Sometimes the simplest solutions are staring you right in the face. IT consultants have to be aware of those simple solutions and when they apply. One TechRepublic member told us about a simple solution and how he implements it in his small IT shop.

Mark White, an IT manager with BorgWarner Air Fluid Systems in Water Valley, MS, is using Microsoft Outlook tasks in a public folder to track help desk requests and procedures. While he has used more extensive work plan tracking when working in larger departments, he’s found Outlook to be a great way to keep up with the demands of his current users.

White uses a public folder to store tasks so that both IT staff and end users can view the task and its status. The method also allows some rudimentary analysis of the support staff’s responsiveness to end users.

Creating requests
White uses an easy method to create an Outlook task from an e-mail request sent by an end user. You simply click, hold, and drag the incoming message to the Tasks folder. A new task automatically opens, and the subject of the original message is the subject of the task. The body of the new task contains the text from the e-mail message, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
Click and drag a message to the tasks folder to convert it.

Once the new task is created, White makes sure that the subject clearly states the work requested and makes any edits necessary. Then he fills in the other information in the task. He enters the task’s due date and sets the priority to low, normal, or high. He enters the requesting end user’s name in the Contacts field so the user can be easily kept up-to-date on the status of the request. The Start Date, Status, and % Complete fields provide helpful information for those wondering about the standing of their request. In addition, White suggests making good use of the notes field.

“Key into the body of the task additional notes about the effort or work taken,” he said. “Items such as order information, other resource dependency, etc., should be noted.”

As the IT manager, White sometimes may need to have another member of his staff take care of the problem. In that case, he uses the Assign Task option under the Actions menu, as shown in Figure B, to send the task to another staff member.

From that point, he clicks the Save button to create the request and deletes the original e-mail message from his Inbox, if applicable.

Figure B

Using the Details tab
The information on the task’s Details tab, shown in Figure C, can record information that will help you determine your help desk staff’s workload and subsequently analyze their productivity. For example, the Total Work field can be used to estimate the effort a certain task may take, and the Actual Work field could be filled in with the real time it took to complete the work.

Figure C

Status reports
Outlook Tasks’ Status field contains several options, including Waiting On Someone Else and Deferred. By updating this field and using the notes area to record progress, end users and supervisors can track the advancement of their requests. However, White’s staff also uses the automatic Status Report feature to send e-mail updates to involved or interested parties. They generate the report by using the Send Status Report button on the Task toolbar or clicking Actions | Send Status Report.

“Enter all information or notes in the task before creating the status report,” White advised. “It will automatically copy (see below) Subject, Status, % Complete, Total Work, Actual Work, Requested By, and the body of the task to the status e-mail message.”

Figure D shows a sample Status Report. You may type additional information into the body of the message before sending, if needed. It is necessary to enter recipients outside the task’s requestor, because Outlook doesn’t carry that information forward from the e-mail or contacts.

Figure D

Monitoring and analyzing tasks
To monitor the status of ongoing tasks, White suggests that you keep the public folder window maximized so you can view as much information as possible. Change the information you see in the folder by clicking on View | Current View and choosing from several options, as shown in Figure E. You can then sort the tasks by clicking on the column headings, like Status or Due Date.

Figure E

White stores completed tasks in a separate public folder. When it’s time to create a summary report of open or completed tasks, he exports the data into an Excel spreadsheet and manipulates the data there. He said, for example, that he has created a formula to calculate the variance between the “due” and “complete” dates. He also suggested that managers could calculate totals of actual work reported by staff members. And of course, Excel will allow you to create graphic representations of the information that help illustrate needs and accomplishments in reports to CxOs.