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Stephen Mann | September 18, 2017

IT Self-Service vs. Self-Help – No, They Aren’t the Same

The thing that the IT industry now calls “self-service” started off very much with a focus on the service catalog or, to be more precise, the service request catalog (even though we continued to call it the “service catalog”). But what was wanted by customers, and sold by ITSM software (ITSM) vendors, was so much more than a service request catalog – it was a spectrum of “self-service” capabilities.

Thankfully, the ITSM industry – and the echo chambers and marketing machines within it – caught on, and there was eventually more talk and promotion of IT self-service offerings, and not just service catalogs.

But even this isn’t enough to accurately describe what many IT departments are still trying to convince employees to adopt – with “self-service,” as a term, still perhaps insufficient to describe the full spectrum of “self” capabilities.

The semantics of self-service and self-help

I’d like to think that these two things are different yet similar (and conveniently ignore an additional term – “self-care” – for now) – with potentially all self-service capabilities loosely self-help (if only in the eyes of the employee), but not all self-help is self-service.

Sounds confusing, but if we step back from IT self-service for a moment to look at this from the employee perspective, how much of what’s listed in the next section down would they consider self-service and how much self-help? Especially in light of what employees do and experience in their personal lives with business-to-consumer (B2C) companies. For example:

  1. Using a soda vending machine or buying something from Amazon.com – these are definitely self-service given the immediate, or not-too-distant, receipt of a product or service.
  2. Searching Google for an answer to a washing machine issue – it’s self-help whether the ultimate solution comes from a manufacturer FAQ section, a blog, or a community site.
  3. Looking online for a train time – probably self-help, unless the information received is considered a “service” and the activity is seen as a replacement to phoning a helpline or walking up to an information booth. The supplier is providing a service, but is it really a self-service activity undertaken by the customer (unlike purchasing tickets online)? I’d stick with self-help.
  4. Chatting with an online B2C support representative about a product’s capabilities – it’s just another support channel, an alternative to telephone, email, or self-service.

And in the first three instances, I’d bet the employee considers themselves to be “helping themselves” rather than “serving themselves.”

IT self-service is so many things… but are all the capabilities truly self-service?

In the same way that ITSM is – in the eyes of ITIL – 26 processes and four functions, self-service is so much more than what was previously pushed. When self-service was pigeon-holed as an efficiency-increasing, cost-saving, and superior-experience delivering opportunity for employees to select new or changed IT services from an online service (request) catalog.

Instead, IT self-service might include some or all of the following example capabilities – and here’s where this blog starts to look at what IT self-service really is:

  • Accessing helpful information. From “how-to” guides to YouTube videos – the employee helps themselves, so it’s self-help (or do you think they serve themselves with information/knowledge of a product/service?).
  • Requesting or ordering of new IT services. It’s definitely self-service. Even if people are involved at the back-end.
  • Logging issues for resolution by the IT service desk. It’s not really self-help – as there’s no immediate help (unless automation is able kick-in to resolve at the point of logging). Nor is it self-service – as there’s no immediate payoff. At best, it’s some form of “self-care” mechanism where somebody, or something, elsewhere needs to do something.
  • Checking the status of an incident or request. If information is a service then it’s self-service, but then that would make the accessing of helpful information self-service too. But what if the employee considers themselves to be self-helping? Or is it self-care again?
  • A password reset facility. Hopefully avoiding the old-chestnut of “Is a password reset an incident or service request?” This is self-service, although the employee might see it as self-help.
  • Receiving broadcast alerts and notifications. This could be a global alert stating that a business application is unavailable or an individual notification that a ticket status has changed. To be honest, I’m unsure if any of the three descriptors fit.
  • Access to chat capabilities. This might be the initial access point for help/service or an escalation point for when self-service issues arise. Either way, it probably isn’t self-anything until chat and “self-service” converge in the form of chatbots.
  • Peer-to-peer support. Access to communities, forums, and other peer-support mechanisms. This has to be self-help, if peers are considered to be “living knowledge articles.”
  • Access to software downloads. If automated and instant, then it’s self-service.
  • Access to IT-asset information. To understand IT asset options and allocations and potentially to participate in asset audits. It’s more self-care than it is self-service or self-help, and more self-help than self-service.

So how much of what’s currently bundled under the IT self-service umbrella really self-service?

Perhaps one could argue that a simple differentiator is that service-request-related capabilities are self-service and incident-resolution-related capabilities are self-help?

The need to differentiate between self-service and self-help

The initial simple examples and the set of capability bullets above are hopefully enough to make you think that removing human help and assistance – or making the end user do something themselves – should not automatically make an activity “self-service.”

Self-help is different to self-service (and that there’s also a third possibility, call it self-care or something else). And it’s potentially harder to get right, given that self-help relies heavily on knowledge management – something that organizations have persistently struggled to get right.

So, let’s start talking about, and investing in, self-help more.  This is an investment in both behavioral change and the right tools, for building and delivering knowledge, that are critical for self-help success. And also recognizing that while self-service is primarily focused on request management, self-help is a more evolved capability that requires a sophisticated use of knowledge management techniques that enables employees to solve their own issues.

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Stephen Mann

Principal Analyst and Content Director at the ITSM-focused industry analyst firm ITSM.tools. Also an independent IT and IT service management marketing content creator, and a frequent blogger, writer, and presenter on the challenges and opportunities for IT service management professionals. Previously held positions in IT research and analysis (at IT industry analyst firms Ovum and Forrester and the UK Post Office), IT service management consultancy, enterprise IT service desk and IT service management, IT asset management, innovation and creativity facilitation, project management, finance consultancy, internal audit, and product marketing for a SaaS IT service management technology vendor.