Creating a Successful Help Desk Environment
February 2006 "If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing." In one sentence Anatole France, a pseudonym for a 19th century French writer, describes an element of human behavior.
While the repetition of foolishness may be applied to many aspects of IT and the processes that we automate, this quote could be rewritten for the help desk as:
"Even if 50 million help desk staff do their jobs inefficiently, the job that they do is still inefficient."
The efficiency and success of our help desk is a reflection of process, policy, documentation, and tools that govern the interaction between IT and the user. These create a baseline to let the user to know what to expect and to form the foundation of accountability from those providing the assistance. Combined, they lead to efficiency at the help desk. Efficiency reduces problem resolution time, increases user satisfaction, and saves money.
Process. When a user has a problem, he or she is singularly focused on a resolution for their problem. This single mindedness to outcome sometimes distorts the logic in approach. The user thinks: "Why simply have one person and a Level 1 help desk technician involved in working on a solution? I will involve as many people as I can and get a faster answer."
Adding to the complexity of the new help desk incident is the user's possible reluctance to share all the facts or inability to describe the problem in detail to a technical person. A user may know how an application usually works, but not the specifics of the broken steps. Alternatively, the systems may be broken by something that the user did, but is embarrassed to admit.
Finally, a distinction must be made between things that have broken and things that have never been addressed. Emerging user issues may be new or involve software needs that are not part of the typical help desk function. There may be policy decisions to make that represent evolving organizational opportunities, broad market technologies, or uses of technologies.
Therefore, the process that the help desk uses is not simply software tools at its disposal, but a mesh of workflow and escalations that maximize the responsiveness to the masses for daily problems, but also to the individuals with new needs.
Policy. Policy and standards is a growing area of responsibility for IT in small and midsize business. The skill set needed to develop those policies demands collaboration with a variety of resources, both internal and external to the business. Successful policy comes only with senior management support and involvement. Nowadays, policy intends not only to address the supportability and economic wherewithal of the business, but to also establish benchmarks of regulatory and legislated compliance. Finally, they may address any opportunities of misuse of technology that create civil litigation liabilities.
Thus, the goal of IT policy is to define user/help desk expectations of the technology and a way of promoting discipline. The objective is to achieve equilibrium between empowering the user to maximize the corporate investment in technology and the orderliness of the technology. The discipline meets the organizational needs for standardization; budgetary targets of organizational IT capital and operating spending; and effective proactive management of all IT assets owned by our business.
Understanding this helps us define a framework for at least answering some of these questions that arise like:
When developing a policy, the interaction of the help desk, IT management, and other organizational management is different in every organization. Still the authority, consistency, and seriousness of policy must be enforceable by the help desk, or else the chaos that ensues is increasingly inefficient.
Documentation. We cannot support what we do not know. The help desk is easily stymied by poor transparency of how systems should operate when they fail. The details of hardware, network architecture, software, and user access to applications must all be documented to maximize efficiency. Exceptions should be noted of any variances to our corporate standards. Eccentricities of set-up options that needed to be set in a particular way at some point in time to achieve user needs must be well articulated in the event of turnover on user or IT staffs. Simply put -- the help desk staff must quickly know what is going on to be able to respond.
Tools. In the context of the previous elements of a properly designed help desk environment, the tools that we use and how we use them matter. They serve as the mechanism to proactively manage our IT assets and become aware of nuanced changes even before the user calls. There are some essential pieces to this strategy.
In my next column I continue my list of help desk tools. In the meantime, think about how your business has evolved its help desk and let me know what elements are most important to you. Also, look at some novel approaches to solve some of the compound help desk tools needs as presented by Everdream Corporation (Everdream.com).
CHAIM YUDKOWSKY, CPA, CITP, is Director of IT for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) based in Washington, DC. He is also president of Byte of Success Inc., a technology consulting company specializing in helping small and mid-size business grow using technology. He is available for both consultation and speaking. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org SmartPros Ltd. All rights reserved.