Informatics Problems Tackled through Service Level Agreements (SLAs)
Vol. 32, Issue 2, Jun 2002
SLAs result in a stable and rigorous informatics support environment
The effective use of informatics is an important strategy enabling most public sector organizations to achieve their missions. Informatics provides the means to deliver key programs and services, and provides the tools needed for personal productivity and communication. In many cases, however, problems impede its most effective use, especially at the branch level.
We have reviewed a few of these problems in the previous two issues of optimumonline.ca:
- Lack of an informatics plan: often there is no current long-term informatics plan. As a result, there is an inability to maximize the power of informatics in supporting the achievement of public sector goals.
- Poor organizational structure: informatics roles and responsibilities are often unclear to both informatics staff and their clients. As a result, the organizational structure does not permit the establishment of lines of authority enabling management to exercise the necessary degree of control and support.
- Service issues: the lack of a thorough informatics needs assessment causes problems such as downtime due to network reconfiguration; insufficient memory; software incompatibilities; inability to support new informatics products; inability to properly train and provide documentation on new products; and an inability to provide planned service to clients.
- Human resource issues: informatics staff is often isolated with little career progression and few lateral transfer possibilities. As a result, there is little cross-fertilization of ideas and an inability to keep up with the latest in informatics developments. Training is provided on an ad hoc basis or is scheduled months before the implementation of the desired technology. The result is that much of the instruction is wasted. Given these typical conditions, there is low motivation and morale among informatics staff and this tends to result in high turnover rates. This situation is especially important given that the new staff require an estimated 3 to 6 months to gain the knowledge of the client business environment and associated technology in order to ensure their own effectiveness.
Service level agreements
The effective use of the service level agreement (SLA) can be used to eliminate the service and information technology issues previously described. This article focuses on describing the key elements that should be contained in SLAs.
The purpose of a service level agreement is to define the informatics support services required by a public sector branch over the course of the fiscal year. It provides the means to ensure that these services are delivered on time, within budget and according to agreed-upon service standards.
There are a number of principles that underlie the effective use of service level agreements. These principles include:
- must support and enable the achievement of the department and branch business and informatics goals;
- must support existing organizational informatics policies, standards and architectures;
- must be developed with the full input and cooperation of management, the informatics staff and the client;
- must contain clear objectives: a clear definition of roles and responsibilities of client and informatics staff, a problem management process, and an appropriate set of general and application-specific service standards and performance measures; and
- must allow meetings of client and informatics staff to be held on a regular schedule to monitor service levels and resolve any resulting issues.
Roles and Responsibilities
To facilitate informatics service delivery to clients, the roles and responsibilities of all service partners must be clearly identified in the SLA. These include:
- Engagement Manager (EM) provides informatics advice and support to senior management and develops and maintains the long-term and operational informatics plans and strategies. With regard to service delivery, the EM negotiates and implements service level agreements and project agreements with clients.
- Server Support Specialist (SSS) is responsible for technology life cycle management; technology support; and Internet and Intranet support.
- Office System Specialist (OSS) is responsible for supporting all standard office system software problems.
- Line of Business Specialists (BLS) participates in the development and maintenance of legacy applications and supporting commercial-off-the-shelf software, including data base support.
- Informatics Help Desk is the single point of contact for clients needing assistance to effectively use their information technology. All requests for informatics service are then either fixed over the phone or routed to server, operating system or line of business support specialists.
Clients also have roles and responsibilities within the SLA framework. These are specific to the client environment and must be defined within that context.
Problem Management Process
In order to resolve informatics support problems effectively, four elements of problem management process are required, including:
- the use of a standard process for receiving and resolving client requests for assistance according to service standards. The problem management procedure starts with the help desk acting as single point of contact. All calls not resolved by the help desk are assessed for levels of severity, documented in an appropriate automated tool and assigned to the appropriate support group. The support group is then responsible for solving the problem or escalating to the next level of support until it is resolved to the client’s satisfaction. The status of all calls is tracked and updated by the responsible support group.
- all support calls must be prioritized in terms of their level of severity. This allows the help desk to assign the call to the appropriate support group and to assess their effectiveness against agreed upon service standards. Four severity levels are often used to assign a status to a client service request.
- Level 4 – that is a problem that affects the workstation or peripherals of only one user.
- Level 3 – those problems that affect a minor aspect of the hardware, software or network of a group of clients. These two levels represent the vast majority of client service requests.
- more serious requests are those related to a major hardware, software or network failure that affect an entire working group or many working groups. These types of requests are given the highest priority and assigned as many resources as required to fix them. See Table 1 for a graphic illustration of sample severity levels.
- an automated tracking and reporting tool is required to monitor the situation regarding all client requests for service and to provide status reports against service standards.
- an escalation procedure is needed to respond to situations where support is not provided according to service standards. It is also needed to ensure the effective resolution of the support request by raising it to the appropriate level. This escalation procedure facilitates the assignment of appropriate levels of resources, depending upon the nature and severity of the problem. For example, the help desk would escalate the client request to the support group manager should the support person not respond within service standards. If necessary, the support group manager could escalate the request to the engagement manager if significant resources are required to repair the problem. Finally, the engagement manager escalates the issue to branch management when the problem impacts production or the work of a significant number of users for a substantial period of time.
Service standards provide yardsticks to judge “What is normal for my informatics service environment?” Two types of service standards are required for effective SLAs:
- general service standards, related to each of the four severity levels of support; and
- application-specific service standards.
General Service Standards
General service standards relate to the support of technology life cycle management, technology itself, office system support and Intranet/Internet support. They do not relate to application-specific support. The response times as they relate to each of the four levels of severity, in association with the escalation process, represent general service standards. For example, when the help desk assesses a level 1 severity to a client service request and assigns it to a server support staff person, that staff person then has 30 minutes to propose an appropriate solution but not necessarily implement it. If this does not happen, the help desk assigns the client request to the support group manager who has 2 hours to come up with a solution. The client request is escalated until it can be resolved to the client’s satisfaction.
Sample Informatics Support Severity Levels
Application Service Standards
Application service standards ensure that production systems are guaranteed an agreed upon level of support. An example of an application-specific service standard is that within any 90-day production cycle, if there are 3 consecutive days of down time or delays, the business resumption plan will be invoked
Service performance measures provide the information needed to determine whether clients are receiving the appropriate level of informatics support. It also provides the information necessary to improve service decision-making, enable proactive problem correction and promote continuous improvement.
In order to effectively report on the performance of informatics support staff, the following performance measures are suggested.
Help Desk Performance Measures:
- call handling performance: response time (length of time calling the client back); abandonment rate; incident resolution performance: percentage of calls resolved over the phone;
- incident assignment performance: determining the correct level of severity and assigning the call to the correct staff member; and
- call volumes: how many calls, distribution of calls received during the day or the week.
Server, Office System and Line of Business Support Groups Performance Measures:
- call volumes: number of calls handled;
- incident resolution performance: percentage of calls resolved according to the assigned level of severity; degree of client satisfaction; and
- escalated incidents: percentage of calls escalated.
The engagement manager, help desk manager, support groups and the client meet at regularly scheduled points (usually quarterly) during the year to review progress. Upon mutual consent of all parties, the SLA can be amended during the course of the year.
The effective use of service level agreements ensures that the impact of service and technology issues is minimized through the establishment and maintenance of a stable and rigorous branch informatics support environment. More specifically, the use of IT service level agreements:
- ensures informatics services and the allocation of resources are optimized to support the business and informatics objectives of the branch;
- provides the ability to proactively identify and deal with issues that can seriously effect the productivity of staff or efficacy of applications;
- improves communication and cooperation between informatics staff and their clients; and
- improves motivation and morale among informatics staff by providing them with the tools and techniques necessary to effectively carry out their assigned responsibilities.