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Is Your Help Desk Asking for Help?

Today, IT staff are expected to do more with fewer colleagues to help. Not only are they supporting more customer requests, they are the front line assistance for the many IT projects. What can management do to help?
Jan 28, 2004

Kevin McLaughlin and Jerry Kenney

John, my help desk manager came into my office one day, and I could tell he was frustrated. "I'm killing myself and my team trying to keep up with the company's latest implementation". This is a global multi-million dollar project that crosses most of our business areas, and the help desk simply couldn't keep up with the workload. Some of our people were laboring 20 or more hours each day. "The pagers never stop ringing," John complained. "Frankly, I don't know what to do!"

Unfortunately I did not have a ready answer for John. I stepped in as an escalation resource for major events, and in the end we ended up "winging it". Although we successfully supported the roll-out, we burned out a lot of our support staff.

A couple of months after we completed the project, Bob, one of my colleagues came to my office and asked me if I would be interested in a Service Management Support Methodology that could be applied to large scale global applications, services, and technology implementations. The methodology he was touting was supposed to focus on meeting the needs of my customer base without overworking my support staff. Like Duh, of course, I would be interested; I mean who in the IT Support Management community would say no to such a question?

Bob then proceeded to tell me about the IT Information Library, or ITIL, in a great deal of detail. He talked about modules for Help (Service) Desk, Problem, Change, Configuration, Availability, Capacity, Release, and Service Management, and he barely paused to take a breath. It wasn't long before I was hopelessly lost. Interested, yes, but I was at a complete loss to understand the scope and depth of what Bob was talking about. So I asked him to focus on the one item that most interested me at the time, Help Desk Management.

Bob proceeded to tell me that a Help or "Service" Desk could be overloaded because they weren't focusing on the correct processes. "Oh no," was my first reaction, "here's someone else who wants me to create more flow charts, more diagrams, more procedures so I can produce more useless documents for my staff to ignore." I tactfully expressed those concerns to Bob, and he assured me that that was not what ITIL was about..

And then he convinced me, albeit reluctantly, to give the ITIL Help/Service Desk modules a try. This is the module that concentrates on the Incident Management processes. After I agreed to try the ITIL processes for a six month period, Bob dropped the bomb: my help desk staff should not try to determine and resolve root causes for the issues they receive. "What? Why Not? How can you expect us not to solve our customer's issues when they call us?" I reacted in my best Army NCO voice.

"Relax. Calm down," Bob responded in his most soothing, problem-solving tone. He quickly explained that according to ITIL, the help or service desk is the entry point for incidents defined as any occurrence outside of expected norms. Its primary responsibility is to act as a single point of entry, which means it takes, logs, and tracks all requests while pursuing the goal of restoring service to the customer as quickly as possible.

For example, if a customer has an email outage, they don't care how the system gets fixed; they want to they get their email service back. So the best response for them might be for the service desk personnel to reboot the system and restore email service in 3 minutes or less instead of having to experience an outage of a couple of hours waiting for the technicians to hunt down the root cause of the outage.

Well, OK, that makes sense. But what is to keep the outage from happening again and again and again since no one bothered to figure out why the outage occurred in the first place?

"That, my friend," said Bob in his best, the-fish-has-taken-the-bait voice, "is where the Problem Management Process comes in.

Next.. the Problem Management Process and how it can prevent having your help desk ask for help.

This story is fiction, based on the kinds of incidents that happen in IT every day; it was written to illustrate the ITIL processes. Kevin McLaughlin is a Service Manager for Procter & Gamble; he has been an ITIL practitioner for more than 5 years, is an ITIL exam grader, and has his Manager's Certification in IT Service Management. Jerry Kenney is currently a Ph. D. candidate in Texts and Technology at the University of Central Florida; for the last four decades he has been a writer, trainer, and QA manager for a number of global corporations.

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