IT support teams on an Adventure in Wonderland

[Australasian Law Management Journal,People Management(HR),Technology] May 12, 2022

The story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, features a cast of characters that Alice meets on her journey which have captivated imaginations for many years and kept us curious. In this article, Mark Andrews explores the ideas of curiosity, learning and adaption as he considers the implications of technology developments on IT support teams.

In considering a topic for this article, I reflected on my own team and technology developments, with a particular focus on the IT support function.

This IT support function has not changed in a fundamental way, despite significant technology changes in the past 10 years. Of course, the type of technology being supported has changed and the systems used have become more sophisticated, yet we are still spending considerable time on break-fix activity. My sense is that we are going to see more fundamental change in the role of IT support over the next five-plus years. After first exploring why I think that is the case, I will turn to some qualities and skills I think IT support teams need, and share some ideas on additional areas that professional development needs to focus on.

3 key trends

To me, there are at least three major trends in technology development that will likely have a fundamental impact on the nature of IT support. None of these is new, but there is a maturity to the technology and people elements creating these trends.

1. Democratisation of solutions – Excel and Word gurus have long existed, but in the future the key to what people want to do with technology will be around something they can do themselves. This democratisation will reduce the dependency on IT teams to produce solutions, but there will be more pressure to coach, facilitate and govern. For IT support, this will mean more time spent providing guidance and support and less time on break-fix. This trend is likely to reduce support-task volume, but significantly increase support-task duration – e.g. fixing a headset connection versus helping debug a citizen-developed solution.

2. Agnostic end-user devices – for a long time, the approach to end-user technology has been a little like the Model-T Ford. You could have any colour you like, as long as it was black. The reasons for this are very sound in terms of cost, security and supportability. We are, however, seeing this change in some large corporate environments where people bring their own devices to work and the security focus is on verification of identity – i.e. is this person who they say they are and what level of access do they need at this point in time for what they are doing now? The use of cloud solutions keeps data more centrally managed and with effective measures in place to guard against data exfiltration. It won’t be for every firm, but becoming end-user device agnostic is an important trend. The potential implication is that there will no longer be in-house IT support for end-user devices, but more availability of specialised corporate support teams in laptop, mobile phone and other end-user device vendors.

3. Digital natives as the majority – this is less of a specific technology development and more a case of how comfortable people are in using technology. During the next five to 10 years, we will see more and more leaders who are digital native and who did not live through the arrival of the internet or the release of the first mobile phone. There is a clear difference in thought process and approach for someone who had adapted to new technologies, as opposed to someone who has never lived without them. The level of self-sufficiency is clearly on the increase and will ultimately become the majority approach. For IT support, this should result in a significant reduction in demand for traditional support.

IT support qualities and skills

I am not going to spend time on what we might term the ‘ticket to play’ qualities and skills – those technical and interpersonal skills that make a successful IT support person. My focus is instead on entering Wonderland – like Alice, we need to be curious and inquisitive, to allow ourselves to imagine what might be possible.

In some of my previous articles, I have touched on the idea of being curious in the context of lawyers adopting technology. This same skill is increasingly important for IT support professionals (I am distinguishing IT support from other areas of IT expertise, but some of the same skills and qualities apply more broadly). I will share some ideas on how to build skills in curiosity in the next section of this article.

The quality of being adaptable is also important to cultivate in IT support professionals. This is perhaps easier to cultivate given the variability in any one day. Where I think there is an opportunity is to encourage this adaptability towards other IT domains. Traditionally, IT support has been a path into infrastructure, while the software engineering path is less common. Cultivating this adaptability comes down to the individuals and their managers. Individuals can take on this quality by being open to try different things and perform roles that may not initially seem like IT support. Managers can promote this simply by encouraging and challenging, particularly when it comes to career paths.

IT support professionals are also brand ambassadors for the internal IT brand. To borrow from marketing, every interaction is a ‘moment of truth’ that will either improve, detract from or be neutral in its impact on how people think of IT. IT support teams that recognise their role as ambassadors will be well positioned to respond and stay relevant in the face of the trends mentioned earlier in this article.

It is likely that some more traditional IT support roles will remain, but for those who want to ramp up their curiosity and cultivate their adaptability there is much to be excited about in the future. It is going to be a lot more about how to enhance and apply solutions, as opposed to getting a broken tool fixed.

Ideas for professional development

There are two areas of professional development that I would encourage IT support teams to add to their existing mix of development.

1. Business relationship management (BRM) – the discipline and practice of moving from having an ad hoc, reactive relationship to being a strategic partner. There are a wide range of providers and organisations offering resources and training in this area. It is also a specific area of functionality in service management tools such as ServiceNow. At a minimum, IT support teams should be familiar with the concepts of BRM, but ideally there should be a formal program tailored to the various support roles.

2. Curiosity – we start life being curious, but as many an author and academic has observed we do a lot to try to stop curiosity, whether deliberately or accidentally. Listening to young children use a never-ending series of ‘whys’ is a great way to get curious. Our ambition should never be to say ‘because’ and rather than ‘I don’t know’ it’s better to say ‘let’s try to find out’. Here are some ideas on training for curiosity.

  • The 5 whys are well worth using when training people, regardless of their role. While the technique is designed to find root cause, it is a form of structured curiosity.
  • Make it easy for people to learn and encourage learning in areas that are supportive but not necessarily directly relevant to their current role.
  • Encourage people to create lists of things they didn’t know, or things they have discovered. This can be about any topic.
  • Train people in active listening as staying curious is about hearing different perspectives and trying to understand them.
  • Ask curious questions – “Can you think of a better way to do this?”, “How did you learn about that?”, “Why does it only work that way?”
  • Experiment – perhaps you could spend a few minutes in team meetings where someone shares something interesting they learnt during the past week.

These areas of professional development support the qualities and skills I mentioned earlier and also address the impact of the three major trends.

In conclusion…

I hope this article has raised more questions than answers and given you pause to think about trends and their impact on IT support professionals, the importance of being curious and adaptable, and of thinking differently about the future.

I began with a reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and will leave the final words of curious inspiration to the Mad Hatter: “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

Mark Andrews is Director – Global IT Service Delivery at Baker McKenzie. He has a varied background, including time in the public and private sectors, along with considerable professional services experience. He has held roles ranging from HR to management consulting and has previously been a guest lecturer in the business faculty of the University of Technology, Sydney – teaching at both Bachelor and Masters (MBA) level.