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Improving problem management processes with social technology

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Improving problem management processes with social technology

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A problem management process aims to diagnose the root cause of an incident or problem that has occurred and then determine how the problem can be resolved. It includes implementing the resolution, as well as maintaining the necessary knowledge about problems and resolutions or workarounds, so that problems can be avoided and fixes can be reused in the future.

For organizations providing IT services, the problem management process is a key process to ensuring that the services are available and that the quality of the services is satisfactory. But problem management can also be seen in a broader sense, any kind of service that is delivered to a customer, which could be an internal customer as well as an external customer. It helps to manage and result incidents and problems that are reported by customers.

When a service is disrupted, it can damage the organization’s reputation. Customers might leave for another service provider. Perhaps the price charged for the service might have to be cut or customers might have to be compensated. All these things will result in lower revenue and profit. In an age where organizations compete not only with price and quality of the products or services they provide, but the entire customer experience, the importance of having a well-functioning problem management process cannot be overstated.

A high level view of a typical problem management process is illustrated above. The process is triggered when an incident or a problem is detected and reported. After being registered in a system, it is prioritized and the investigation and resolution activities are being planned. The problem is then investigated and diagnosed in order to find the root cause. A workaround might be implemented while investigating the problem further. When the root cause has been found, the next step is to find and implement a solution that fixes the root cause. When the problem has been resolved, a follow-up is made to ensure that it and the problem is being closed.

Typical challenges

Problem management is a process that sometimes needs to involve many people from different organizations and locations. Specialists with expertise in different domains might need to get together and collaborate to quickly assess a problem and find a resolution or workaround, often without meeting face-to-face and interacting only with a name and an email address. Thus a problem management process is subject to all the typical challenges of collaborative non-routine work, such as the becoming aware of what other people are working on, communicating, coordinating activities, sharing information, locating expertise, and so forth.

Another challenge is that many users become frustrated since they get little or no feedback about the progress of the problem or incident that they have reported. Their ability to communicate and interact with the problem management team is limited, and vice versa, which causes unnecessary friction. The lack of communication leads to a lack of mutual understanding and an “us vs them” mindset might develop within the problem management team, which creates even more friction and conflict.

As with any process, there are usually a fixed or limited number of resources with a given set of knowledge and expertise that is participating in a problem management process, thereby setting definitive constraints on the teams ability to manage and resolve problems. These constraints affect such things as the response time and the throughput of the process, the ability to scale the process to handle more problems, the ability to solve big, complex, and wicked problems, and the quality of the output and thus the service provided.

Often, the huge workload makes the problem management team reactive. If they would be involved in the earlier phases of the service development lifecycle such as service design and implementation, they could be more proactive and make sure that a lot of problems and incidents are avoided or be better prepared when a problem or incident occurs. But since they are already knee-deep in problems they need to manage, they don’t have any resources to spare, so they continue being reactive even if being more proactive would likely reduce the number of incidents and problems they need to handle as well as speed up the problem management process.

Improvement opportunities

Social technology can be used to improve cross­-functional collaboration by making it easier to communicate and interact across organizations and locations, especially when many people are participating in the process. Here are a few more specific examples on how social technology can be used to improve a problem management process.

1. Enabling two-way communication 
Two-way communication is key if two people are to reach mutual understanding of something. When you need to solve a complex problem quickly, it is essential that people can have rich and highly interactive conversations with each other. They need to arrive at a shared understanding about the problem and root cause, and they need to do the same when it comes to how to resolve the problem. Such conversations have to be possible to have online, since it’s not feasible that everybody who can contribute to solving a problem meet face-to-face. The conversation also needs to be persistent and visible to other people who haven’t been involved but who might be able to contribute with important knowledge, insights or information later on.

2. Increasing openness and transparency
Increasing the openness and transparency of the problem management processes will help the problem management team to communicate and interact with the users more effectively. A more open, personal and constructive dialog where problems are solved in cooperation with the users will also help both parties to develop a better understanding of each other. It will help to create a more friendly and collaborative atmosphere, which will contribute to increase both user satisfaction and make the problem management team members more engaged in their work.

A more open and transparent process also implies that it is possible to access and use information about past problems, incident, solutions, and workarounds. For example, by making solution knowledge accessible and available, users can use it to solve their problems and thereby takes some load of the process and problem management team.

3. Engaging expert networks
A network of experts could be engaged in the process and collaborate directly in real-time with both the problem management team and the user to solve the problem in question, or implement a workaround while working on a resolution. This will most likely also improve the quality of workarounds and solutions, since these experts might possess relevant knowledge and information that the problem management team otherwise wouldn’t have access to.

4. Utilizing external resources
Involving external resources can both speed up the problem management process and free up resources from the problem management team so they can become more proactive. To enable external participation, there is more to it than providing tools that allow them to communicate, interact and collaborate with the problem management team.  There also needs to be full openness and visibility both when it comes to the process as well as the “work contents” in terms of incidents, root causes, ideas for workarounds and solutions, and so forth so that external resources can get an understanding of how they can contribute.

5. Bringing relevant information to the users’ fingertips
Users should be able to follow updates about the services they use and get informed about such things as planned updates, outtakes, or problems. This also means that they don’t need to be informed about services they don’t use, thereby reducing the information noise and increase the likelihood that relevant and important information will get their attention. That way they don't need to contact the problem management team to get the same information or report or escalate incidents or problems that the team is already working on. If people have questions or need more information about, say, a problem, they can communicate and interact with the problem management team, as well as with other users, via the social object that carries the information. The questions and answers, as well as any other information, that are shared in the conversation, will then also be accessible to other users who might have the same information need - who might become aware of it before they even knew they needed it.

6. Enabling self-service
If users are able to join and participate in online communities, they have a platform for helping each other out with anything that relates to a service. The users of a service could also collectively maintain a knowledge base with tips and tricks that enable them to fix or avoid minor issues by themselves, without reporting a problem or incident. By subscribing to different topics, any new updates to the knowledge base that relates to the topic can be brought to their attention via their activity feeds.

7. Recognizing contributions
To keep people engaged and willing to contribute in the future, it is important that everybody who has contributed to solving a problem can be recognized for their contributions, especially if the ones who experienced the problem can do this. If people can get recognized for helping customers and providing them good service, it can make them more motivated to do so and foster outside-in thinking.

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