The help desk was a new idea for IT departments back in the 1980s and 90s. That’s when organizations figured out that it was far better to have a team of people fielding all the calls for help that came in to IT, rather than having the engineers’ work disrupted by breaking off what they were doing to answer the phone calls from users needing help. Justified by that initial benefit, help desks appeared and evolved across the IT industry and across the world.
Despite an initial goal of minimizing disruption to IT, the positive benefits of a dedicated group focused on communication, for the user community, quickly became evident. At its heart, a good help desk does exactly what its name implies – it delivers help to those who need it.
Beginning around the year 2000, the IT service management (ITSM) scale and scope moved up and onwards – and one of the apparent ”upgrades” has been the substitution of the term help desk by the term service desk to imply a wider range of responsibilities, most especially the capture and completion of service requests.
While that’s all good and true, it shouldn’t take all our attention away from the initial purpose of the help desk; those basic help desk skills and functions are still needed and, indeed, are still there inside the modern service desk: help is delivered and service requests are resolved. We need to remember that a key role of ITSM organizations is to deliver that help desk capability because when users can’t do what they need to, they don’t feel a need for service, they feel the need for help – and delivering help is not quite the same as responding to service requests.
I’ll explain what I mean…
Service requests require consistency and following procedures. It’s about someone asking for something they’re entitled to have. That could be a wide range of things, from access to an application or a building through new software to a replacement PC. A key aspect is ensuring that entitlement is actually there, which means following procedures and rules. So, with the occasional exception of course, the service request part of the service desk needs laid-down procedures and staff to follow them. This makes it eminently suitable for automation, therefore we see more and more of this role being delivered via self-service portals without the need for human interaction.
On the other hand, the help desk role is a little different. When folks need help, it isn’t from entitlement but from a position of need. Often, they need more than just the answer to what’s wrong, they need support and understanding. Some kinds of help can be accessed perfectly well through self-service portals, but for many situations, human-to-human interaction is required.
Far more often than with service requests, calls for help don’t fit neatly into the laid-down procedures, rather they require an element of adaptation and amendment with a certain amount of innovation from the help desk staff. In unexpected circumstances (and we all meet those from time to time), a good help desk will actually have to go against the rules – something that management should encourage. For more on that, please read Do You Know When to Break the Rules? by Stuart Rance where he discusses a concept he heard presented by Ivor Macfarlane called “intelligent disobedience” – knowing when not to follow the rules can lead to better decisions under certain circumstances.
So … don’t let the modern terminology distract you or your staff from the (very much!) still current need for a help desk. Folks with service desk in their job title should continue to see themselves as offering help to those who need it – and going the extra mile past laid-down rules to offer it.
Even more importantly, managers responsible for service desks need to realize that they are also automatically responsible for their company’s help desk – and be aware of the dual roles they and their staff are taking on.
In all the latest hype about self-service and automation, it can help to ask yourself if your service desk is a place where users can feel comfortable coming up to – when they need help, when they are confused as to what to do, or when things just seem to be going wrong and they don’t how to deal with it.