How to Reorganize the Help Desk

Friday Sep 8th 2006 by James Maguire
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The help desk is an unloved part of the IT organization, but effectively reorganizing it can create many benefits.

Reorganizing the help desk is a task that many companies would rather avoid.

The problem is, the help desk performs a thankless task. Sure, it solves employees’ hardware and software snafus, and does a lot of handholding during technical difficulties.

But the help desk isn’t a profit center. Just the opposite: many companies see it as a needed but unwelcome expense. And no IT manager ever won fame and glory by restructuring the help desk. The help desk just isn’t sexy.

Yet businesses ignore the help desk at their own peril. “The problem is, if you don’t nurture it, it will actually cost you money in the long run,” says Forrester analyst Chip Gliedman.

And constantly shaving the help desk budget eventually backfires. “If you cut it to the bone, then you don’t have the bandwidth to do things like usability testing and documentation testing” and many other tasks that minimize support calls in the future.

Plenty of companies, understanding the importance of good tech support, are now biting the bullet and actively working to reorganize their help desks, Gliedman tells Datamation.

Prompting this restructuring are a number of factors, all working in combination:

License Consolidation -- Many corporations have acquired, say, three or four major help desk tools over the last ten years. “Now it becomes a matter of: ‘let’s consolidate the licenses and the organization.’”

Technology Absorption -- “Right now we’re in the middle of a technology absorption curve,” as opposed to a tech growth curve, he says. “So people overbought going into 2000-2002, and they’re still absorbing all that. It will probably be another two years again before it picks up again in that fashion.”

So while businesses are absorbing rather than acquiring, “it’s a good time to get your infrastructure in shape.”

Moving away from ad hoc toward formal processes -- “There’s been a new generation of [help desk] tools that came out in the last year or so, all of which were based on more formal process models,” Gliedman says. These applications are moving help desk management away from an ad hoc process toward a more clearly defined workflow.

As companies are working to improve their change management, they’re saying “Let’s step up the formality of how we do things."

But this movement runs into resistance – and can add expense. “When you add a process model to something that’s being done in a fairly ad hoc fashion, you in essence are adding overhead. And at least initially, people wonder why you’re doing it. They can say ‘It can’t be any better! I don’t like this!’”

But the more formalized process can enable the help desk to work smoother long term, allowing it to better handle fluctuations in demand and other stresses.

“Imagine if the air traffic control system worked on an ad hoc fashion. It would work fine – for a while.” But it’s only by having a set of clearly codified processes and procedures that allows this system to handle tough situations.

Key Principles of Help Desk Reorganization

Gliedman, after extensively studying help desk structure, created a list of “must consider” principles for help desk reorganization.

Centralize Help Desk Management

One of the problems with the help desks of large companies is that they've split into separate fiefdoms. Businesses acquire businesses, or start new divisions, or open remote offices, and each entity has its own self-managing help desk.

At best, this scenario is inefficient. At worst it’s a major money drain. These stand-alone help desks require duplicate resources. Knowledge sharing is reduced. Each separate help desk handles problems with varying degrees of effectiveness – meaning one division is ill-supported while another is well taken care of.

Centralized management lessens these problems. With one central management team, “overall first contact resolutions rates will rise, time to resolution will fall, and there will be less bouncing of issues between groups without end-to-end accountability,” Gliedman notes.

“In essence you’re going to have the VP of IT operation overseeing everything, and they could have multiple directors or VPs underneath them.”

NEXT PAGE: more key principles of help desk reorganization.

Decentralize Resources to Provide more Personalized Support

Although all of a company’s help desks should be managed centrally, it’s still a good idea to provide each division with its own desk. For example, a company that runs both a trading floor and a call center. These two divisions need very different types of help desks.

The resources for a company’s various desks shouldn’t be centralized in any one geographic location. They should be distributed throughout the organization in a manner that allows the greatest personalized support.

It’s not efficient, for example, to centralize resources for software and hardware support. They should be distributed by need. “If you’re going to support a trading floor, I would argue that you keep all those [hardware and software] resources together, including the people who are going to support the hardware,” Gliedman says.

The problem with a centralized depot of support resources is that employees end up working around it. “Remote users, feeling that the centralized support organization is not responsive to their needs, establish their own technical support group,” he notes.

“Winners and Losers”

When you restructure your help desk, you'll inevitably bruise some egos.

“Any time there’s a reorganization, the first thought is, ‘who won and who lost?’” Gliedman says. “Who was a peer who is now working for somebody?”

“Blanket statements and pronouncements do not take the place of personal contact, personal career planning and counseling, and open communications,” he notes. “Remember that a few dissatisfied malcontents can torpedo the best laid plans.”

The toughest part of this “winners and losers” equation is that sometimes a deep reorganization calls for hiring and firing.

Gliedman recalls consulting with a company that was in the middle of a help desk restructuring. The company confided in him: “We’re making these changes, and we’re trying to do this, but the perception of the help desk is really bad. It’s hard to say it, but sometimes you just have to change the people.”

The perception of change is sometimes as important as change itself when it comes to building credibility, he says. “So keeping the same organization in place, but changing the processes or structure underneath it, may not be taken by the end users as an improvement.”

Unfortunately, new staff or a new manager may be required. “Sometimes you have to make those kind of changes, just to set the stage to rebuild credibility.”

Let Users Know the Cost Benefit

Sometimes the need to cut costs forces a company to slash its help desk budget. There may be no choice in the matter.

In this scenario, many employees will now receive lower quality support. It’s best to inform these workers of the underlying financial reason, Gliedman recommends.

Make it clear to them in terms they’ll understand, by saying something like, “We had two choices: we could fire three people, or we could increase the deductible,” he suggests.

He points to an example where a corporation saved $40 million over four years by using a support desk contractor that upped the response time from 4 hours to 48 hours. Because the employees understood the value, they dealt with it, and even set up a depot of back-up PCs to use for short-term emergencies.

Informing the affected workers is better in both the short and long term. “They’ll still grumble, but they’ll understand.”

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