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Help desk, IT processes alignment critical to success

Understanding your IT organization's fundamental processes is essential to selecting the right help desk technology.

A successful help desk project doesn't start with a specific technology, but with a question: How do you want to run your IT operation? Once you've answered that question, then you can select the right help desk technology for your organization. That's according to experts who specialize in IT support, whether you call it help desk, service desk, technical support or any other of a half-dozen names.

If your company is establishing its first help desk or replacing an existing system, start by thinking through IT processes and aligning them with business needs, advised Kristin Robertson, president of KR Consulting Inc. in Fort Worth, Texas.

"The most important thing you can do when looking for help desk software is to sit down in a room and write down what you want to do," Robertson said. "Think about everything, such as the platform and database it has to work on, but, more importantly, what you want to do with this."

Determine which features you want in your help desk system, she added. For example, decide whether you want change management running on top of the help desk, how important it is to have an interface with asset management, and whether you want to heavily customize your workflow or work within the workflow set by a vendor.

Do this work before you contact vendors, Robertson advised. "They want to mold your requirements to what they can give you," she said. "You can look at the [vendor's] website, but don't get in touch with a sales rep until you sit down in that room."

A spokesman for the major association of IT support professionals concurred with Robertson's emphasis on process. "The tools are great enablers of IT, but you have to have a commitment and a culture that understands the value of the IT organization," said Rich Hand, executive director of membership for the Help Desk Institute (HDI) in Colorado Springs, Colo. "If you're just purchasing the tool and expecting it to fix IT, you need to rethink and look at your processes first.''

Hand noted that while many IT professionals are wary of vendors, the vendors in the help desk sector have taken on a thought leadership role, particularly in understanding and aligning tools within the Information Technology Infrastructure Library framework.

Leveraging the knowledge base

Hand said one way midmarket companies in particular can benefit from help desk systems is through proper use of knowledge management.

"Folks are investing in knowledge databases and tools that can harvest that knowledge," Hand said. "If you use your knowledge management tools properly, and you are documenting your incident management and putting it into a knowledge base, the level of service that can be provided at a smaller organization is quite significant."

Hand reported that in HDI's 2006 Practices and Salary Survey, 70% of 250 North American organizations said they use some form of knowledge management in their help desk operations. That knowledge management use, however, covers a spectrum ranging from fairly simple frequently asked questions to sophisticated knowledge systems.

The most important thing you can do when looking for help desk software is to sit down in a room and write down what you want to do. Think about everything.

Kristin Robertson, president, KR Consulting Inc.

Effective use of knowledge management requires that IT support staff document how they solve each problem, allowing staff members or even end users who might later face a similar problem to implement the same fix on a first-call resolution basis.

"One of the challenging parts is not the prepackaged knowledge, but the proprietary knowledge and the cultural, behavioral change that goes along with that, getting people to share and document their knowledge and keeping that knowledge up to date," said Pete McGarahan, president of McGarahan & Associates, a consultancy in Yorba Linda, Calif.

McGarahan, like Robertson a speaker at a recent HDI conference, added, "The big win with all that knowledge is to have it in repository not only to be used by tier one individuals -- the help desk professionals -- but structured in such a way that you can push it out to a self-service module, breaking the one-for-one barrier of the phone.

"If I could publish one resolution on a self-service website, it's a many-to-one kind of ratio, and it's certainly available seven-by-24, 365 days a year."

McGarahan said some organizations rely too heavily on self-service help desks, forcing users to deal with challenges such as diagnostics themselves. He advises help desk managers to use self-service modules and websites for "low-hanging fruit" -- simple tasks such as password resets -- rather than complex, business-critical problems that are better suited for IT professionals.

Quick tips for a better help desk

Experts offer several other bits of advice for implementing and managing help desks:

  • In defining your business requirements, remember to outline what types of reports you will need. (Robertson).
  • Don't underestimate the amount of customization a help desk package will require (Robertson).
  • Get as much administrator training as you can (Robertson).
  • Stay clear of homegrown help desk solutions. They are expensive and depend too heavily on the knowledge of the original developer (Robertson).
  • In planning an implementation, develop scenarios that follow various types of incidents all the way from initial call through solution and documentation, and how an incident will be escalated if it can't be resolved on the first call (McGarahan).
  • Include a form of customer satisfaction measurement in your help desk implementation (McGarahan).
  • Don't think that a help desk tool will solve IT problems that should be addressed with a process (McGarahan).
  • If you are replacing a help desk solution, be sure to understand what you don't like about that old system, so you don't repeat the same mistakes (McGarahan).
  • In estimating ROI for a help desk solution, be prepared to show not just where you can save money in terms of labor costs but also how a help desk solution allows you to help the business in new ways, such as minimizing expensive downtime (Hand).
  • To leverage a knowledge base, train help desk agents on how to use that knowledge base rather than focusing on the business applications that the help desk supports (Hand).
  • Fund the necessary upgrades over time so your help desk tool stays current (Hand).

James M. Connolly is a business and technology writer based in Norwood, Ma. He can be reached at

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