UCISA Support Services Conference 2014

Last week I attended this year’s UCISA SSC at Crewe Hall (which is near Crewe – ha!). The conference pulls in staff working in IT support roles from across UK Higher Education, from every corner of the land and every echelon of our organisations. The theme for this year was Supporting the Business with a focus on relationship management and customer service.

The quick version of this post is that I really enjoyed the conference and have come back with renewed enthusiasm, a whole raft of links with counterparts elsewhere who are facing similar challenges to us, and a stack of ideas for improvement that will take until the next USSC to implement!

This is a long post, so I’ve tried to make each session stand-alone – i.e. you can read one session and walk away with something gained.

Day 1 (2nd July)

We’re All in Customer Services Now (Carolyn Blunt)

Did you hear about the Sky customer who called up to say that their service was down, had been for days, and their young child was going to miss the most important show of the week…Peppa Pig? The engineer who was despatched went out on his/her own initiative and turned up at the door to fix the problem, but with a surprise – he had a small cuddly Peppa Pig toy for the young child whose TV show had been missed.

Do we give our staff the freedom and resources to show initiative, to go the extra mile, to make a difference? Or do we confine them with processes, KPIs, and machine-like automation and efficiency? Neither is good in extreme, but both have something crucial to offer when you’re seeking customer satisfaction.

Discussions With a Difference (Service Portfolio)

DwD means break-out groups with a facilitator helping to open up a discussion on a given topic. Each session is different, and I’m sure that everyone takes away their own unique version of what happened.

My take on this was that no-one really knows what a Service Portfolio should look like. Several people referred to ITIL’s “Service Catalog plus future and retired services”, whilst others had some kind of high-level summary of the IT department’s output.

What did seem to be common is that this is probably not near the top of anyone’s to-do list.

Business Showcase (FrontRange)

I can’t really comment here as I was on stage for this one. I briefly outlined the challenge that Oxford’s IT Services department faced around consolidation of our IT support functions, and how we came to select FrontRange HEAT SaaS as the toolset to underpin our new operations. Steve Gardner (FrontRange UK & Ireland Sales Director) then presented the story from where FrontRange began working with us – how the relationship has developed and how the toolset has been implemented at Oxford.

Big Ideas: Innovation at University of Surrey (Gareth Edwards)

If the presenter’s name is familiar then you might remember that Gareth Edwards worked in Oxford (Local) IT before moving to Surrey.

His talk provided a brief insight into how his team set up to stimulate and collect ideas for change – innovation, engagement, ideas, and invention. At the heart of this was a system that allows people to post up their ideas – however crazy – and a periodic vote/poll to indicate interest. Top ideas were then taken forwards in some way or another. This operated across IT Services (at Surrey) and elicited some 65 ideas, of which 8 have now been completed, and a further 9 are in the pipeline.

Some of the key devices to make this work were:

  1. Recognise that failure is an option – this is innovation and invention so the risks are high, but we’re guaranteed not to win if we don’t try
  2. Awards (see later talk on gamification) helped stimulate ideas and encourage engagement
  3. Tactics – voting became tactical (one idea receive huge numbers of votes from one part of the organisation and none from elsewhere), and awards ended up being used tactically to bring out quiet areas or recognise input even when ideas weren’t taken forwards immediately

Pecha Kucha (Various)

Pecha Kucha, that fast-paced helter-skelter presentation style that has become popular in IT circles, made the last formal session for the day. Jim Higham (Kent) reported on their approach to Change Management; Martin Putwain (MMU) gave us an insight into their approach to supplier engagement when buying service management software; Paul Mazumdar (Cambridge) talked eloquently about the challenges of staff development in federated organisations (he talked about Camrbidge but described the situation at Oxford equally well); John Ireland (yep, me again) looked at recent thoughts around incident management in the distributed IT environment at Oxford; Tony Brett (more Oxford!) managed to fit a 40-minute talk into 6m40s on the subject of good communication and assertiveness – and won an award for his PK; and Chris Sexton (Sheffield – but also on Oxford IT Committee) subtly broke all the rules of the PK session and inspired us to love cows! (You had to be there).

Day 2 (3rd July)

Continuous Service Improvement (Lorraine Brown, St Andrews)

This is an IT Services team that put in and won SDI 1-star certification, went right back and up’d their targets to get 2-star certification, and then went round the circuit again and got 3-star certification! Of course, their sights are now set on 4-star certification.

Whilst certification might not be the end goal, it was clear that this has driven fundamental and highly visible improvements for customers and, increasingly, for the business.

A very simple mechanism that proved highly successful was an “improvements register” – a simple Excel spreadsheet of improvements that were needed to attain the next target level. Their use of incentives to get user feedback, and an eye catching web site that focussed on user services from the very front page showed a clear commitment to customer experience. Lessons to be learned here for the rest of us!

Business Relationship Management (Dean Phillips, Aberdeen)

Aberdeen’s IT organisational structure has a Director in charge of four main divisions: Application Management, Service Management, Infrastructure Management, and Business Relationship Management. Thus is shown the importance of BRM.

If we were taking on BRM then Dean would suggest: Relationship Managers need to be senior posts – reporting to the Director (cf. senior lecturer level) and full-time; Make sure the role is clear so it doesn’t become a catch-all for stuff that the Service Desk doesn’t deal with; Have a strategy.

(Dean also showed us an impressively simply 1-side-of-A4 strategy – something for us to aspire to prehaps?)

I met up with Dean later on in the day and discussed asked how the BRMs actually worked in practice. At Aberdeen there is one for each of their 6 main colleges, and each works 4 days a week in the college, attending committees and meetings, and one day a week back in IT to round up with their counterparts from other colleges and feed into IT management.

Panel Session: What Does a Successful Relationship Look Like?

Time flew by on this, indicating that a very useful time was had. Rhys Davies (Leeds) tackled the question head-on, offering that a successful relationship is “one that you wish to continue through choice”.

An interesting part of this discussion was around partnership rather than customer/supplier models, and equality in the relationship. The discussion here led me on a train of thought that started with an IT user who has no real choice or alternatives about which IT supplier they use and the IT supplier is excited about IT but disengaged from the users’ raison d’etre; Now contrast that with a supplier who, still being the only supplier, finds out about and takes a genuine interest in the user’s goals; Now imagine a situation where we – in-house IT – share our customer/users’ (research & education) goals – that could be an exciting world where the value of IT increases dramatically through synergy and understanding of the real business of the University.

Discussions With a Difference (Managing Customer Expectations)

The second DwD session, and a new topic for me. Three clear messages for me:

  1. We can get more value out of our IT departmental rep relationships if we all come together and report back on user expectations & needs. A quick poll can indicate which needs are widespread and which are local. Food is a good incentive for getting reps together!
  2. Providing Customer Services training for staff outside of the service desk. “We are all in Customer Services now!” (did you read the first session on day 1?)
  3. Digital natives love self-help. Video guides and PDF instructions for things like diagnosing and fixing VPN issues go down really well and reduce calls to the service desk.

One IT: Integrated Approach to Service Delivery (Rhys Davies, Leeds)

What might we recognise from Rhys’ introduction as issues for Oxford:

  • SMT concerned about high levels of investment in IT but feeling of not getting much return;
  • “Academic Freedom” cited as an excuse for user to do whatever they want, regardless of supportability, efficiency, and effectiveness;
  • Change fatigue after 10+ years without real fruition;
  • No-one could state what “Good IT” would look like;
  • Lots of capital money around, but small operational budgets – created unsupportable ivory towers of IT project output.

The solution? Look at IT in the round, as a whole, instead of picking off fragments here and there.

Rhys had a great slide with a Ronseal tin of “One IT Service” in the middle. Their governance then focussed on two strands: Service Delivery and Change Delivery (aka projects) – moving away from a strand per service line.

Rhys also mentioned UniVault. All I’ll say here is that we should look at it.

Gamification (Brian Smith, Edge Hill)

An inspiring and highly amusing look at the use of gamification (rather than games, per se) in academic and service delivery contexts.

Two take-aways for me here.

The first was Dan Pink’s motivational theory. I’ve always struggled to accept that Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs was a comprehensive explanation of what makes some people “driven” and others “parked”. Looking at this from the three angles of “sense of purpose”, “autonomy”, and “mastery” seems to fit our industry far better and explains why some people will work late into the evenings on an interesting challenge, whilst others will drift around not quite dealing with the issue in front of them.

The second was the behavioural matrix:

Behavioural flow
This explains how people whose skills are increasing will need a greater challenge to avoid boredom, whilst those who are given ever harder challenges without the opportunity to increase their skills to match will hit anxiety. The “flow” in the centre channel is an area where skill level and challenge intensity increase in tandem – something that game designers are seriously good at in order to keep us engaged and wanting more!

Business Showcase (Bomgar)

Doug Sharples (Bomgar) and Ben Faire and Lindsay Roberts (Cardiff) talked through their recent implementation of Live Chat and Remote Support for their combined Libraries and IT Service Desk. It sounded great and is something we’re looking at, but the quote of the day come up in the middle of their session, in reference to service desk analysts not being put on phones and live chat at the same time:

It’s not fair to split their brains like that!

Establishing Utility and Warranty for Service Collaboration (Sandra Whittleston, Lecturer in ITSM, Northampton)

Did you know that ITILv3 Service Strategy was rushed and hasn’t been well received by industry to this day? Apparently so.

People were getting tired by this point and the session struggled to find a rhythm, however there was a gem in there. Noting ITIL’s favourite maxim that “utiltiy x warranty = value”, a magic quadrant of utility vs warranty can be used to prioritise various IT service changes according to their potential value to the business. The table towards the end of Page 2 of Sandra’s handout provides a graphical representation that could come in handy.

Day 3 (4th July)

Report on the UK HE Service Desk Benchmark (Sally Bogg, Leeds)

Did you know that 35% of UK HE IT Service Desks offer 8am-8pm opening, and 19% provide a 24/7 service?

Or that on average we spent 30% of our time firefighting, 25% of our time implementing ITIL, and 13% of our time justifying our existence. This only left 20% of our time to speak with customers and build relationships!

70% of UK HE Service Desks are adopting/have adopted ITIL compared with 62% across IT as an (horizontal) industry sector.

Only 38% of us have written SLAs (mind you, other talks noted that customer satisfaction is taking over from SLA performance as a measure of success).

This was the first year that a UK Higher Education benchmark had been carried out, and provides a handy comparator for us to see how we’re doing against our peers and against IT as an industry sector. Many thanks to UCISA, Cherwell, and the SDI for this.

Partnership Working & Supporting Students (Neill Clark, Glasgow Caledonian Students Association)

This talk provided some ideas about how “the student voice” can be given a place in University decision making. The case in point was design and construction of a new building, where inclusion of the student perspective enabled the design to be adapted to meet unanticipated but forwarding-looking changes in what students want for study, domestic, and social space.

If there was a clear take away from this talk for me it was not to second-guess what students want.

How to be Radical – Living with 100 Things (Jonathan Munn)

In summary, this chap broke up with his girlfriend, decided to sell ALL his stuff, and held onto just 73 things. About 65 of those things are what you need to remain decent in public – i.e. clothes. 2 more were the bags that he carries it all round in, nomadic style.

What he found was an amazing freedom and ability to focus on what is really important in his life. It was empowering or inspirational, maybe both. What should we learn (not to split up with our partner if we like all the stuff we’ve built up together?):

  1. Your amygdala (Lizard brain) makes you want to eat, sleep, stay alive, and reproduce. It is the bit of your brain that makes you want to stay in bed in the morning. “Beat the Lizard” and get out of bed – you’ll do twice as much if you start now!
  2. Stop talking. Make the decision. Make everyone drink a pint of water and stand up in meetings so they don’t drift off into pointless waffle.
  3. Simplify everything and eliminate distractions; Focus on what really matters.
  4. Failure is an option. Better to fail now that in six years when the stakes are much higher.
  5. For each day, write down 3 things you’re grateful for, and 3 things you’re going to acheive that day.

We finished by making a commitment to acheive in the next 3 months something that we’ve been delaying. We shared our commitments with another delegate, who will be in touch to make sure we deliver…!

Conference Close

All good things must come to an end, in this case with awards and lunch. Lots to digest on the way back though, and I don’t mean the salmon pate (!)


2 thoughts on “UCISA Support Services Conference 2014

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