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CIOs: Technical support teams woefully understaffed

A national poll of CIOs indicates that IT support teams are woefully understaffed, but some companies -- and those C-level execs -- are better off than others.

You're not the only one whose technical support staff is working on a wing and a prayer.

A survey from staffing firm Robert Half Technology in Menlo Park, Calif., finds that CIOs believe their technical support teams are 40% smaller, on average, than they should be.

The survey, of some 1,400 CIOs from a random sample of U.S. companies with 100 or more employees, found that the mean ratio of employees to technical support staff was 136-to-1 When the CIOs were asked to give the ideal ratio, however, the mean response was 82-to-1.

Size (sigh) matters. The survey also indicates that employees at big companies are getting better technical help than those at smaller companies. CIOs at companies with 1,000 employees or more were closest to their ideal level of technical support. They cited a real-world ratio of end users to IT staff of 118-to-1 and an ideal ratio of 82-to-1. CIOs at companies with between 250 and 499 employees must be pulling out their hair -- they pegged the mean ratio of end users to IT support staff at their companies at 131-to-1. In a perfect world that ratio would be half that, they said, or 64-to-1.

Robert Half CEO Katherine Spencer Lee observed that, predictably, understaffed technical support functions make for frustrated workforces. She noted that firms with "ongoing, proactive information technology recruiting strategies" are best-equipped to fill the technical support gap.

But the findings are more than a banner advertisement for recruiting firms.

"Support always suffers because it is deemed to be nonstrategic to the organization," said analyst David Coyle, who covers the IT service desk at consultancy Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

The dismal assessment by CIOs of their technical support levels, however, might also be a matter of perception, Coyle said. Many times IT executives are harder on themselves than their business users are.

"There is a feeling within IT that they have to provide great support," he said. "Being good corporate citizens and well-respected people in their fields, they want to field a stellar service and support organization. And, quite frankly, many times the business wants to afford much less than that."

An attitude like that is no doubt a blow to one's pride, but effective CIOs have long stopped taking the penny-pinching personally, Coyle said, and found ways to do more with less. Setting expectations is important. Many CIOs have essentially developed a catalog of services, Coyle said. "So, for this amount of money, you're going to get this level of service. If you cut funds, you'll get this. And if, God forbid, you give me more money, you'll get a better level."

Coyle recently talked with a large company that has developed a service catalog with bronze, silver and gold-level services, and price tags that rise accordingly. But the goal of most CIOs is to spell out how much time it will take. For example, how long will it take to restore a tape or fulfill a request, given the annual budget in hand?

"IT executives always struggle with this, because it is very difficult to set expectations with everyone in the business. Some people don't care about IT unless, of course, something is broken," Coyle said. CIOs who have credibility and respect within the business have a better chance of success than IT organizations that don't.

Squeeze play

Practicing preventive medicine -- getting to the root of the technical problem, rather than simply fixing it and moving on -- can ward off a "tremendous amount" of help desk calls, Coyle said. Frameworks such as the IT Infrastructure Library help IT support teams work more efficiently. CIOs are also looking to automation tools to free up people. New integration technology like configuration management database repositories and discovery tools give better insight into IT systems and will potentially allow the company's support teams to operate with fewer people.

I have heard stories of the IT guys having to go out to the yachts of these C-level guys and fix their computers at sea.

David Coyle, analyst, Gartner Inc.

And IT support teams will get smaller before they get larger, Coyle warned. His firm estimates that 85% to 90% of the cost to support technology is people. "So if you can reduce people, you can really reduce the cost of support," Coyle said. On the other hand, don't expect help desk requests to decline anytime soon. The average 1.4 calls per employee per month has held steady for a few years and is starting to inch up, according to Gartner data. That's because companies and IT are requiring more of employees when it comes to technology, Coyle said -- the BlackBerry to keep in constant touch, the new customer relationship management application for the guy who has used a little black book to keep track of customers.

There's another factor that keeps support team budgets down: At most companies, it's a given that C-level executives get special attention. "Typically, every organization of a certain size realizes they need to give better service to the C-level executives, a platinum level," Coyle said. For them, the help desk is always at the ready. "I have heard stories of the IT guys having to go out to the yachts of these C-level guys and fix their computers at sea."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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