OTRS ProposalEdit

I understand that there is soon to be some funding made available for OTRS related projects, and that proposals are being accepted for the use of such funds. No doubt much of this funding will be directed at technological advances; the following is much more basic but no less critical. I would like to propose the development of a substantive and thorough on-line guidebook for new agents, a training manual that covers not just the technical aspects of creating an account and responding to tickets but that explains in detail exactly what agents should do with certain kinds of tickets or certain requests from editors or members of the public, and that provides specific historic examples of well-handled tickets that reviews how that outcome was achieved. Every OTRS volunteer has stories about interesting tickets they have handled, but these stories have never been distilled into a format that can be used by new agents to guide them. While there is certainly nothing to prevent an agent from seeking the advice of other agents, this seldom happens: it takes too much time to send messages back and forth or to try to search the ever-ballooning archive of tickets for reference, so new agents simply rely on their own good sense. There is nothing wrong with that, and most agents do a pretty good job considering the dearth of actual training they are offered.

The presumption is made that anyone able to pass muster as an OTRS volunteer already understands the expectations of the position, and that no further training is necessary. I personally believe this could not be further from the truth, and that the entire OTRS process would be greatly enhanced by the creation of a guidebook that thoroughly explains the architecture of the OTRS system, helps standardize agent responses to incoming requests, and gives agents solid, useful instruction on how they might want to handle the often gray areas of being a volunteer. What we currently have is a basic how-to guide of selecting and responding to tickets along with a series of boilerplate responses— this is basically a click-here-to-do-that kind of guide (for which I am extremely grateful!), but it says very little about the actual handling of the tickets. It also provides little explanation of the wide range of ways that clicking here and doing that can affect what happens to a ticket and why, and it has no historical synthesis of what agents have done in the past and which tickets appear to have ended up being handled well vs. those which have ended up provoking some kind of legal threat against the Foundation or have turned into endless pointless interactions that do nothing but waste agents' time and drain their enthusiasm for volunteering.

I also believe that because there is no guidebook, agents feel very free (and, as volunteers, of course, they always are very free) to be occasionally careless with tickets. I think that a guidebook that covers the ins and outs of being an OTRS volunteer would instill the greater sense of responsibility that comes with having a manual to refer to. I am not suggesting new rules for being an agent— I do not believe the OTRS process would be aided by the development of more restrictions on behavior or the threat of consequences for failure to do a good job, but I do believe that agents by and large want to know what to do with their position so that they do not muck things up! It is somewhat terrifying to suddenly have access to the entire queue of messages coming in to the English Wikipedia from the public as well as being the face of that Wikipedia as it responds to those messages (to say nothing of the other language Wikipedias and the OTRS agents that handle the tickets coming in from them— God help them all!). While the learn-as-you-go process appears to have sufficed so far, it is almost never preferable to having some basic standardized training in what to do and some recounting of what has been done in the past. Santayana's immortal statement that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" has always resonated for me. OTRS volunteer work comes with access to the entire past but no synthesis of it, which is almost as bad as having no ability to remember it. Rather than drown in its enormity, we cross our fingers and trust instinct rather than knowledge. We can do better. I am certain of it.

I have mentioned the idea of creating such a manual to one of the OTRS admins in the past, but without a staff of any kind to develop it, the idea appeared impractical and no forward movement was made. In order for such a manual to come to exist it needs people's time and effort, and OTRS volunteers are already donating that in huge amounts. No one expect technicians to donate their time, and I fear that unless funds become targeted specifically at the development of such a manual, it will never appear on its own (or, if it ever does, it will never be more than cursory, haphazard, and incomplete). I know nothing of how such funds get disbursed, and do not have in mind a specific set of people to be solicited for compensation in exchange for their willingness to work on such a guidebook. Nor do I have a specific dollar amount for its cost. Perhaps its somewhat amorphous scope means that is not practical to try to fund it, since unlike technical improvements we will never really know if we got our money's worth. But I also think that recruiting people to make a professional, paid effort at the creation of it would be of enormous benefit to the men and women on the front lines who are doing the one-on-one interaction with the public and who sometimes find themselves struggling with knowing what they are supposed to do (especially when starting out). However competent or knowledgeable a person may appear to be as an editor, OTRS work— all of it also unpaid— is different: like editing, it is usually very independent work, but unlike editing, the results cannot be easily reverted. We work mostly as trusted but isolated respondents to people who believe we have the authority of admins, the accountability of professional staff, and that we all agree on what we are doing and how to do it. I don't think any OTRS volunteer would agree that any of that is true, and while having a well-developed manual will not and should not change the first, I think it could go a long way towards improving the appearance of the second and the reality of the third.

I look forward to hearing others' thoughts on this idea, even if only to dissuade the further pursuit of it. I bring it up only because it seems like a very good idea, and because my own limited experience as an OTRS volunteer has had enormous impact on my own life and on some of those whom I have had the opportunity to help (I am thinking especially of ticket #2016032910015145 here, which is only one example of what an OTRS agent can do— I so wish we had a collection of such stories to emphasize how important it is that a ticket like that never fall through the cracks... Not that this one was at risk of that, just that it seems so important).

My userpage on the English Wikipedia: KDS4444.