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Windows at Work /
Cheryl Currid
Cheryl Currid

PC Support that Pays for Itself

If your company could use more-and better-PC support, help is at hand. It's not a charismatic new computer guru, a book, a video or an information-rich Web site. A growing number of hardware and software vendors are building training and support into their products-and it's a trend that could save you time and money.

We all know a PC's real price far exceeds the amount listed on your purchase order. You need to factor in the costs of training, hardware upgrades, software and ongoing tech support.

All this adds up to much more than the price you paid for your company's PCs. The Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm, estimates the actual cost per PC at close to $30,000 over a three-year period. The Network Computer, on the other hand, comes in at around $18,000. But don't toss your company's PCs just yet.

Acknowledging that the burden of managing PCs and PC networks has reached "crisis" levels, Intel, among others, is attempting to reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO). Last September, Intel introduced its Wired for Management Initiative, which includes new Intel hardware and software products, joint work with other companies, industry-standard efforts and other programs to reduce TCO.

Some of these efforts, such as the Desktop Marketing Interface (DMI), have been in the works for several years. The DMI is an open architecture standard for managing desktop computers, servers, hardware and software products, and peripherals. It was introduced by the Desktop Management Task Force (DMTF), a consortium formed by Intel, Digital, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Novell, SunConnect and Bay Networks. The DMI's aim is to give hardware, software and peripherals the capability to communicate their requirements with a DMI-management application.

As more vendors incorporate these intelligent technologies into their products, computers will be able to diagnose their own troubles and maybe even suggest remedies. Don't be surprised if your hiccuping server takes matters into its own hands and calls for tech support and spare parts before you even have an inkling that something's amiss.

While these initiatives take great strides in the right direction, built-in system maintenance won't make the biggest dent in TCO. That will come from maintaining the object behind the keyboard: the user. Regardless of what research you read or believe, the biggest chunk of TCO is what you pay to support the people using the PCs.

A substantial slice of support cost frequently evades management reviews. Those costs are related to what I call "over-the-shoulder" support. It's hard to quantify, but its bite into the bottom line is very real.

Here's an example: Joe is working on a proposal. Normally, he faxes finished documents, but he needs to mail this one and doesn't know how to print an address on an envelope. So he finds Karl, the office's resident power user. Karl accompanies Joe back to his computer and helps him print the envelope.

Even if it takes only a few minutes of Karl's time, that envelope-and the impromptu training session-can amount to $40 to $60 in hidden labor costs. The time they both spent on this relatively small problem kept both employees from doing more value-added work. And if Joe doesn't have to address another envelope soon, he'll probably forget the procedure and search out Karl again, repeating the cycle.

Because of Karl's reputation as a power user, he's likely to be tapped several times a day, each time cutting into his own productivity. In my years observing corporate organizations, I've seen plenty of Karls. Sooner or later, the taps take their toll.

You won't solve the problem by dusting off that course catalog. It's not that I don't believe in formal training, but let's face it-people just don't remember how to do tasks they seldom perform. But help is on the way. Part of the solution is coming from new third-generation help systems based on software-driven instruction. Microsoft's Office Assistant in Office 97, IBM's WarpGuide and Intuit's Cue Cards are examples of intelligent help systems that put a tutor inside the PC.

These software solutions, coupled with industry initiatives, should go a long way toward reducing spiraling ownership costs. Should they prove successful, Karl just might get his own work done.

WinMag Analyst Cheryl Currid is president of Houston-based Currid & Company, a research and consulting firm. Contact Cheryl in the "Windows at Work" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe, or care of the editor at the addresses here.

Windows Magazine, May 1997, page 39.

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