Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ever wonder who mans those 24/7 IT desks?

The Chronicle of Higher Education, in its November 9, 2007 issue reports on "Late -Night Stress on the IT Help Desk," with Dan Carnevale. In Somerset, Kentucky (in the eastern, rural part of the state)

Presidium Learning, Inc., a company in this rural Kentucky town that handles technology help desks for about 450 institutions. (snip)

Presidium's contracts with clients range from less than $15,000 per year to just over $1-million, depending on the size of the institution or university system and the services sold, such as what hours call takers will be available and what software the call takers will support.

In the Somerset call center, rows of cubicles are lined up in a large room, each with a computer and telephone headset.

At the beginning of the semester, when things are busiest, Presidium will receive between 3,500 and 4,000 calls per day, with the majority coming in between 7 a.m. and midnight. Things run more slowly at night during most months. Just a handful of people are on duty, down from just over 100 during the day. However, the students and instructors who call are generally relieved that anyone is there at all.

"There is this sort of awe when people call at four in the morning," says Russ Manes, the quality-assurance manager. "They think, wow, I got a live voice."

The company tries to keep the process as seamless as possible. Call takers will admit they are contractors if a student asks, but they are also trained to say "we" and "our server" when talking about the college's technology system. The help-desk phone is automatically forwarded to Kentucky, so callers usually do not even realize that they are talking to someone far from the campus. The company also handles help-desk requests by e-mail and instant messages.
As a former Kentuckian, I am happy that this business has been set up in a depressed part of the United States. It's the kind of thing that might otherwise be sent to India, perhaps. The article is interesting, with the kind of anecdotes librarians are used to -- hysteria over crashed computers, as well as lost souls seeking a sympathetic ear.

The article goes on to report how some smaller universities and colleges are using trained students to staff IT help desks that are open for fewer hours. There was a short while at my university when a centralized help desk was offered to "triage" questions that otherwise go to help centers in each school. That's been dropped as far as I know. There was a great deal of resistance in my school to being sent off to what was seen as an anonymous desk before being allowed to reach their known and trusted IT department. I imagine it makes a difference if the local IT assistance has a good relationship and reputation with their clientelle.

To me, this looks a lot like the issue faced by libraries when a central university library wants to centralize certain services, such as acquisitions and cataloging. If it's been working well, the library ought to be able to call on their customer base for support to resist out-sourcing services. Money folks often get a glazed, hypnotized look when somebody sells them an idea with the magic words, "cost savings through economies of scale." That sounds really good until you run up against the inevitable erosion of service quality. When it's centralized, it's nobody's service group, it's nobody's library. And it's nobody's special patron, either.

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