Well-planned seat management sits well with users




Consider this: Once upon a time, turning off the computer was clearly a hardware
function. But with recent PCs and with Microsoft Windows 95 or Windows 98, it’s both
a software and hardware operation.


Or this: Many users are so accustomed to using network drives that it’s easy to
forget that these drives are on another computer, possibly in another building or another
state.


Or this: Especially in Internet-connected networks, the seemingly innocent act of
posting an automatic “I’m away and will get back to you when I return”
e-mail reply can cause an endless feedback loop that will crash your mail servers.


With an increasingly complex interplay of hardware, software and telecommunications,
it’s unreasonable for systems administrators to expect users to diagnose problems so
they can select the correct telephone number to call.


Often the diagnosis is the hard part. Once the problem is identified, the solution may
be quite straightforward.


And too few users understand the subtle differences among problems with different
system components.


Each of these technical disciplines requires specialized knowledge. It is rare to have
technical staff that is well-versed in hardware, software and telecom.


Specialized tasks lead to specialized organizations and the potential for finger
pointing among them.


Yet nothing is more frustrating for users than to hear, “Sorry. Your trouble is
the software. You’ll have to check with software support.”


The result is another telephone call, another diagnostic interrogation, another service
call scheduled and another anxious hour of questions and comments.


All this perhaps only to hear, “Sorry, your trouble is the network. You’ll
have to call Telecommunications Services.”


Some see seat management or desktop outsourcing, including the Seat Management
contracts recently awarded by the General Services Administration, as the cure for the
woes. Recent news stories in GCN have detailed how GSA, NASA and other agencies are
outsourcing their hardware, software, network services, maintenance and even help desk
functions to contractors.


Some agencies are paying $2,500 per seat per year with all the trimmings, including a
new PC every three years. And it offers information technology managers a means of both
defining services and capping costs.


The vendors play down the cost benefits, fearing a bidding war that will trim their
profits. Instead they emphasize the intangible improvements in support and customer
satisfaction.


Is seat management nothing more than a new-fangled term for outsourcing or contracting
out? Perhaps it is for those agencies where the technical support is still done by federal
employees.


But we’re facing a shortage of skilled personnel willing to work for federal wages
and under the federal management style and culture. The ranks of civil servants in this
field have shrunk. Faced with tight budgets, most agencies have already contracted out
many of the services.


The seat management contractor has the incentive to solve problems over the
telephone—that is, without dispatching someone to the trouble location.


Network access via TCP/IP networking will let technicians emulate a problem and often
repair it without leaving the slopes of Mount Pinatubo or wherever their eccentric tastes
inspire them to live. It would be a relief to have the help desk do more than ask a
few simple questions and then take a message.


The help desk can have its own set of help desks to provide expertise and backup.


Ideally you could call the seat management help desk to ask about a problem. The help
desk would diagnose the problem and fix it while the affected PC user attended a meeting
or went to lunch.


If the problem were intractable by remote efforts, an entry-level technician would
bring a replacement computer with exactly the same software and data files. As the
contractor presumably does nightly backups of all PCs, the most anyone would lose is a
day’s work.


One study of the service end of the PC business found that most of a typical
technician’s day is spent in transit between service calls. Replacing such a person
with less experienced personnel who simply replace components would enable more efficient
use of the high-dollar staff hours.


Those are some of the positives of a well-thought-out seat management plan. Are there
are negatives to seat management? There are, and I’ll explore them in the Dec. 14
issue.


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in
federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page
is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.

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