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Standards Accelerate Customer Service

November 2005
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

 

Members of the U.S. Pacific Air Force (PACAF) Network Operations and Security Center (NOSC) provide operational availability, enterprise management and information assurance to bases across the Asia-Pacific region. Recent work with Dell Incorporated improved help desk processes so that data about problems could be analyzed faster and serious network issues could be identified.

Photography by Capt. Aaron Wiley, USAF

U.S. Pacific Air Force adopts industry best practices and improves user support.

Calling a help desk when the computer refuses to boot up or when e-mail is blocked can be a frustrating experience. But with the help of industry, U.S. Air Force communications personnel in the Asia-Pacific region have taken steps to alleviate some of the aggravation. By employing commercial best practices and standardizing processes, the directorate in charge of ensuring that warfighters can connect is now more efficiently and effectively employing its resources. As a result, it expects to reduce the time needed to resolve technical issues by 20 percent.

The work was a true collaboration between the U.S. Pacific Air Force (PACAF) Directorate of Communications and Information, Hickam Air Force Base, Honolulu, and Dell Incorporated, Round Rock, Texas. Together, these organizations evaluated the status of help desk service and determined the best ways to both improve support and assess progress.

PACAF’s Network Operations and Security Center (NOSC) supports NetworkControlCenter personnel and operations at 10 sites throughout the Pacific Rim. When Col. Gregory L. Brundidge, USAF, took over as director of communications and information at PACAF in May 2003, improving computer-user assistance was one of his top priorities. “We asked the question, ‘What can we learn from industry to improve the quality of service and level of support we provide to the people who use the network?’ For me, that was the overarching question because we had to get better at it,” he explains.

Col. Brundidge, who in June became the chief of the capital planning and resources division, Policy, Strategy and Resources Directorate, Secretary of the Air Force Office of Warfighting Integration and Chief Information Officer, Washington, D.C., explains that the first step was to examine the regulations that govern help desk processes. With an eye on improving service, Dell personnel helped integrate industry standards with Air Force guidance.

According to Rick Hogan, services account executive, Dell Federal Services, the company’s transformation methodology focuses on best practices involving people, processes, tools and technologies. It also employs the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) of best practices developed by the United Kingdom Office of Governance Commerce. The ITIL framework integrates management processes across an organization’s enterprise service areas. Together, these components drive common and repeatable operational efficiencies, Hogan says.

Col. Brundidge notes that the first change PACAF made involved help desk personnel. He had observed that the tendency throughout the Air Force was to staff the service desk with trainees so they could learn about the types of computer problems users typically experience. Although this approach may help young airmen understand technical issues, it is not an efficient or effective way to help the users, the colonel says. So, PACAF moved experienced technicians skilled at trouble shooting to the help desk.

Hogan explains that after assessing personnel skill levels, the company recommended new job descriptions. In addition, Dell provided training based on the technical expertise the support team needed and instruction on the new processes and procedures being adopted.

The colonel agrees with Dell’s emphasis on training. “We’re in a race to put in the new technology, but we don’t necessarily grow technicians’ proficiency the way we should so it matches,” he says.

Training goes beyond the ability to solve users’ computer problems, the colonel adds. It also includes the guidance that technicians are given about what data to collect. “We have a lot of great capability out there, but when it came time to assess help desk service, very little of that was going on in any kind of systematic fashion. Each base was at a different level. Some were doing it fairly well; others were doing none at all. Some had good recordkeeping—you could go back over a period of months, maybe even a year; others had zero,” he says.

To address this issue, PACAF standardized how it collected trouble tickets, data about problems and information about service calls. It then built a database so information could be correlated across the command. One goal of the project was to improve trend analysis so the command could anticipate some of the problems, Col. Brundidge relates.

Working with Dell, PACAF incorporated industry standards to determine, for example, the best way to process trouble tickets so the right kind of information could be collected. The company mapped out the process, and PACAF took the schema to each of the nine bases it services and taught the technicians how to categorize trouble tickets. “Those kinds of metrics were not there before,” the colonel allows.

Data was collected about a variety of issues, from the types of problems users were encountering to when the problems occurred to how long it took help desk personnel to resolve them. The severity of problems also varied widely. Some could be worked out over the telephone; others required a team of technicians to fix. “In my weekly standup with my PACAF NOSC, we would look at that data, and we were able to assess how effective we were being in responding to the different kinds of problems,” Col. Brundidge states.

Determining what information to collect was part of the challenge. Because massive amounts of data can be collected, the colonel says the PACAF-Dell team had to continually scale the scope of the effort. However, as the colonel toured the bases after establishing the initial evaluation structure and guidance, he witnessed firsthand the progress in implementation at several bases and the solid data they were gleaning about the effectiveness and efficiency of their help desks, he says.

Although the primary purpose of PACAF’s project was to improve help desk service to users, the collected information yields insights that reach beyond reducing response time, the colonel notes. For instance, data gathered during the initial implementation of the new processes revealed that in some cases the problems users were encountering were the result of a lack of training about software or equipment. Col. Brundidge admits that the narrow scope of PACAF’s effort produced limited results; however, enough information was accumulated to show the difference between the need for additional training and a more far-reaching glitch in the implementation of user policies. “One of the benefits was the ability to apply solutions that weren’t just spot fixes but to identify work that needed to be done across the PACAF enterprise,” the colonel says.

Historical data also helps PACAF service desk personnel respond to individual problems. Rather than solving a problem in a vacuum, the technicians can reference how issues were resolved in the past. “But I told our folks that, because of the limited scope of our work, we were only scratching the surface. If we were going to do it right, we would have to continue over a period of four or five years,” Col. Brundidge says. The PACAF project was limited by funding constraints to a period of two years.

Several challenges arose during the implementation of help desk improvements, Col. Brundidge admits. As in many projects that involve revamping procedures, personnel had to adjust to new processes. For example, working on the help desk was no longer a job for trainees only, so experienced technicians had to get used to working swing and night shifts, the colonel relates.

Some challenges were more technical in nature. Although the Air Force in general uses the same equipment suites and tools, items such as routers, switches and management tools still vary at times. PACAF had to ensure that standardized procedures remained flexible enough so technicians could achieve the same results on diverse equipment, Col. Brundidge notes.

The colonel emphasizes that the PACAF-Dell project primarily focused on help desk processes and procedures, not technology; however, the effort revealed two technical issues that require attention. First, although the Air Force provides technicians with the tools they need to perform their jobs, improvement is still needed in training them how to take advantage of these tools’ numerous features. This is a phenomenon that the colonel believes is true for most computer users. “I tell people that even in Microsoft Office software, for example, we’ve got a 10-mile deep capability and we’re habitually using about 2 inches of it because that’s what we’ve done all the time. We aren’t actually leveraging what we have,” he says.

Hogan agrees that from a technology standpoint Air Force personnel do not necessarily need additional solutions. “In a lot of cases, our customers have purchased the right tools and technology; however, they either don’t have the right skill sets to implement and manage it or it isn’t managed at all. In PACAF’s case, we just helped them capitalize on their investments and improve their skill sets,” he says.

The second lesson learned in the area of technology involves Remedy software, which PACAF uses to deliver customer service. Col. Brundidge says PACAF determined that the Air Force had not purchased several features of the software that would be useful. To correct this situation, PACAF forwarded their comments about desired features to the Air Force program office so upgrades could be considered in future purchases. The colonel points out that this type of feedback ensures that users are driving the technology, not allowing the technology to drive them.

Now that processes and procedures have been standardized throughout PACAF, the next step is to examine whether numerous help desks are still needed. As Col. Brundidge was preparing for his position at the Pentagon, discussions were on the table about centralizing customer service. This move would further reduce the amount of variance in the support users receive, he says. “But we had to standardize to even start that discussion. The work we accomplished was critical to set the stage for some of the next layers,” he states.

 

Web Resources
U.S. Pacific Air Force: www2.hickam.af.mil/pacaf
Dell Federal: www1.us.dell.com/content/segmenter.aspx/fed?c=us&cs=_16&l=en&s=fed
Information Technology Infrastructure Library: www.ogc.gov.uk/index.asp?id=2261