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Making the IT Service Desk a More Social Place

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Posted June 1, 2012 By Ann All     Feedback

Established IT service management (ITSM) vendors like ServiceNow and startups like IT SmartDesk are adding social features like chat and activity streams to their software. Experts say such tools can improve the image of IT organizations by making them more responsive to user needs.

Though chat, activity streams and user profiles are still most commonly found on popular consumer services like Facebook and Twitter, they are steadily advancing into the enterprise.

Thanks to the efforts of vendors like Oracle, which last week announced its plan to buy social marketing specialist Vitrue, and, which continues to build on the collaborative capabilities of its Chatter platform, such social tools are gaining popularity with sales and marketing functions, where they are employed to provide greater visibility into sales pipelines and to share intelligence about customers and prospects.

A More Social ITSM

But sales and marketing aren’t the only areas that can benefit from a more social style of communication. According to some experts, social tools could help transform IT service management (ITSM), making IT support a more intuitive and satisfying experience for both IT organizations and the business users they serve.

ITSM has long been accused of lacking a customer-centric focus, pointed out Chris Dancy, product marketing manager at ServiceNow, a provider of ITSM software.  While both the COBIT and ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) service frameworks were revised to place more of an emphasis on services and business value, most tools still do not offer mechanisms to capture feedback and create engagement, Dancy said.  But that could change with products like ServiceNow Chat, which allows users to open chats with the service desk to ask questions and support agents to generate incidents from existing chat records, and ServiceNow Live Feed, which employs a “wall” similar to the ones on Facebook to encourage users to provide peer-to-peer support.

“With social tools, skills and metrics the door has been opened to create an environment of continual service improvement by including social elements at the service design level,” Dancy said.

Forrester Research analyst Stephen Mann said tools like ServiceNow’s Live Feed offer a way to let users help themselves, something the Internet has taught all of us to do, with its emphasis on using search engines and FAQ sections on websites to find needed information. Mann called social IT support “inevitable,” saying “People will expect to be able to communicate with their service desk -- and other corporate support functions -- via social channels.”

In addition to chat and Facebook-like walls, Mann said ITSM vendors are incorporating collaborative features like wikis, self-service communities and Twitter-like microblogging tools for sending messages such as service alerts. Some of these features integrate with popular social channels such as Twitter. For instance, Mann said Zendesk offers a tool that allows service representatives to pull a tweet into the Zendesk system and create a “twicket.”

Dancy mentioned social profiles, activity streams, open feedback systems, commenting systems, gamification and mobility and location-based services as desirable elements for social ITSM tools. ServiceNow Live Feed, which has been available for about two years, is used for social profiles, IT gamification, knowledge management and open feedback and commenting. ServiceNow is also “actively moving forward” with enhanced location and mobility features, Dancy said.

Team Social

ManageEngine, a division of Zoho Corp., hopes to capitalize on the growing interest in social support with ITPulse, a recently launched and still-in-beta service it bills as “a private social network exclusively for IT teams.” Unlike some of the other social support tools, ITPulse is not meant for end users – at least not yet, said Dev Anand, ITPulse product manager. “In our first incarnation, we are targeting IT internal communications and events, but clearly we see users of IT may also be in a private social network.”

ITPulse provides a multi-threaded, cascading wall for real-time display of IT infrastructure health and collaboration, explains Anand. It is integrated out-of-the-box with the company’s OpManager and ServiceDesk Plus tools, so IT personnel can a receive notifications and alerts from monitoring solutions and also initiate incidents from within ITPulse. An API also allows it to be integrated with third-party ITSM tools from companies such as BMC, CA, HP and IBM.

The integrations streamline IT collaboration and lead to faster resolution of issues. For example, Anand said, if a network admin makes a change to a router configuration file which is picked up by change management software and reported as an alarm, that information is posted on the ITPulse wall. If someone acknowledges the alarm or adds notes to it, the data all appears on the wall, which provides a quicker and more effective means of collaboration than communicating via email or the telephone.

ITPulse also supports group-in-group communications, which lets sub-teams within an IT team privately chat among themselves, posting only key findings to the entire team.

Many IT organizations use social ITSM tools among themselves before extending their use to customers, said Mann. So it’s not uncommon for social tools to offer outlets meant exclusively for IT.

He mentioned SysAid  as a company that offers “a joined-up approach to social and community.” To facilitate remote incident resolution, its support tool provides instant messaging, chat queues, archiving of chat transcripts, and the ability to access service requests, create service requests and remotely control PCs from within the chat interface. In addition to the tool, SysAid also provides a community where systems administrators and other IT professionals can swap tips, troubleshoot issues and answer survey questions.

At Loyola Marymount University, the 70-person IT team has been using ServiceNow’s social tools for about a year. Adam Mason, the school’s head of Client Services, said the tools have increased efficiency by reducing the volume of email and proactively making staffers aware of potential problems. For instance, a group of staffers began comparing notes about a wireless connectivity issue on Macs running the OS X Lion operating system and quickly issued a problem ticket. Without the transparency afforded by the tools, Mason said it would have taken much longer for the problem to be noticed. The tools also facilitate creating a strong knowledge base, resulting in higher adoption of self-service support.

Mason said he expects to increase the use of social chat and alerting as Loyola Marymount embarks on two major projects: the launch of a full service catalog and the rebranding and relaunch of an under-utilized intranet. He plans to use the social tools on the intranet in an effort to make it more engaging for users.

Social ITSM Challenges

Of course, there are challenges associated with social ITSM. One hurdle, said Dancy, is a stigma that social is just a short-lived trend rather than a practice that adds business value. “There is also the fear of allowing customers and employees the freedom to associate without assigning traditional metrics to the interaction,” he said.

Social ITSM also necessitates big changes for some IT organizations. “The radical shift from push to pull-based support creates challenges in support organizations that have a traditional knowledge-centric, hub-and-spoke environment,” Dancy said.

Echoing Dancy, Mann said the tool-oriented approach of some IT teams is a problem as social ITSM also requires people and process change. “Social, like knowledge management or continual service improvement, needs to be part of the way of working not an add-on,” he said. “In fact, if you know you are doing social you are probably not doing it well. If IT is just buying social technology, then it is a train wreck waiting to happen.”

Still, Mann expects social tools to ultimately become a key element of ITSM strategies. In addition to established vendors like ServiceNow and ManageEngine adding social features to their existing products, Mann said startups like IT SmartDesk, ITinvolve and InvGate are introducing offerings that "make a big play on social capabilities."

Ann All is the editor of Enterprise Apps Today. Follow Enterprise Apps Today on Twitter @EntApps2Day.

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