As Self-Service Portals Take Off, IT’s Role Becomes More Strategic

The transition from IT help desks to employee self-service solutions is liberating IT staff to provide value-added big-picture guidance.

Like other large companies, Bureau Veritas has long subscribed to the concept of IT as a function in support of other functions. When an employee in operations, marketing or finance is stuck with a technical problem, such as how to use a newfangled AI tool or automated system, the person opens a support ticket at the IT help desk. The IT organization’s job is to solve the problem, at which point the ticket is closed.

This task-based relationship between IT and other functions, common across many businesses, is now changing. Bureau Veritas is in the process of replacing its IT help desk ticketing system with Microsoft’s SharePoint collaborative platform to ease the flow of communications across all functions. Where this change is having a profound impact is in the IT organization.

“My team is transitioning from transactional order takers and gatekeepers telling employees what tools they could and couldn’t use into strategic thinkers,” said John Blackwood, North America CIO at Bureau Veritas, a global leader in testing, inspection and certification services founded in 1828 in France.

John Blackwood, North America CIO, Bureau Veritas

IT help desks have been around since the 1980s to assist employees (and customers) in navigating the complicated byways of technology. Back then, of course, only a few people were bona fide technologists, prone to communicating in incomprehensible jargon that confounded people who were not technologists. As astronomer and author Carl Sagan commented in 1994, “We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology, in which nobody understands anything about science technology.”

He got that right. Today, of course, digital natives and even older generations of employees understand quite a bit about the different types and uses of technology. Yet, whenever they had the slightest hiccup, they still opened a support ticket because it was easier than figuring out the solution themselves.

Those days are ending, thanks to the growing sophistication and use of self-service IT support portals.

“Many self-service platforms are built with intuitive features helping employees easily diagnose and resolve issues to get back to the real work,” said Blackwood. “I’ve always believed that the best IT resolution is the one that never gets to the help desk. …Employee self-service is liberating overworked IT organizations to apply their unique skills set to more strategic purposes.”

Leveraging their technical skills, IT team members proactively reach out to their colleagues in other functions to assist their strategic needs, as opposed to helping them fix problems like a laptop that has mysteriously crashed. “That’s a really different job description than the old service desk orientation,” Blackwood said.

Out of the Dark

It sure is. And about time, too. “Back when I started in the digital dark ages of 1997, IT staff members like coders and software engineers like myself were back-office people who never saw the light of day,” said Chief Technology Officer Dan Brown at physician and hospital-owned health benefits company First Choice Health, with more than $40 million in annual revenues and over 200 employees.

“When we weren’t servicing the help desk, we were gaming,” he laughed. “Today, many IT organizations, including ours, have become true strategic partners to the rest of the enterprise. We’ve moved beyond structured requirements like showing people how a new tool works, to where we’re dealing with business scenarios that aren’t always technical and are often ambiguous. It’s a massive change.”

To do their jobs well in this new environment, IT staff still must be problem-solvers, albeit the problems are less technical by nature and more strategic—driven by the organization’s overall objectives. To provide this level of service, IT team members need to thoroughly understand the business—the factors that drive decisions—as well as the purpose, needs, priorities and challenges of each function.

Dan Brown, CTO, First Choice Health

Not that the technical aspects of the job have lessened. “IT people must know more than they’ve ever known before,” said Brown. “The reason, of course, is the continuing development of evermore sophisticated AI, machine learning, NLP (natural language processing), robotics, and other technology tools and platforms.”

IT simply must stay on top of every new technological iteration, he explained. The difference today is that IT must collaborate with function leaders in determining how a new technology, or an enhancement to an existing technology, can be used to the company’s competitive advantage. “A good IT department looks for ways to help the rest of the organization get ahead of the curve, leveraging machine learning algorithms to be predictive, prescriptive and proactive,” he said.

Asked what he meant by “proactive,” Brown explained that if someone on his IT team happens to read an article or a research paper on an emerging technology, “they’re not thinking how cool it is, they’re thinking how the tech can be used to help their colleagues across the enterprise make work more efficient, create opportunities or overcome a business challenge,” he said. “This level of collaboration is a completely new paradigm in how companies operate, people work and customers buy things.”

Send in the Robots

Every company today is a technology company, due to the digital transformation of businesses. Hence, the modern IT organization is composed of people with both technological chops and business savvy. This combination makes the IT function part technical specialist, part innovator and part strategic consultant. That last “part”—strategic consultant—is evident in the freedom IT team members now enjoy partnering with their colleagues to achieve business objectives.

Thanks to IT self-service portals, the staff now has the time and technological resources to further these aims. Instead of opening a support ticket asking IT staff to resolve an issue, employees can resolve the problem on their own via basic user guides, documents, videos, manuals and online forums. Since self-service portals are 24/7, an employee working late at night can fix a simple technological glitch hindering their efforts without having to wait until the next day to open a support ticket.

“Our help desk capacity used to involve relatively trivial issues like password resets, which accounted for the greatest frequency of support tickets,” said Ryan Hicke, CIO at publicly traded SEI, a large technology and investment solutions company. “We solved that by creating a separate multi-authentication portal where users could go in and reset their own passwords. It was liberating.”

Ryan Hicke, CIO, SEI

Other self-service tools include a library of how-to videos employees can peruse to learn the use of a new technology or upgrade their knowledge about the expanded use of an existing technology. “We’re a big user of Microsoft Teams, so we created videos on how to leverage Teams fully,” Hicke said. “For example, employees are guided how to set up a secure meeting. That’s something we’d be ticketed in the past to do. Corporate IT can now put their time and energy into creating better team experiences.”

These experiences include easier, more reliable and faster access to accurate data and other content resources needed by a team of employees working remotely and at SEI’s onsite campus in Oaks, Pennsylvania, in the company’s current work from anywhere model. “We’ve freed up the IT group to think more deliberately about the employee experience,” Hicke said.

He provided the example of SEI’s embrace of interactive whiteboards, a tool helping multiple employees collaborate using touchscreens to take notes and annotate content in meetings. When office work shut down during the early days of Covid, SEI’s director of corporate IT, Rasmeet Sachdeva, joined a group of other cross-functional leaders in a newly formed return-to-work committee tasked with bringing employees safely back to the SEI office campus.

“She brought up the idea of a whiteboard as an interim way for people to collaborate virtually, and then researched different whiteboard technologies to see how easy they were to integrate with current systems,” he said. “She proactively championed a technology, which is a lot different than waiting for different functions to ask for help.”

What initially was perceived as an interim collaborative tool is now business-as-usual for SEI’s employee teams. As Hicke put it, “We’ve liberated everyone in core IT to do similar things—to partner with marketing or HR and say, `Hey, I just read about something that might be valuable to you that we should consider implementing.’ We’re moving from Corporate IT as an order taker to having a seat at the table.”

Shoulder to Shoulder

IT also has a seat at the table at First Choice Health, a 35-year-old Seattle-based provider of health plan administration, medical management and employee assistance services to employers. With more than one million members in eight northwestern states, the company has an enormous volume of data at its disposal. The IT organization is tasked with using AI and machine learning tools to analyze this data in finding ways to enhance the company’s health benefit services at lower cost.

“We’re an alternative to traditional health insurance for employers, so we’re looking to find correlations in the data that keep our members healthy and save their employers money,” said Brown, whose career includes stints as a senior software engineer at LexisNexis, enterprise architect at Washington Mutual Bank and systems integrator of retail store systems at Luxottica, the world’s largest manufacturer of eyewear.

Technology alone won’t unearth strategic opportunities, Brown said, explaining that the IT team needs to comprehend the goals and challenges of “our doctors, clinicians and healthcare informatics people,” he said. “That’s when we in IT can have real predictive impact.”

Blackwood shares this perspective at Bureau Veritas, a public company with more than $5.6 billion in annual global revenues. The IT organization has climbed out of the IT silo, he said, to work collaboratively with colleagues in other functions, as well as with the testing, inspection and certification professionals assisting customers in industry sectors like agriculture, commodities and infrastructure.

“The old stereotype of the IT person who grabs your keyboard, grumbles and pushes you out of the way is gone,” he said. “The people I want and have in the IT organization are able to strategically partner and work closely with others, listening for opportunities where we can make a difference.”

Asked for an example of a successful collaboration with another function, Blackwood pointed to a conversation in early 2019 between an IT staff member and an employee in the marketing organization. “The employee mentioned she had signed up for a free Zoom account and it had made her work more efficient, enabling her to collaborative more effectively with customers,” he said.

The IT team member subsequently signed up for a Zoom account himself, concurred with its value and brought it to Blackwood’s attention. Within weeks, the Zoom platform was rolled out across Bureau Veritas in North America. A few months later, the pandemic sent employees home to work.

“For far too long, IT was thought of as a shared service that sat apart from the rest of the business, but it is becoming increasingly embedded in the business,” Blackwood said. “Every company is constantly looking for that `new thing’ to reduce risks, make operations more efficient, improve the relationship with the customer and provide more meaningful work to employees. IT is helping to guide the way, shoulder-to-shoulder with everybody else.”

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