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IT service desk vs. IT help desk: What's the difference?

One came first and focused on IT fixes. The other got direction from ITIL. Users ask for one over the other. Today, something called ESM might just put both out to pasture.

Sometimes, figuring out whether you need an IT service desk or an IT help desk requires help in itself. Or does it require service?

More often than not, an IT service desk provides automated IT services, just as the name implies. An IT help desk, on the other hand, connects employees to the help they need -- whether it's a webpage or a human voice -- when they have an IT problem like a forgotten password or a glitchy router.

Sounds straightforward -- except it isn't, according to ITSM experts. Sometimes, a help desk performs IT services. Other times, a service desk offers IT help. Ultimately, the solution to this semantics puzzle is to fully understand the technology before you buy it, unless, of course, a vendor offers an IT service desk and calls it a "help desk," or vice versa.

Here are two experts to sort things out: Charles Betz, principal analyst serving infrastructure and operations professionals at Forrester Research; and Stephen Mann, a principal analyst and content director of ITSM.tools, a website devoted to evaluating ITSM practices and tools.

"There's huge overlap," Betz said. "There's a lot about a help desk that you could say is a service desk. And there is a lot about a service desk that does help desk kinds of things."

For Betz, if terminology and function were to be diagramed, an IT help desk would be contained within the larger box of an IT service desk. A service desk can perform many standard help desk tasks (like providing answers to tech questions or troubleshooting problems) while also performing service desk tasks: solving service disruptions, managing data access and more.

IT focus vs. end-user focus

Charles BetzCharles Betz

The IT help desk came first. It was created in the late 1980s to fix IT issues, Mann said, a principal analyst and content director of ITSM.tools, a website devoted to evaluating ITSM practices and tools.

The IT help desk focused on IT instead of the end user, according to Mann, but as business technologies advanced, the need for a more business-focused function arose. Thus, the concept of managing IT as a service came to the fore and the IT service desk was born.

IT service desks found guidance in ITIL, the IT service management (ITSM) framework developed in the 1980s to standardize the delivery of IT services and which in recent versions emphasizes the alignment of IT with business outcomes.

Stephen MannStephen Mann

"It was convenient to change the name -- not have it be a 'help desk' but a 'service desk,'" Mann said, but stressed this name change was not just about terminology; it signaled a shift in IT's role in the enterprise.

"A service desk was also a change from the traditional 'break-fix' of old. With the old help desk, you used to call an 800-number and hopefully someone would call back in two weeks, if you were lucky," he said.

Mann believes that even though an IT service desk automates many IT functions, it still provides help, and that's because many users view it as a trusted place to seek help, no matter if it's a big service offering with multiple ways to reach multiple sources of help, or if it's a small product with one expert.

"If you ask the customer whether they are being supported, they'll call it a 'help desk' because they want help," he said. "You would think in 2018 there would be a push to call it whatever customers call it. If [companies] are trying to be customer-centric, they would call it what customer the customer wants to call it."

IT service desk vs. help desk vs. ESM

Forrester's Betz sees the name game possibly going in a different direction, pointing to a development that's been flying under the radar for at least 10 years: The IT service desk expanded into an enterprise service product.

For at least a decade, Betz said ITSM companies such as ServiceNow allow employees to use the service desk to seek help with non-IT matters such as tracking down colleagues in other facilities, filing tickets for plumbing and electricity issues, and other inquiries that require human intervention but can be triaged through automation.

The field is called Enterprise Service Management (ESM), and Forrester claims to be the first analyst firm to recognize it as a market, Betz said. CERN -- the European research organization that operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world -- uses ServiceNow for ESM. "It's not just IT, but finance, health, occupational matters," he said.

Time will tell if most users and marketers will call ESM "ESM" or consider it a function of IT service desk or even IT help desk. As long as they know what these functions are good for, maybe a name doesn't matter at all.

This was last published in July 2018

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IT help desk vs. service desk vs. ESM --where does your IT department sit?
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