April 29, 2009, 4:30 PM — Over are the days of the reactive IT help desk with a basic mandate of recording and responding to IT issues from end users. The help desk now sits at the core of an organization's IT service management strategy, being very much based in ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) best practices, according to one researcher. "
Lisa Erickson-Harris, research director at Boulder, Colo.-based research firm Enterprise Management Associates, said this evolution is due to a recent trend among North American companies towards adoption of best practices, particularly those of ITIL.
As these organizations have increasingly been investing in ITIL training and working on process development, "one of the best starting places for most companies is the service desk with its problems and incidents," said Erickson-Harris.
Erickson-Harrison investigates the changing role of the help desk in a recent report, entitled The Aging Help Desk: Migrating to a Modern Service Desk, based on interviews with 158 IT professionals with help desk accountability.
Among the findings was that 62 per cent of participants are either already making the help desk part of the company's overall IT service management strategy or are planning on it.
Actually, even in tough economic times, the research found that help desks have been largely spared the axe, as organizations are realizing the role that today's help desk operations play, she said.
But the continued investment is also partly a result of the help desk being an area of opportunity for savings. Erickson-Harris said an organization with highly-customized help desk tools can, instead of continuing along the expensive path of customizing the same tool to stay current, choose to replace it outright with a different, more suitable, vendor offering.
Paul Ille, director of technical services with Nutly, NJ.-based Alloy Software Inc., a vendor of an ITIL-based IT service management tool, agreed that there is a change in the help desk mandate from reactive to proactive, as IT plays a greater role within the business. "Back in the day, you had technicians in the closet," said Ille. "And, now they are at the front, dealing with business and company policy."
This evolution, continued Ille, also reflects IT's ability to cut out redundancies, by adopting, for instance, better knowledge management and cutting down on "100 support calls a day instead of fixing that issue 100 times." And, with change management, a help desk can quickly address issues if they better understand what's affecting a particular environment.
Alloy Software's manager of marketing and sales, Robert Josefs, said the evolution of the company's IT service management tool has undergone evolution of its own in reflection of the industry, becoming increasingly ITIL-based in response to customer demand. "It's always going into ITIL," said Josefs, referring to the fact that users want more ITIL the more they taste the benefits.
The study by Enterprise Management Associates also revealed that 56 per cent of respondents from large enterprises are managing or planning to manage multiple help desks, and that the majority of those will eventually consolidate their disparate operations.
Erickson-Harris said one of the organizations surveyed, a U.S.-based manufacturing company, started out with five service desk operations outfitted with different staff, toolsets, and processes. "For them, to consolidate into two service desks ... and standardizing on a single toolset allowed them to save a huge amount of money," she said, citing a reduction in software maintenance fees as one area of savings.
But the study found that consolidation didn't just occur among help desks, but 30 per cent of respondents also consolidated their help desks and customer service support functions. Those two areas have traditionally been separate, but Erickson-Harris said the types of activities are very similar despite the different knowledge bases. "The economies that can be gained in the workforce and in the toolsets all fall in the same categories," she said.
Despite the economic advantages, Erickson-Harris acknowledged cultural impediments to merging two historically separate operations.
The research also found that maintaining a service catalogue was a key growth area among organizations, with 56 per cent of respondents having already deployed or planning to deploy one. A service catalogue is great for making visible the magnitude of the IT department's accountability, and that it "isn't a black hole for users," said Erickson-Harris. And, because the process of defining a service catalogue entails identifying, defining and prioritizing services, that lays a solid foundation for cost tracking, she said.
Other key findings include an increased focus on self-service; and incident, problem and change management through the deployment of ITILv.3.