IS Survival Guide

SAN MATEO (05/23/2000) - MANAGEMENT SPEAK: Opportunity for improvement.

TRANSLATION: Performance problems, verging on major downtime and possible de-jobbing.

-- IS Survivalist Brian Redine interprets an important source of opportunity.

How did benchmarking and best practices ever get lumped together? They're entirely different subjects, linked only by their common use of outside information.

Regular readers know that I'm no fan of benchmarking. Think of benchmarks as Barbie, and the typical corporate response as the equivalents of implants, liposuction, and anorexia. Benchmarks can drive organizations into obsessive monitoring of measures irrelevant to their situations, and mindless pursuit of results developed for someone else.

Benchmarks are, for the most part, a waste of time. Baselines are an entirely different story. If you've chosen the right measures, baselines are unfailingly useful. Baselines tell you if you're improving, and by how much. Without baselines, you're just guessing.

Baselines and best practices go together like green eggs and ham. You may not like green eggs and ham (you may not like them, Sam-I-am), but once you try them you will find/they'll help you in your daily grind. Best practices are what you use to improve upon your baseline measures.

I don't get many questions about developing appropriate PC support measures, or for PC support best practices. I'm asked most often about the right ratio of PC support staff to end-users.

This is a benchmarking question. The answer is similar to Abe Lincoln's response to the boy who asked how long his legs should be ("Long enough to reach the ground"). Don't even ask, because some other company's answer -- or even worse, the average of hundreds of other companies' answers -- is meaningless for you.

Too many variables affect the answer: Travelers' laptops are harder to support than home office desktops. Engineers need a wider range of software than financial analysts (and their problems are generally harder to understand, too). A network of small sales offices poses support challenges not found in a centralized facility. And you may need to provide different service levels than "the average" company does.

Here's a good way to set your company's support ratio: Use current service levels and staffing as a baseline. Set a goal of improving your service goals by 10 percent a year without changing your ratio of analysts to end-users. Then stop worrying about whether you have "the right" ratio. There isn't one.

If that isn't good enough, visit your call-center manager and ask for help.

Call centers have the same problem you do, only they've solved it. The solution isn't just for the help desk, which is, of course, a call center.

A call center calculates its optimal workforce by modeling a queue. Callers enter the queue at a predictable rate, and agents remove callers from the queue at intervals determined by the number of agents and the average time each agent spends on a call. All these quantities are subject to statistical variation, of course, and calls can move from one queue to another.

It sounds like your PC support function, doesn't it?

The call-center manager almost certainly has call-center workforce planning software you can use. Plug in your data -- number of requests for assistance, average time needed to service different types of requests, and the number of analysts available to handle requests -- and read out the answer.

You do have the data, don't you?

Worry about staffing levels? Send Bob an e-mail at

Bob Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant with Perot Systems Corp.

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