Time to re-evaluate helpdesk support

There is one area of IT that is frequently the butt of jokes from most end-users - the lowly helpdesk, and by extension all the people who toil to keep our systems up and running no matter where we are.

There is one area of IT that, despite the desire to worship at the altar of all things e-business, continues to get no respect and is frequently the butt of jokes from most end-users.

This dubious distinction of course belongs to the lowly helpdesk, and by extension to all of the people who toil to keep our systems up and running no matter where we are.

The typical experience of most end-users upon calling a helpdesk is to be told that they should reboot their system and hope that they don't lose any data.

If that fails to correct the problem, the helpdesk people pass the problem to the next level of support, which usually means taking the machine away and returning it to its original pristine state.

This typically wipes out all the unsupported applications, such as PIM (personal information manager), wireless pager application, or, heaven forbid, a game.

The company then returns the system to the end-user with the usual admonishments about not tampering with the application image on what is, after all, company property.

As you can imagine, there's no love lost between most end-users and the helpdesk, which many people consider to be another oxymoron alongside military intelligence.

Now there are award-winning helpdesk operations that deserve our praise. But the truth for most companies is that business management doesn't see the value of investing in helpdesk technologies to improve the work experience of employees. It's not obvious to management how this type of investment is going to benefit the company's bottom line.

And even when they do see support as an issue, their first instinct is to throw people at the problem, rather than examining the overall support process and any newly available helpdesk technologies.

As a result, it's common to find half of the people in the IT department working on helpdesk tasks rather than developing applications to help drive the business.

Some of the technologies available to reduce the time IT people spend on systems maintenance include those capable of automatically downloading fixes and patches, those that can remotely diagnose systems, Web sites that answer FAQs, and instant messaging.

But all of these things take money to buy, install, and manage, so again you face the conundrum of how to get upper management to fund the adoption of such technologies when they don't see an immediate value in the investment.

This naturally leads to a discussion about outsourcing, which always makes IT people nervous. There is currently a broad range of managed helpdesk services that make use of these technologies to provide a more efficient helpdesk model than the one typically found in corporations today.

That model is usually based on a tiered approach where the first point of contact is the managed service provider that handles all routing-system and application issues.

If the problem resides in a custom application developed by the corporation, the service provider probably would forward those calls back to the helpdesk, but the majority of calls to a helpdesk are never that complicated.

In fact, the majority of calls to a helpdesk are from people either trying to work with some newly discovered feature in their software applications or to figure out how to fix an application that mysteriously deleted a DLL.

None of this means that the helpdesk is obsolete. It's just time for companies to reconsider their approach to this part of IT.

And with the advent of the Web, helpdesk practices that have served only to infuriate the end-user are no longer necessary. The only real obstacles left are IT fears about outsourcing and the inertia associated with a two-decade-old routine.

Until we come to terms with those issues, corporations will continue to overstaff helpdesks with people who unfairly get criticised by fellow employees for doing the job the best way they know how.

And that's the real shame, because most of those people love IT and would be far happier doing something more productive than being the momentary therapist for frustrated and ungrateful end-users.

Michael Vizard is editor in chief of InfoWorld US.

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