Back in the early nineties, we had an amazing decision support capability as part of our helpdesk infrastructure: his name was Mark. Mark had been around forever. He knew how everything worked. He also knew everybody and had an uncanny knack of reading and decoding complex error logs better than many of our third-line experts.
Nobody could get a service back up and running faster than Mark, so we relied on him. A lot. When our service management organization expanded beyond a handful of staff, and the volume of tickets started to ramp, having this depth of expertise concentrated in one spot became deeply problematic.
Over time, we started to deliver a highly inconsistent service. If you, as an end user with a problem, were lucky enough to get through to Mark—fantastic! You’d be happy and productive again within minutes. If you got through to someone within a few feet of Mark, great! He’d be providing real-time decision support to your agent as well as dealing with his own call.
For the other 80 percent of incidents we were handling, our performance was patchy at best…
Adventures in Decision Support
Yes, we had a knowledge management repository, but it was complex, fiddly and took someone like Mark out of commission on a full-time basis to populate and maintain it. We also had integration to systems monitoring data, but only Mark understood what it said.
Twenty years on and the technology to help agents make better decisions has advanced beyond recognition. You really can significantly improve the consistency and performance of your ITIL® incident management process by providing easy access to the right information.
I routinely encounter service desks that still rely on the hero-centric model. Often it’s because of ‘cultural inertia’, i.e. things have always been done a certain way. Sometimes there’s a failed attempt at implementing a decision support technology, way back in the team’s history—once bitten, forever shy. Usually, though, people just don’t know what’s possible or how to make it work.
So before we explore the art of the possible in 2015, let’s take a few minutes to remind ourselves of the criteria any decision support needs to fulfill in order to be a help, not a hindrance.
Decision Support that Works
Here’s a handy checklist to help you think critically about the usefulness and scope of decision support:
- Is the information we’re planning to provide to the agent actually relevant to the task at hand and their role more generally? Does it simplify getting an incident to the next step in the resolution process? Or complicate and slow everything down through distraction?
- Assuming the information is relevant, are we going to present it in a way that is appropriate for the level of skill of the agent? Is the way we’re showing the data visually stunning, but devoid of actionable information—i.e. Is the right balance being struck?
- Are we providing the right information at the right time in the process? And if so, is the information sufficiently up to date to actually be of use? How can we be efficient in the collection, validation and presentation of the information?
5 Examples of Decision Support for ITIL Incident Management
There are lots of things you can do to enhance and augment the decision-making capabilities of your agents. Done right, these additions can have a huge impact on the working experience of your teams and help to drive staff retention and productivity.
1. End-User Context
You can use the sophistication of modern client devices to capture all kinds of information about the individual raising the incident, their location, and the technology they use. This context can be incredibly helpful to your agents, who so often spend the first few minutes researching and filling in the blanks and basics!
2. Knowledge Management
The key to consistency in incident management is making sure that all agents have access to knowledge about how to handle a good percentage of the issues that arise. This also helps greatly in accelerating the ramp-up time of new employees and gives you some protection when your key players inevitably depart.
Knowledge management is an area that has really come of age. It’s smarter, proactive, and easier than ever to populate and maintain. If you haven’t looked at this area for a while, you need to see where the state-of-the-art has reached.
3. Configuration Management Data
Way back in the mists of time when I was an agent, if you’d promised me an interactive, visual representation of the technology we were supporting, what it did and how it was configured—I’d have taken your arm off.
These days you can provide your agents with a simple, graphical view of your services, key configurations items, relationships, and dependencies. They can choose how deep they go into the information and will find huge benefits in diagnosing current issues and anticipating the true impact of a failure.
4. Performance and Availability Data
Remember those early helpdesk integrations into systems monitoring solutions? If you do, the chances are you remember switching it off shortly after you turned it on. It was overwhelming, both in terms of volume and mystifying complexity.
The intention was great: in theory, you could see exactly what had failed, or was about to fail, you’d be able to get way ahead of the game and either fix the problem before it had any real effect. Or, at the very least, proactively communicate to the business that there was trouble coming! In most cases though, the ambition far exceeded the technology.
But check this out. We now live at a time where you can bring the full power of sophisticated performance analytics to the service desk, but present it in a way that’s highly relevant and easy to consume. Given the explosion in scale and complexity of modern infrastructures, it’s hard to imagine delivering an effective incident management service without this kind of diagnostic support.
5. Collaboration Technology
In a busy, noisy, large, or distributed service desk environment it can be very difficult to collaborate with your peers. Someone on the other side of the room might know exactly what’s going on with a specific problem, or be trying to coordinate a resolution that would be helpful to you – but you remain blissfully unaware.
But you can build an environment where collaboration and information sharing becomes a standard part of working practice, no matter where your agents are located. The benefits extend beyond the obvious operational improvements too, collaboration fosters cohesion and team spirit—perhaps the real secrets behind effective incident management.