Go Where Your Customers Are: The Learning Commons


The Daly Interview: C-Suite Perspectives

by Cinda Daly, with Fred Damiano and Kelly McLaughlin


Technical support teams are the face of IT. That’s not an exaggeration—it’s a fact. The CIO’s reputation, support’s reputation, and the end user’s perception of services are directly connected to the relationship between end users and technical support. According to a MetricNet study, 84 percent of end users base their entire perception of IT on the day-to-day interactions they have with technical support. A related finding in recent HDI research on inbound contact channels shows that the channel with the highest customer satisfaction—by far—is face-to-face contact.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS), a liberal arts college in upstate New York, literally brought the face of IT to its end users, colocating the student and faculty support teams on the first floor of a new Learning Commons in the campus library. Fred Damiano, CIO and VP of strategic initiatives, knew it would take a few more transformational steps for the Learning Commons to become a reality, so he brought in Kelly McLaughlin to lead the operations and technical support team. We talked about that journey and about technical support as the face of IT.


Cinda Daly: Fred, you were recruited out of the business realm about ten years ago to lead a transformation, and you faced some skepticism from the academics. How did you establish your leadership?

Fred Damiano: When you introduce someone with a business and technology background into an academic environment, you expect some anxiety that the incoming CIO may try to impose a corporate-style culture. But because the president, senior administration, and board of trustees had a clear vision about the transformation they wanted to achieve, that wasn’t exactly the case here. Their objective was to find someone that could lead the journey: conduct a comprehensive assessment, put together a strategic plan, and deliver on that plan. The institution was primed for that.

In the course of my career, I’ve learned that the first thing you need to understand is the culture of an institution. What makes it tick? Then, demonstrate your openness by listening, understanding, forming relationships, and building consensus around what the strategic road map is going to be.

Daly: Were there any specific approaches you brought over from the business world?

Damiano: The reality is, certain leadership traits are required regardless of the environment. We needed more discipline and rigor in the way things were being done, in terms of planning projects, committing to deliverables, and estimating what it was going to take to do certain things. We needed to become more consultative, more high-touch, more proactive. We also needed to be mutually accountable to everyone in the organization. What I mean by that is that I might succeed in my job, but if you don’t succeed too, then we’re still not successful. That was a mind shift we had to achieve.

Daly: Where did you begin? What were the cornerstones of your strategy?

Damiano: There were burning issues in terms of base technology solutions and infrastructure. A data center had to be built. ERP was severely lacking, and we needed a governance process to drive priorities. We weren’t service delivery-oriented. There was a whole host of things that required significant investments, but they had to get done. The strategic road map was a five-year plan to address these needs.

A sustainable support operational model is predicated on one key cornerstone: If you don’t put the right people, processes, and practices in place, it won’t matter what you’re going to build, because it will all implode at some point. Who’s on the bus with you? Are they in the right seats? One of the first things I did was hire Kelly McLaughlin, a leader who was going to drive a much more mature, disciplined, and customer-focused operations and support team. Kelly came to us from the Eastman Kodak Company; I think folks thought former Xerox and Kodak employees were going to take over the place!

Kelly McLaughlin: When I came here, it was like the Wild West. We’d all heard the helpless desk jokes. There was no single point of contact. You called who you knew or had a relationship with. If you didn’t know someone, you might be out of luck. It was our goal to change people’s opinions and perceptions.

One of our early initiatives was creating two main governance bodies, one for our faculty and one for our administrative staff, to foster complete transparency. If somebody wanted to know how IT services was budgeting or prioritizing services, we made it completely transparent. We started working with faculty and staff to make sure we understood their priorities and were meeting our institutional goals collectively. This was a major shift that went a long way toward building relationships.

Daly: How long did it take you and your organization to get to the point that you felt like, “Okay, we’re on our way”?

Damiano: From a personal perspective, approximately twelve months, from the completion of the assessment to the ratification of the road map. The first four months were spent on the assessment work; the next eight, on the road map. Organizationally and institutionally, the moment it all became real was twelve months after that, when everyone started to see the first deliverables get completed.

McLaughlin: Once Fred put our team together, he gave us the vision, the strategic direction, and then the latitude to go forward with our own leadership style. When I first started, people would call Fred whenever something didn’t go the way they wanted it to. He could’ve smoothed it over and made it right, but he always let me fix it. That was vital to building those relationships and breaking through those early barriers.

Daly: Let’s move to your Learning Commons, a centerpiece in driving transparency and a customer focus. Tell me what that is and why it was such a strategic move.

McLaughlin: The Learning Commons is the physical and philosophical embodiment of our transformation. Before the Commons, the help desk was in a building where two people couldn’t stand together in front of our one tiny window. There was all this behind-the-scenes work, but we had no visibility; students rarely visited us in that location. We simply weren’t meeting the needs of twenty-first-century students.

So we put the technical support center in a visible and prominent location in the middle of the Learning Commons, colocating all of our primary customer-facing personnel groups—help desk, classroom and event support, field support, digital learning consultants—in one highly modern, highly flexible, technology-rich, multipurpose location where students could come together to learn from and teach each other in whatever mode was necessary. There are collaboration areas, independent work areas, labs, soft seating. It’s got everything students want. Except a Starbucks.

Damiano: Our vision and goals were very clear. The basic philosophy? Create an integrated service delivery point for students and faculty. From a technical service and support standpoint, we were going to put the primary customer-facing individuals in the best, most publicly accessible location we could put them in. When someone walks in and looks left, there they are.

By having this one integrated service delivery point, if students need help with research, they can get that help from the research librarians. If they have software they need to load on their computers, they can go to the help desk. If they need to learn how to use a tool for a project, they can walk over to the digital learning team and someone will show them how to use it. It’s all there. Before, these operations were scattered in different buildings, and they lacked the whole notion of an integrated supply chain. Now, that’s a business term, but it’s what the Learning Commons represents.

You’re always going to have your software development people, your network people, the folks who do a lot of behind-the-scenes work. But it’s the operations folks, the digital learning teams working with the faculty and students—and that’s all they do—they are the face of IT.

McLaughlin: As a by-product of the Learning Commons, of bringing all the support groups together in a shared space, it’s a much different conversation today when we’re trying to generate support for a new initiative. The librarians and the Center for Teaching and Learning team understand our business enough to advocate for us, and vice versa.

Daly: What support issues keep you awake at night?

Damiano: Our challenge is staying at least half a step ahead of our students and faculty. Let me put that in perspective. Twenty-five percent of our single largest constituent group—our student population—turns over every year. That, in and of itself, creates a challenge. This reality amps up the expectation level because this year’s incoming students generally have a higher set of expectations than last year’s. At the end of the day, we’re supporting the educational and residential experience at HWS. Students are probably not going to come here because of the technology. But if it feels a little bit creaky or outdated, it might be enough to make someone pause and rethink their options.

We have a constant influx of new faculty, as well. Newer, younger faculty’s expectations are different from someone who’s been here for fifteen or twenty years. And when we recruit people out of larger universities, people who are used to having a lot of resources, their expectation level doesn’t go down just because they’ve come to a smaller campus.

McLaughlin: To add to that, our walk-up help desk and first-level phone support is completely staffed by students, 100 percent. That 25-percent turnover trickles down to our help desk student staff turnover. Also, BYOD has been on our campus for years. We’ll support any student machine. We don’t care who made it or what model it is. Bring it in, and we’ll do our best to provide support.

Daly: How do you believe your students and your faculty feel about your support services?

McLaughlin: You go where your customers are; in that respect, the Learning Commons has made a huge difference in how we’re perceived. When people walk up to this highly professional, attractive service desk, there are people there to greet them. They have that feeling that we care, that we’re on top of things. We’re following consistent processes. We’re no longer hearing the helpless desk jokes.

Damiano: There’s another perspective that comes into play, too. Number one, parents expect that their student’s college experience is going to be better than anything they experienced at high school or at home. Number two, for the tuition premium they’re paying, parents fully expect that their sons or daughters are going to be supported in using all facets of technology as tools to get work done. When that falls apart, we hear about it pretty quickly. Based on the number of times that’s happened, I’d say we’re doing pretty well here.

McLaughlin: We work on our service levels every day, and we’re creating more visibility around our services. For a really long time, we measured just for the sake of measuring. We’ve stopped that altogether. We’ve gone back to measuring the things that are truly measurable and making sure we understand how those metrics are generated. We ask ourselves how we’re going to improve and we set goals around achieving those improvements. We work every day on making our processes transparent and our metrics visible.

Damiano: Most IT leaders will tell you that they feel that they’re part of the business or deeply involved when they’re sitting at the table. That reality can be measured based upon how well and how often the organization reaches out to the group to get it involved sooner rather than later. If I use that as litmus test, I’d say our end users have a high perception of our value. Everyone on our leadership team has been invited to participate in and even lead steering committees and workgroups, many of which have nothing to do with technology. And when we do volunteer, we’re happily welcomed to the table.

 

For more than twenty-five years, Cinda Daly has managed teams, written dozens of industry articles and thousands of pages of technical documentation, developed training courses, conducted sales and service training, and consulted in the technical support and customer service space. In her current role, as HDI’s director of content, she is responsible for HDI’s virtual events, research, and print and electronic publications.

Tag(s): case study, customer experience, customer service, desktop support, governance, support center

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