The Service Level Agreement (SLA) has been around business for a long time and serves a useful purpose.
As part of a contract to supply services to a business, a service provider agrees to certain standards of performance, typically related to speed of delivery of their services. This is not a scheduled service, like a weekly office cleaning, but rather services that are required on a random basis. This story is about an experience I had in IT services.
At one place my wife worked, the company owner was very perceptive. He would joke that if he passed the server room and saw his sysadmins reading the paper with their feet up he was happy. He knew that everything was running trouble-free, that there were no emergencies being dealt with. Not many bosses have that attitude. This has led to the looming threat of outsourcing hanging over many IT departments.
For a while now, the business school fashion has been to divide companies up by department into “profit centres” and “cost centres”. The sales department is seen as a profit centre and any expenses incurred there -- salaries and commissions, company cars and phones, dinners with clients – seen as simply the cost of doing business. The IT department, on the other hand, is seen as solely a cost centre. Everything there is an expense. When the IT department has done its job and everything is running smoothly, their work is often taken for granted and the cost of their salaries and training comes into question.
When a company can outsource something like IT support to an off-shore company, the numbers can be tempting. It can be a case of pennies on the dollar to have someone in a call centre on the other side of the planet tell your frazzled user to try restarting their computer. The only defence that the beleaguered IT department can mount is speed: very fast response times to requests for help, very fast resolution time to those requests for help.
Help requests are tracked using help desk software. The software creates a “ticket” for each request and then records how long it took for someone in the IT department to respond to and then resolve the ticket – the faster the better. At budget time, the IT department is expected to supply and hold to average response and resolution times. Periodically, the actual averages are compared to the promises and if actual times are slower than promised, the outsourcing threat looms. Why should the company keep all these people on staff when they can pay piece-work to a third party?
At one of my jobs, a botched implementation of an accounting software package was causing continuous problems. The computers running the software would often lock up. Each time, someone in the IT department with administrative access had to “kill” the session of the accountant on the locked up machine. It got ridiculous. It was happening so often that accountants would open a support ticket that just said: “Kill me...” I knew exactly how they felt because I was constantly being interrupted while working on a complicated report or programming task for something that took literally seconds to fix. I thought of a solution. Working with one of the sysadmins, I made it possible for the head accountant to kill the locked sessions. Problem solved, or so I thought. I was called on the carpet in my manager’s office and asked who had authorized this. I was told to go back to the old system of repeated new help requests followed by resolutions that took seconds.
That’s when it dawned on me. A multitude of ten-seconds-to-resolution help desk tickets kept the promised SLA average response and resolution times low.
That’s how you fudge the SLA...