At the close of 2014, the HDI Strategic Advisory Board observed that the move toward replacement versus repair was part of “an overall change of focus from hardware to data,” in which “many devices will become inexpensive to the point of being disposable, while more complex devices will only be repairable by the manufacturer.” This article will explore some of the reasons for this change, and recommend some good practices for break/replace in your organization.
There are several forces driving the move toward break/replace. One of them is cost; another is commonly called velocity—the speed at which business moves. A broken peripheral can slow or halt someone’s workflow; the faster they get back to work, the faster the workflow returns to normal. In lean businesses, every person’s part of the workflow is critical. The velocity of business now is much higher than it was a few years ago. Simply put: Things happen fast.
When faced with the option of either fixing a piece of equipment that is broken or just buying a new one, the major deciding factor is still cost. It's a very simple equation; no one wants to pay for a technician to spend three hours at $24.50 per hour plus parts to fix a $40 printer, or even a three-year-old $150 printer that can now be replaced for $80. Nor does it make much sense to have a desktop support technician spend hours migrating data from one hard drive to another when virtualization and cloud storage are readily available. The old unit can simply be removed from service and recycled, and a new one put in its place. In addition, because home networks have become commonplace and automatic, or remote configuration has become standard, it does not take a highly skilled technician to perform the work. Just about anyone in the workplace can plug in a network cable or log into a wireless network.
There are several forces driving the move toward break/replace. One of them is cost; the other is velocity. Simply put: Things happen fast.
It is no surprise to anyone—inside or outside of the world of IT support—that prices on most tech items have fallen consistently over the past decade. Many computer-related items have fallen below the minimum values set for asset management. Recent HDI research shows that, although 96 percent of organizations that do IT hardware asset management (HAM) do so for inventory tracking, 32 percent say that one of their reasons for not tracking some items is that those items do not exceed a specified value. In other words, many items have simply become too inexpensive to worry about.
Peripherals are the most common cases of break/replace, because the time and cost of repair is so low. Basic computer mice can be bought for less than $5 each, and some companies have even installed vending machines to dispense mice, keyboards, and some consumables to employees so that the service desk doesn't need to become involved. It's more expensive to open a ticket than it is to replace the mouse.
What consequences does the break/replace approach have for support roles, such as the desktop support technician?
As noted in the HDI Desktop Support Advisory Board white paper, "The Future of Desktop Support: A Road Map," virtualization, mobility, consumerization, and cloud technology have all been a part of rapid changes in the tasks assigned to technicians. Just a few years ago, adding memory to laptop and desktop computers was common task. Now, many laptops are factory-sealed, without upgradeable RAM or replaceable batteries or hard drives.
How Technologies and Trends Contribute to Break/Replace
Virtualization removes most of the actual computation from the end user’s device, making it possible to have applications and services delivered to less expensive and less complicated devices, while at the same time maintaining productivity.
Consumerization goes beyond the introduction of hardware and services originally directed at the consumer market and then redirected into business use. In the broadest sense, it means that the power of business technologies has moved out of the hands of the controlling IT department and into the hands of end users, who can easily obtain technology that hits the “magic trifecta” of better, faster, and cheaper.
Because of mobility—the mobile nature of work—complicated devices are less desirable. Even laptops that were considered top-of-the-line a few years ago are big, heavy, and complex by today’s standards. Mobile devices have created a “mobile app economy” worth an estimated $100 billion in 2015. Smartphones, tablets, and “phablets” have become capable of providing gateways to virtualized applications and desktops, allowing people to work from almost anywhere.
With data living in the cloud, devices have become less relevant, and therefore more easily replaced.
Many of the productivity apps for mobile devices are in essence connectors for cloud storage and/or cloud computing. Because of cloud technology, mobile workers have the ability to access and update business data, maintain records, and share all types of knowledge, from blog posts to how-to videos. When their data stays in the cloud (whether private, public, or hybrid), the device they are using to access it becomes less relevant, and therefore more easily replaced without having to migrate data from old device to new. Most end users have already had at least one—and probably more—experiences with this approach when they have replaced their smartphone or tablet. Again, consumerization doesn’t only mean using consumer-type devices; it means taking the same type of approach to accounts and data as the companies that provide the backbone for iOS and Android devices.
In short, virtualization, consumerization, mobility, and cloud have all been contributing to the move from fix to replace.
The Changing Role of Technicians and Analysts
Because only more expensive and complex equipment will be considered for repair—and most of that under warranty or contract with the vendor—the traditional hardware skills found among desktop support technicians will be less valuable. The staff will require new or enhanced skills in customer service, knowledge management, and vendor management. They will be expected to assess what is required and take the appropriate action based on SLAs, business needs, and vendor relationships. In many cases, the support organization will serve as a broker or expediter, being well acquainted with the equipment, the provider, the existing contracts and SLAs, and any other information pertinent to the issue. Having accurate inventory information from asset management and configuration management will be critical to enabling rapid swap-out of the failed equipment and replacement. Technicians will also be expected to have information at their fingertips about new technologies that can both accelerate and improve workflow. Their understanding of emerging technology, coupled with their understanding of the business they work in and the processes required, will make them trusted advisors rather than handy repair people.
An understanding of emerging technology, coupled with an understanding of the business they work in and the processes required, will make desktop support technicians trusted advisors rather than just handy repair people.
Making Informed Decisions About Break/Replace
In order to make good decisions about repairs, warranty service, underpinning contracts, and outsourcing of repairs, organizations need good data about what they have, how much it costs, what regulatory compliance requires, and how much they pay people to support the specific items in question.
Risk and cost go hand in hand. While it may appear to be less expensive to hire the very lowest bidder for a service such as data recovery or hard drive disposal, if confidential data is exposed in the process, the “cheap” service may wind up costing the organization huge amounts of money in fines. Likewise, the new player in the cloud storage market might appear to be the least expensive, but if they are out of business in six months, what are the consequences for your organization? Good practice: Understand the business needs and risks, and tether break/replace decisions to proven partners.
Use data to help decide actions. The more information you have about the hardware, software, and storage options available to you, the better prepared you will be for break/replace. Good practice: Do cost analysis to categorize items that will be eligible for replacement rather than repair. Make this information part of your internal knowledge base, so that decisions do not have to be made on a one-off basis.
Don’t confuse can and should. Just because you can get rid of something and replace it does not mean it’s the best course of action. In addition to cost, assess the changes replacement will necessitate. Newer devices seldom work identically to older ones, and may result in flustered users or inoperable applications. Good practice: Work closely with key business contacts to ensure that a replaced item will not be overly disruptive to existing workflows and that appropriate change management is used.
If your support center is conscientious about gathering, analyzing, and appropriately using data, as well as following through with good practices, you will be able to make informed decisions with your counterparts in the broader business organization and adopt break/replace as a better way.
Roy Atkinson is HDI's senior writer/analyst, acting as in-house subject matter expert and chief writer for articles, blogs, and white papers. In addition to being a member of the HDI International Certification Standards Committee and the HDI Desktop Support Advisory Board, Roy is a popular speaker at HDI conferences and is well known to HDI local chapter audiences. His background is in both service desk and desktop support as well as small-business consulting. Roy's blogs regularly appear on HDIConnect, and he is highly rated on social media, especially on the topics of IT service management and customer service. He holds a master’s certificate in advanced management strategy from Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business, and he's a certified HDI Support Center Manager. Follow Roy on Twitter @HDI_Analyst and @RoyAtkinson.