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As IT permeates the business, the service desk role expands

Don't underestimate the IT service desk. Read about how enterprises are using new ITSM platforms to grow the service desk role and improve business processes across the enterprise.

Funeral home operator Service Corporation International, North America's largest provider of death care services...

and products, has no doubt about the critical role of a service desk.

More than 24,000 SCI employees in 2,600 locations throughout North America have turned to a cloud-based IT service desk for the past eight years to handle any number of issues, from standard technology problems to inquiring about the status of a paycheck.

But the biggest moment of need came in 2017, when in a matter of weeks, hurricanes Harvey and Irma knocked out operations at company headquarters in Houston and a facility in Orlando, Fla. SCI Director of IT Thomas Smith and his staff relied on the IT service desk to handle urgent matters in the aftermath of the storms -- from the restoration of phone service, to the delivery of paychecks, and, of course, any technical issues employees faced while they temporarily worked from home and coffee shops.

"We were able to run as a full [IT] shop without service degradation," Smith said of his company's use of the cloud-based ITIL management service Ivanti. "We stayed up the whole time."

Other organizations are also expanding the service desk role -- if not as a safe harbor in devastating hurricanes, then certainly for its ability to be a Swiss army knife of automated services: help desk, technical and infrastructure support, information management and tracking. Despite the name, an IT service desk isn't simply for IT anymore.

Stephen MannStephen Mann

"IT isn't the only thing being managed by an IT service desk," said Stephen Mann, a principal analyst and content director of ITSM.tools, a website devoted to evaluating IT service management tools and practices. "It's helping the people who manage the technology and it's helping the people in the business. And that's necessary because, as more and more organizations use technology, the technology is the business, and not just part of it."

Customizing ITIL

Even vendors that provide IT services depend on an IT service desk to manage their own IT performance.

Richard HillebrechtRichard Hillebrecht

"Sometimes the cobbler's children have the worst shoes in the village," said Richard Hillebrecht, CIO and CISO of Riverbed Technology, a network and application performance management service that uses the IT service desk Freshservice. "You don't want to neglect your own capabilities. It's a complex world, and an IT service desk will streamline services and give you better data and more clarity and time to tackle issues."

Prior to turning to Freshservice, Riverbed relied on an IT case management system that had built up so many programs and add-ons that it became filled with "junk," Hillebrecht said. The system was difficult to maintain, making it hard to manage IT services.

Riverbed built its own custom client of Freshservice's offering and shares it with a third-party service that provides additional IT staffing to the company. The goal, Hillebrecht said, was for the company's IT practices to follow the framework of ITIL, the ITSM framework developed in the 1980s to standardize the delivery of IT services. The most recent version of ITIL emphasizes the alignment of IT services with business needs and goals, letting companies go a step further by adding other departments to the IT service desk.

Service desk role in improving business results

Riverbed's IT team was the first to use the new platform, followed by facilities management, sales operations, HR and two other departments. The goal: To streamline functions so employees could handle tasks on their own and so departments could better manage internal services.

"We wanted a common platform," Hillebrecht said. "But really the key objective for [IT] was to have a structure for the various services we offer, so we can see things in catalog fashion. Our legacy program wouldn't give us the right answer on which team was working on what."

As envisioned by Riverbed, the expanded service desk role helps IT make good on its promise to fully integrate IT into other departments. For Hillebrecht, that's evident when the company's sales teams are closing deals and suddenly have a technical issue. Employees need to immediately open a help desk ticket and IT, in turn, needs quick access to the ticket to address the problem, he said. Hillebrecht, thus, becomes just as invested in sales as the sales team is.

"I don't want the systems to be the reason why we don't meet our revenue number," he said.

IT service desk to the rescue

Thomas SmithThomas Smith

At SCI, Smith and his team use their IT service desk as an incident and reporting system for IT, while the company's HR, accounting, finance, sales and procurement departments use it to streamline processes. Aside from filing an IT support ticket on the service desk, SCI employees can also switch their banks for direct deposits or find how much vacation time they've accrued. Management can track technology purchases and learn if a single lightbulb needs replacement.

The true test of Ivanti's ITIL service came in August 2017, when flooding from Hurricane Harvey forced the closure of SCI's Houston headquarters for nearly four months. SCI has data recovery centers in Dallas and Salt Lake City, so affected employees could still access data in the cloud. But headquarters housed the main telephone center, and it was damaged. Smith and his staff spent the aftermath of the storm transferring phone lines to a cloud service, and he couldn't imagine completing the project without the cloud-based ticket system to guide his way.

Less than two weeks after Harvey, Hurricane Irma hit Orlando, where, incidentally, SCI's physical IT service desk is located. Power was lost in Orlando for days, forcing IT technicians to work elsewhere, but throughout the outage, they tracked issues through the cloud IT service desk. Employees in both locations worked remotely without interruption. "You wouldn't have noticed if you were a regular employee," Smith said. Perhaps the most critical function the IT service desk offered was the ability for Houston employees to change where they wanted their physical paychecks delivered because they wouldn't be in the office.

Modernizing the service desk role: Think enterprise service management

Charles BetzCharles Betz

Charles Betz, a principal analyst at Forrester, said that if an organization still relies on a call center and a forms-driven, back-end ticketing system, it's approaching IT support as if the year were 2008. Modern IT service desks -- with ServiceNow, SunView Software, Cherwell Software and a dozen other platforms in the market -- eliminate the mystery and frustration of ticketing by centralizing the process, he said. The icing on the cake is that most ITSM platforms offer analytics to measure the use and efficiency of services.

Perhaps the biggest shift in ITSM that CIOs need to get their heads around is what Betz called enterprise service management -- or the use of ITSM frameworks to automate business services that are now handled manually. "If you decide to implement enterprise service management, there's nothing saying you have to bring everything up at once," Betz said. "Do IT first, then other departments. Let the departments know how they can add and tweak offerings on it. There definitely is some need for a consistency among an organization's services. You need a knowledge base that breaks it all down to fundamentals, and you need tech support."

Smith of SCI hasn't shopped for an ITSM product in years, but if a CIO or IT leader asked his advice about shifting to an IT service desk, he would recommend first securing buy-in from all departments, even down to group levels in IT. Then, ensure organizational workflow is standardized enough to enter the service desk system.

"Say you go full IT," he said of a service desk implementation. "Workflow runs through different parts of the department. A computer is slow, so first the desktop team will troubleshoot it, and if they can't do it, then it's the network team. You want to make sure that workflow is in place for the jump. You have to get everyone on the same sheet of music. That's the key."

This was last published in August 2018

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Do you have plans to expand your service desk functions into other departments, like legal or HR?
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Yes we have and still expanding. We are implementing change control and some of our HR areas. We have recently added facilities as well. Next in the line is physical security.
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