Why You Should Champion Your Service Desk

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UCISA, in association with Cherwell Software and the Service Desk Institute, surveyed U.K. higher education IT service desks to better understand their issues and challenges and showcase their evolution and development to meet growing demands and new challenges. The need to take an all-round view of service desk maturity helps place the service desk at the heart of the IT operation and identify it as a key component in the overall student experience.

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Peter Tinson is executive director, UCISA.

The higher education sector in the United Kingdom has seen significant change in the past three years. Undergraduate student fees have trebled, and this has, not unreasonably, resulted in an increased expectation from the student population of the services at their institutions. The government has sought to introduce greater competition within the sector, and a number of metrics assist applicants in making their choice. One of the principle measures quoted and used by applicants is the National Student Survey. The survey takes the views of completing students on their institution and many aspects of their course, and as a consequence is used as a key performance indicator by most institutions in the United Kingdom.

The IT service desk is a major point of interaction between students and their institution, but is its role in supporting the student (and hence its contribution to both the overall student experience and satisfaction) understood by senior management? UCISA, in association with Cherwell Software and the Service Desk Institute, carried out a survey of U.K. higher education IT service desks to secure a deeper understanding of the issues and challenges particular to them and showcase how service desks are successfully evolving and developing in the sector to meet growing demands and new challenges.

Links to the full survey report and an infographic highlighting some of the key findings are available on the UCISA website.


Moves over the past 15 years to professionalize IT services within U.K. universities and colleges have had a number of drivers. Fees for home students (United Kingdom and European Union) were introduced in 1998 and subsequently increased in 2004 and 2012 — the concept of the student as a customer was born. As fees have increased to near real costs, student views have had a significant influence on decision making and development of services. The proliferation of IT systems underpinning all aspects of an institution's business has resulted in auditors taking greater interest in the risk to the institution of system and process failures. Consequently we have seen an increased emphasis on conforming to information security standards and, following a number of high-profile failures of governmental projects, adoption of formal project management methodologies. Change management processes, spawned from efforts to control project scope, began to infiltrate mainstream service operation. The increased use of IT and subsequent heightened demand on the IT department was not matched by an increase in resources; in many instances funding was cut, driving a need to become more efficient. The adoption of standards offers a route to both more efficient operation and continual improvement.

The survey demonstrated that the introduction of standards has had a particular impact on IT service desks, with nearly 80 percent of institutions having adopted best-practice frameworks for their service desk operation. ITIL processes are deployed by 70 percent of institutions, reflecting the relatively high level of maturity of ITIL adoption in the United Kingdom in contrast with the United States, where in the 2013 EDUCAUSE CDS [Core Data Service] Executive Summary Report author Leah Lang noted that "40% of institutions have at least one ITIL process partially or fully deployed."

Institutions in the United Kingdom have followed different paths in their implementation of ITIL. Some concentrated on change management initially, whereas others focused on incident and problem management, the root of service desk operation. This piecemeal approach is perhaps reflected in the absence of some documents that underpin ITIL principles: over half of the institutions that took part in the survey do not have a service catalogue, and nearly two thirds do not have formal service level agreements (SLAs) with their customers. The emphasis in the United Kingdom has been on the processes first, with the supporting documentation to follow. Despite the lower level of ITIL adoption in the United States, the CDS Executive Summary notes a comparatively high use of service catalogues (average 40 percent, but considerably higher in complex institutions). This might indicate different drivers. The need to effectively communicate the services delivered to a wide audience is paramount in demonstrating value for money and making the case for ongoing funding. Having defined the services delivered, an institution can then take steps to improve the processes underpinning them and so deliver a more efficient service. Although budget cuts have also hit the United Kingdom, CIOs can operate with relative autonomy and invest in improving the services they deliver — hence the greater emphasis on getting the processes right ahead of a more formal service definition.

Ongoing staff development backs up the investment in formal standards: in the coming year more than 80 percent of respondents to the survey will have enhanced their careers by completing a formal qualification. These include the various levels of ITIL accreditation but also technical and other service desk–focused qualifications. Continual staff development builds on strong foundations: most institutions build an extensive induction program for new staff, including customer service skills in addition to service desk procedures and operations.

Support of BYOD

The consumerization of technology has had a significant impact on the higher education sector. Students bring a plethora of devices with them to university: a recent survey noted that students bring an average number of three wireless devices onto campus, with some bringing as many as seven. Students expect to be able to connect all their devices as seamlessly as if they were at home. The trend toward using your own device is not restricted to students; staff now connect to university services through their smart phones, tablets, and laptops. Determining what to support is a major challenge for institutional service desks.

The EDUCAUSE CDS might reflect this problem: the number of U.S. institutions offering full support for personal devices varies and is, to a degree, device dependent. In the United Kingdom, nearly all institutions (90 percent) have committed to providing full support for all devices to connect to institutional systems, along with service for all devices. This reflects students' expectation of connecting their devices seamlessly and the recognition that connectivity is a key part of the student experience (and hence a driver for the key performance indicator related to the student satisfaction survey).

Lessening the Load

The ability to connect to institutional resources from personal devices contributes to a 24-hour demand for support; many universities and colleges also provide 24-hour IT facilities on campus. In addition, the expansion of teaching to include the provision of distance learning courses results in a support demand outside of "normal" operating hours. Several institutions have responded to this demand by outsourcing support to third-party organizations. However, such third parties often follow templates to resolve common issues and so are unlikely, by their very nature, to provide as complete a service as the local staffed service. Consequently, institutions need to provide additional self-help resources, both to supplement the service and to reduce the potential demand on the service desk.

The additional resources are many and varied. Task-based advice (for example, how to connect to the wireless network) is delivered through self-help pages in 61 percent of institutions in the United Kingdom. These typically take the user through processes step by step. Alternatively, such guidance may be provided through video snippets accessible though the learning management system or through dedicated YouTube channels. Two-thirds of institutions look to eliminate the most common queries by collecting solutions to the frequent problems in FAQ pages. Just under half have made these more interactive by building the questions and answers into a comprehensive knowledge base. These are, for the most part, developed and maintained by IT services staff in the United Kingdom. (Few U.K. institutions have taken advantage of the combined expertise of their staff and users the way Indiana University has, allowing questions and answers to be posted to a community-sourced knowledge base.) The use of video is not restricted to guidance through procedures; several institutions have used video for student orientation and public service–style informative films. The influx of new students at the start of the academic year provides a particular pinch point, and although many institutions use self-help pages, others have seen value in employing students as first points of contact to facilitate wireless connectivity and help orient new students.

Using All Available Channels

The ways students communicate with each other has changed and will continue to evolve. However, this evolution has not entirely changed the way that customers interact with the service desk; the phone remains the most common communications channel, with e-mail and walk-in contact also popular. These traditional methods of communication have been supplemented by a range of additional channels, of course. In common with U.S. colleagues, around three-quarters of institutions use web contact forms to let users submit queries and issues. The use of instant chat is not as well established in the United Kingdom, with only 14 percent using this medium compared with 37 percent in the United States. The reasons for this discrepancy aren't entirely clear, but possibly it indicates the number of calls made to U.K. service desks from outside the traditional IT labs. Away from the controlled environment of the lab, the individual student's chat tool of choice is unlikely to be the one adopted by the IT department, or access to the chat tool may not be readily available through mobile connections.

U.K. institutions do make significant use of social media, however. Over a third report that their users employ social media channels to contact the service desk, but there is far greater use by service desks to communicate outwards, with Twitter used by over half of institutions and Facebook by nearly a third. The growth in the use of social media reflects current trends, but it is seen as just another tool in the box — when service problems occur, it is important to use all available channels to communicate with the customer base to maximize the chances of the message getting to the customer. This is particularly important with declining student use of official institutional e-mail accounts. Although not IT related, the need to use as many channels as possible was particularly well demonstrated this past winter when a number of areas in the United Kingdom were hit by severe storms. In a number of instances institutional Facebook sites and Twitter feeds became the key sources of information for students.

Social media can also be a rich source of customer feedback, whether or not it is delivered directly to the service desk or the wider IT department. Nearly a third of institutions monitor social media to identify any problems with services and address them before they become major issues.

Measuring Improvement

One of the key tenets of ITIL is that adoption of the standard will assist in a process of continual improvement. Although 70 percent of U.K. higher education IT service desks deploy ITIL, there is a growing trend to use certification to measure the maturity of the service desk operation. The Service Desk Institute's certification program, adopted by nearly a fifth of institutions, considers not just service desk processes but also leadership, the staff, resources, customer satisfaction, and key performance indicators. The growing recognition in the United Kingdom of the need to take an all-round view when considering service desk maturity helps place the service desk at the heart of the IT operation and identify it as a key component in the overall student experience. However, the value of measuring service performance has yet to be recognized by some institutions — a third do not carry out any benchmarking.


Looking forward, the top priority for over three quarters of institutions is service improvement, with increasing the value to the institution also ranked highly. Against this, half of service desk managers identified managing customer expectations as a major challenge. The development of a service catalogue can help manage customer expectations, and 40 percent of U.K. institutions plan to develop their service catalogue over the next 12 months. The emphasis on service improvement and demonstrating value highlight an increased need to benchmark service desk performance as part of a continual improvement program and to ensure good customer feedback mechanisms.

For all the concern about demonstrating the service desk's value to the institution, it appears that U.K. higher education already recognizes the service desk as a key component in delivering the overall student experience. Institutions indicated that they intend to invest in developing both the staff and the processes that underpin service desk operation. The diversity of the higher education sector, in terms of the range of services offered, the spectrum of devices used, and the demographics of the university body, will continue to challenge service desks in U.K. institutions. The implementation of standards will go a considerable way to delivering an efficient and effective service desk that supports an increasing range of services.

Although most institutions have implemented ITIL or similar standards for their service desk operation, many still have some way to go to achieve maturity. It will be interesting to compare the developments in service desk maturity between the process-focused approach adopted in the United Kingdom with the contrasting approach to ITIL adoption in the United States. As the processes that underpin standards are implemented, IT services in both countries should attain results enabling them to highlight improvements and so demonstrate a strong return on the investment. Improvements presumably will be reflected in higher levels of student satisfaction and hence, in the United Kingdom, a potentially higher score in the National Student Survey. Since this is a key performance indicator for many institutions and a contributing factor to league table positions, senior university management should champion their IT service desks as a key point of contact with students. If they don't understand the service desk's impact, then the CIO needs to take the message to them.