Computer services is the latest buzz word in the information technology industry. But what does it mean? Norman Lockley, services marketing manager at ICL, explains how his company provides the services that customers really want.
The IT industry is famed for its fashion-consciousness. One of the latest terms to hit the headlines is so-called computer services. This can refer to anything involving a third party, from a mail-order packaged software supplier to a fully-fledged facilities management company that takes on the responsibility for running an organisation's computers. But the confusion hides a serious customer need. Today's computer users do not just want hardware and software from their computer suppliers, they require a whole range of additional services such as training, technical support, applications development, emergency backup and advice on future technology trends.
ICL understands this broad spectrum of needs. Unlike many companies which are new to this market, we have been in it for many years. Indeed, services, which accounts for around £1 billion of our annual turnover worldwide, is one of ICL's three main businesses alongside product technology and industry systems.
These three businesses, like the legs of a stool, reinforce and benefit from each other's presence. For example, the product technology business gives the services business a crucial understanding of future trends and developments in hardware and software. The industry systems business, on the other hand, provides services staff with a valuable insight into specific market segments and the problems they face in the 1990s.
To help customers understand the variety of activities that can be included under the services umbrella, ICL divides them into 14 categories. Despite the size of our services operation, we do not attempt to meet all customer requirements within all categories. We focus on specific functions within the 14 sectors.
Take local government, for example. Here we have services professionals who are closely immersed in issues such as Council Tax and the Children Act. Their role is to work alongside local authorities to develop systems that not only meet the new legislative requirements, but are fully adaptable to accommodate further changes in future.
High-street retailers and supermarkets are another key market. For instance, we have spent considerable time addressing the problem of check-out till reliability. Based on our understanding of what retailers most need, we have developed a preventive maintenance service that concentrates on reducing overall downtime rather than the average time to fix individual check-out failures.
Other ICL services staff look at generic issues such as software installation, error correction and the problem of integrating hardware and software from a range of different suppliers. ICL includes environmental services such as checking systems for emissions, safety and conformance to EU ergonomic directives.
The financial sector is another key market. At Lloyd's of London, ICL has replaced a piecemeal technical support service with a unified help desk and hotline. Staff can phone our centralised point for maintenance, technical support, and to order additional hardware or software.
Finally, just because we're part of ICL it doesn't mean that our services business is tied to ICL hardware. Whether you want training on IBM software, networking support for Compaq machines, or software development for a variety of different vendors' equipment, we have a huge amount of experience to draw on. Moreover, the industry trend towards open systems and commodity hardware is enabling us to provide an increasing number of services across multiple platforms.
Some of ICL's services companies are wholly-owned subsidiaries and others are joint ventures with business partners. The companies include: Peritas, which delivers training; CFM which handles facilities management; Guardian Computer Services for disaster recovery; Workplace Technologies specialising in environmental issues; and ICL Enterprises, which provides consultancy, systems integration, and help with value added network services.
In fact, we are not a single gigantic services company, but a linked chain of specialists. Customers gain the huge advantage of ICL's expertise combined with the ability of small, tightly-focused units to think innovatively and deliver solutions fast.