, high throughput transactions that are really the key things that you want to focus on in terms of introducing automation into the environment, or automation into task elements in a given process. So, over time, it’s pretty much what we are doing.
As Mark mentioned, we're a managed service provider (MSP), providing the services across many customers. So, a lot of the economies of scale we get are best practices that we apply in one account or particular scenarios or issues that we see in one, we can see correlations in other customer accounts as well. So we can bring those efficiencies and bring that investment we make and automation through our back office processes to benefit multiple customers.
Wosik: What is very well known right now is big data and smart analytics that will help us to gather all the information from our customers, so the more tickets and the more incidents are logged, the more information you can gather as well. This is gathered and analyzed. This is when we can provide more accurate and quicker answers to our customers. It’s something that has really impacted our quality of service.
Gardner: Let’s look also back to the systems, when we think about gathering information, more and more big data gathered from logs and other output data from the systems themselves, from the platforms. How are you at Sopra Steria managing the knowledge gathering from your systems and then applying that into this other knowledge base about the activities on your help desk and from the self-help portal?
Laird: We're looking at some of the new technologies around smart analytics and big data, but we're starting with some of the simpler approaches, which as David alluded to and as Diana mentioned earlier, are just the simple high-volume transactions, the things that we do on a regular basis that are maybe quality issues or maybe they are just time consuming, but those are the key ones we're after.
Then, over the next three to six months, as we move into some of the newer technologies around smart analytics, for example, we'll be taking some of the incidents and things coming into service desk, into the service management system, and looking at those and doing problem management on them.
Have we suddenly got an influx of incidents around our exchange platform? Is that actually indicating that there is an underlying problem or an underlying system error that we need to fix?
It’s starting to link all the various systems, whether it’s the business service monitoring system to the back end that the operations teams are using, or the service management platforms at the front that our service desk people are using, pulling all those together, tying them in with, for example, the configuration management platform, so that people are seeing the same information, both from a front-end user impacting view, or from a back-end infrastructure and service view.
Gardner: And I should think that would also help in more agility to do root-cause analysis and making it faster to time for resolution.
Automate and fix
Laird: Exactly. That back goes back to when we fix problems, close incidents, and if there's a resolution in there, doing the analysis on them to identify common fixes. If an incident comes in or a particular type of incident comes in and we always do the same thing to it, we can automate that. We can actually either get the service desk or help desk people access to that quick fix or just automate it right at the start, so when that issue occurs, we automate and fix.
In some cases, that’s moving out of the customer’s view completely. We're fixing it almost before there's an impact.
Gardner: We've talked a bit about making these help desk approaches better from the end-user perspective, empowering the personnel in the help desk organization itself, and finding some new technologies and analysis benefits to propel that forward, but I would like to go back to the issue of cost.
How are we wringing out more cost from this process, perhaps things like identifying automation and what’s called shift left, better or earlier in the process. So, where are we targeting to get the most results when it comes to cost reduction in all of this?
Blackeby: It really talks about how people do transactions, what things are continually occurring that have a high amount of touch points to them. Some of that comes out through time.
One of the challenges we have when we take on a new customer is that you don’t have the excellent benefit of hindsight around how the organization works and what their common problems are. So, as we take on a new customer or a new contract, we have the ability to go and talk to their existing service provider or their in-house person. A lot of that comes out over time.
There are some standard things that we can recognize, because we have similar customers in similar marketplaces or industries and things that we would expect to get from the outset, and by looking at things like password reset tools and things like that are common and applicable across all types of clients.
Then, it’s a case of looking at your volumetrics over time, your repeatable activities, incidents and requests, identifying how can we drive the agility and improve the service levels that we're delivering, and at the same time, reduce cost.
Take a simple thing like software deployment to users machines, historically, that might have been a call to the service desk. They might have dispatched a desk-side engineer or used remote control to be able to connect with a user’s device to go and install the software.
These days, more and more commonly, we can use software distribution, or automated software push tools, that don’t require human interaction at all. We can automatically deploy software to the user.
That moves into that zero-touch type of environment. Through a portal request, we can manage the workflow around any approval activities. Then once fully approved, through the orchestration at the back-end, we can interface by software deployment solution to automate the delivery of that software to that endpoint device.
And we support many different types of devices now. We've seen more and more cases where not only are we talking about physical desktops or laptops, but also around how we manage mobile devices and tablet type devices as well, using mobility and mobile device management solutions.
Gardner: Let’s look at some of these solutions in practice. Sopra Steria has been doing this for some time and across a large marketplace. Do you have any examples that demonstrate when you can do this well that you get those benefits of self-help, common core data, more knowledgeable help desk, reduce costs, all at the same time?
Laird: One of the solutions we looked at in Poland, certainly around automation, was a really simple challenge that the operations team had as part of our Polish operation. Every morning, backups from a particular customer was taking them in the region of one hour to produce a backup report, look at the backup that had failed, re-run backups as appropriate, and then if backups had failed maybe consistently for a couple of days, escalating that out to support team.
We automated the whole thing. It’s all automated using HPE Operations Orchestration. The whole process now takes one of the team about five minutes in the morning, and it’s really a case of checking the output from the system.
So, we've saved somewhere in the region of just under an hour everyday for one person. It probably took two or three days to code the solution, but we're saving a significant amount of time every day. We're getting a much better quality report, and we're able to pass that information out to our second-line and third-line teams earlier in the day, it gives them much more time to fix things.
One of the things that we've looked at now is automating the re-run of backups overnight. Rather than letting them go to maybe two or three days, they're fixed overnight, and we run them within the backup window. It's improving quality to the customer and a having significant impact on savings to the operations team.
Gardner: You mentioned the use of the HPE tools. Are there any other HPE platforms or approaches that are helping you bring in this common data. We talked about the analysis earlier that also helps in this equation of doing more with less.
Laird: We're an HPE partner. We have been for over 10 years now, and we have quite a range of HPE tools across the portfolio, whether that’s from things like the Application Lifecycle Manager, through to HPE Service Manager.
We also have solutions like OMi doing things like event correlation, where we have events coming in from the monitoring solutions, whether that’s from HPE SiteScope or Operations Manager or from third party tools, like SCCM and some of the Nagios tools.
OMi is correlating those events and passing through to the service desk and the operations center the ones that actually need to be looked at. We're filtering out more than 50 percent, 60 percent of the alerts. It reduces our cost. We're filtering those alerts out at a much earlier point in the chain, and with that, we're only raising incidents for ones that actually need to be escalated up to the teams.
We're using tools and technology, to keep costs down and reduce the costs as far as we can.
Gardner: So as we think about being able to future-proof the support services, and by that I mean being able to adapt to a millennial audience, more distribution points, more types of help desk and automation, and that single portal, we also need to be thinking about being backwards compatible. Some organizations do want more of that human touch, the interactions, and perhaps some of the government organizations are interested in that as well.
What is it about the future direction of your services at Sopra Steria, some of the tools and technologies that you are employing from HPE, that allows you to feel confident about being both future proof and backwards compatible for your support?
Blackeby: One of the challenges that are coming more to the forefront these days is probably the adoption of cloud services. It’s a disruptive influence on traditional IT and how IT is delivered.
It’s a challenge for us the service providers to adapt to these. You're talking about environments that can be built in minutes, bringing a whole new way of working, very fluid environments with auto-scaling where the number of resources that we are supporting and managing is growing and shrinking dynamically over time. So that’s really had a big sort of impact on how we deliver service.
We've recognized this and are looking at how we transform the service delivery. We're becoming more reliant on the data that supports the service. So it’s very much around how we manage what’s out there, with a heavy reliance on things like configuration management systems, and discovery of IT resources.
As Mark said, there are things like event correlation, looking at patterns, trends and events so that we can increase the agility and really manage much higher volumes of applications, of servers and of users with a smaller number of people or with the same number of people.
Gardner: It is very exciting a lot is going on.
Tools and technologies
Blackeby: As a ratio you might have a scenario of a support person looking after an average 40 servers to now having to deal with realms of managing, so there are a 100-plus servers, but it’s only through the deployment of the tools and technologies that we can do that.
But at the same time, we still have a large legacy estate and legacy clients and we still need to support. So it’s really looking at how come we engineer our processes so that irrespective of what we are talking about legacy physical server workloads or perhaps on premise virtualized workloads as well as things that might be spun up inside Amazon Web Services or in Microsoft Azure public cloud environments that we provide that consistent level of service and service delivery irrespective of where the service is located or in which format it is delivered back to the customer or users.
Gardner: When I speak to developer organizations and IT production organizations operations, they're seeing a compression and a large degree of collaboration between development and operations. Thus, the DevOps trend.
But when I listen to you, I'm hearing also a compression between operations and help desk in such a way that it benefits the entire IT process in a more automated and the more software-defined and the more data that’s made available, the tighter that compression seems to get. Am I perhaps describing seeing this idea of help desk, support and operations becoming more collaborative, more tightly aligned?
Laird: The whole concept of the operations team being hidden away in a back room and the service desk being the public face is changing. They're becoming much more tightly aligned. Things that the operations team is doing have an almost immediate impact on what the service desk is looking at, and the service desk needs to have access to really all the information the operations team has got.
When the user is on the phone and has a problem with a service, it’s good if the service desk can actually say, "Yes, we know there's a problem and we know what the problem is. We have an estimated fix time of 15 minutes." That gives the user the warm feeling that you're in control and you know what you're doing.