IT Policies

Think the helpdesk is disposable? Time to think again.

Just because everyone uses a computer it doesn't mean they can fix them when they go wrong. Let's kill off the myth that we live in a new age of IT literacy.

There's this idea that in this era of bring your own device and a smartphone in every pocket the IT helpdesk is a quaint and unnecessary luxury.

A justification for slashing desktop support staff is that the modern workforce are armchair computer experts - old hands at downloading apps and holding down five-way conversations on social networks - so why not let them help themselves?

Personally I'm not convinced. Just because nearly everyone uses some computer - be it a PC, smartphone or tablet - it doesn't make them an expert on what makes them work.

Using modern devices like the Apple iPad, with its locked-down OS and apps, is computing on the rails and minus any sharp edges. In some respects it has more in common with using an appliance like a TV - you turn on and it works - than it does a general-purpose computing device.

It was this sense that modern computers and OS hide the nitty-gritty of computing, the likes of command line wrangling and shell hacking, that led to the creation of the Raspberry Pi.

Tablets and PCs are designed to be easy to use - but it only takes an error message or two for the end-user to get themselves into hot water. And when staff still have to be told not to water plants sitting on top of a CRT monitor, it's an indication that general levels of IT literacy still have some way to go.

My experience of trying to set up my own PC at work - and plugging the wrong Ethernet cable into the computer causing a feedback loop in the network - backs up the notion that some tasks are better left to IT.

And even the most straightforward of computing tasks can trip up the unwary. A recent attempt to copy files over to a new Windows 7 PC resulted in me being locked out from accessing my own documents. Gaining access took hours and involved delving several layers into the Windows menu system.

There's nothing wrong with allowing staff the freedom to handle trivial tasks like resetting their passwords themselves, but it shouldn't be used as an excuse to cut back on helpdesk staff. You may save money in the short term but you'll pay dear in staff downtime in the long run.

Being a dab hand at syncing your iPhone doesn't make you a computer expert, and the reality is the average user probably knows less than they think. Let's stop pretending we live in an age of IT literacy.

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

42 comments
dmitrymin
dmitrymin

It's a double edged sword - the more intuitive the software becomes the further users distance themselves from understanding how said applications work. And when something goes wrong, the user will usually be unable to fix the problem themselves. Take older Windows OS's for instance. The user experience can't compare to the new Mac OS or Windows 8 but the user was more involved in how things worked and had more access to the internal controls. Having the user involved made the user more savvy about how the system worked.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

they contracted out the entire computer maintenance process and laid off all their IT tech people, including the helpdesk staff as they felt they didn't need a helpdesk now. If the hardware had an issue you rang the contractor and they came and looked at it. If they got it working within 10 minutes, OK. Otherwise they swap out and take back to the workshop. Worked a treat until the first time someone had a software issue; that's when they found out the only real experts on their three internally developed core software programs had all worked on the helpdesk and now had good jobs elsewhere. The end result was they were able to hire back five staff, but only has contractors on a ten year contract and for almost triple their old pay. They now pay five people to run the limited software helpdesk the same money they used to pay fourteen people to do the same job.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

Our help desk personnel have all been in the field and spend many hours on the bench too to keep up with the newest service lines. This makes it easier for the field reps to get it fixed in one call when parts can be anticipated. Keeping clients to a confining list and options helps make parts lists minimal. Users bringing in outside "toys" for connection to company networks find they can't connect, problem one solved when it comes to security. When help"less" desk people do nothing but read from a scrip and attempt to follow a flow chart to guide them down the "garden path" to the eventual fault and either get the unit shipped in for repair or a new one shipped out to replace a defective unit. Script reading can be replaced by a messaging system and a question/answer logic tree to replace the previous human operator. A REAL manufacturer will go to great lengths to insure their products are supported far beyond the point of sale and by a reputable provider in the field if they don't have one of their own.

UnkleJon
UnkleJon

I think the headline and the takeaway are slightly different issues. OK is the helpdesk disposable with regards to companies that encourage BYOD – then yes I guess the argument holds, but the headline suggests that we should not consider helpdesks as disposable items per se. Which I think is wrong. I work in a large multi-national company that has over 85,000 PC or Desktop users worldwide. Last year we set to work looking at the RCA on all our reported desktop incidents we found that over 60% where simple or repeat faults where the users found it easier to call the helpdesk than use some common sense or did not have the tools / knowledge to do a simple fix. In response we instigated a web based FAQ using the historic data to build a self-help database [KEDB] as a first point of call. To that we added a HTB [hard turn back] policy at the 1st line service desk. When calling the helpdesk the IVR advised the user that there was a web based option that they should resort to first. Failing this to hold but any incidents logged via the helpdesk would be checked against the existing FAQ site. If the incident reported was covered by the FAQ advice and the users had not checked it and followed the advice their manager would be sent a “please explain” letter to ascertain if the user was a: aware of the FAQ b: if the team had been briefed on the use of FAQ and c: was the team aware of the cost of support to the company. That was usually enough to help change behaviour. If the user continued to the helpdesk they were asked if they had checked the FAQ and if not they were simply told to go away until they had - HTB. It was amazing in the early months how many instigated calls to the helpdesk were dropped before answering, and how many more where dropped when challenged. When a user and the helpdesk were satisfied they had a real incident to report we happily continued to supply helpdesk and 2nd / 3rd line support, but now from a greatly reduced helpdesk team. Every incident costs the company money and whilst I will accept that not everybody is a PC expert, not every incident needs a PC expert, just simple advice. Why pay an expensive resource to read the same screen a user can read. We reduced our helpdesk traffic by some 80% in the first year by removing the low level stuff. The FAQ developed and became better and better – people learned how to fix their own problems and shared that with colleagues so instead of holding onto an over stretched helpdesk waiting for calls to be answered they were back to work and productive quicker and felt more empowered. The net result is we have cut our e2e support costs by over 50% and still going. So is the helpdesk disposable per se – perhaps not – but it is also not sacrosanct as this article suggests. TIP: If BYOD causes the company a problem then outlaw it on the corporate network. The secret is in the term YO "your own" – therefore "not our" problem. Swings and roundabouts really you want to save money on equipment by allowing BYOD, then expect to pay more on support.

quokka_z
quokka_z

Most users I've come across can't (won't/don't) DIY using F1. BYOD - BSOD: only one letter different!!!

gorman.mi
gorman.mi

What we are seeing with the BYOD faction are a group of self deceiving assistant executives, executives and wannabe corporate high flyers who have become too smart for their own good. Or should I say, think they know everything and are intoxicated with their own reflections in the corporate bathroom mirrors. We have certainly moved on from the days of 1998 when the average user was just about clue-less about their office computers-knowing enough to ask for 'More RAM please!'-remember installing 16MB RAM modules? Yes, these days the 'Savvy' consumer electronics buff likes to think they are well beyond the scope of the Help Desk, but let them try installing a network printer on their 'own device', requiring a TCP/IP port to be created and the printer drivers installed locally, and see how quickly they scream for Help! Or let them try and troubleshoot a DNS issue, or any Network issue invloving drilling into the protocol stacks.."Help Desk! " Not only is BYOD dodgy from a security issue, it removes the governence of the ICT department , and the overall management of the environment, this can seem fine in 'Fair weather' scenarios, but it is when the SHTF that the weakness of this idea bursts into reality. I think any CIO that buckles to the BYOD push is weak, needs their head read; we all need to take a deep breath and "Get Real"!

gscratchtr
gscratchtr

trying to get my brand-new (BYOD) tablet to connect to my company's business apps. When I can't, what can I expect my help desk (who, presumably, knows everything about the apps and probably nothing about my tablet) to be able to do?

greg.dargiewicz
greg.dargiewicz

I have been an IT trainer both in corporations and as a college instructor (and before that worked help desk) for some years. Most companies hire people and sit them down in front of a computer - their primary work tool - having no knowledge of that person's ability to perform even the most basic functions. If they even ask the question, most companies will have a person assess their own abilities (giving, for example, every IT support department the bane of their existence: the Excel "expert" who has never even heard of an absolute cell reference). Yet many employees don't understand the fundamentals, like the difference between Save and Save As, the functioning of the Task bar, how to navigate folders, or how to retrieve files except through a "recent files" list - to say nothing of having anything more than rudimentary word processing, spreadsheet, or presentation skills. Even then, often what they know is rote - if something happens to deviate slightly from their list of steps, they are lost. It is hard to imagine companies allowing people to operate most types of sophisticated equipment without knowing whether the person has the training, skills and knowledge required; without observing whether that person's claims of knowledge are substantiated; and without reviewing whether their results reflect that knowledge. Printing press? EKG machine? You need to be able to show that you know what you're doing. Managing an Excel spreadsheet? "Oh, yeah, I've used Excel before." With computers, on the other hand... Many managers, like their employees, will say, "Well, I'm not a tech person!" as though that excuses them having to learn to use the tools of their trade, rather than just fumble with them. They model this attitude for their staff. I cannot tell you how many times I see a department's shared drive completely lacking in organization, with folders and files every where. Imagine a manager allowing their physical file cabinets to be in the same shape as their shared drives - "I'm not a filing-savvy person. Get Mary to help...she knows the alphabet". Imagine them excusing poor results because their employees don't know how to use their tools - "Sorry, I know how to drive forward, but not how to back up. I don't really like third gear, either, so I don't use it!" Before many businesses decide that users can manage without IT support, they might endeavor to make sure their employees know the basics of how to use their tools, before also making them responsible for maintaining them, too.

minstrelmike
minstrelmike

We can all drive cars but that doesn't mean we don't need mechanics. And _because_ we all drive cars, when we need a mechanic, we need one ASAP. Apply this analogy to computers yourself.

ptandoc
ptandoc

Here's another analogy... Just because someone knows how to drive their car and put gas on it doesn't necessarily mean they can fix their car or let alone do routine maintenance on it (such as changing the motor oil, brake pads, etc.). My four year old and one and a half year old kids both can use iPad and Android devices including downloading and installing apps but when these devices stop working who do they ask to fix it? ...Daddy!

waltersokyrko
waltersokyrko

Unfortunately, help desk support is in the CIO's budget while people's time is spread across many budgets (CFO, COO, etc.). Budget cuts come often and are usually spread across all divisions. So what is a CIO to do when everyone has to cut costs by 10%. Cut help desk support. People reporting to CIO are unaffected. IT people can fix their own desktop. People reporting to CFO, COO, etc. waste time and effort fixing their own desktops. Knowledgeable people in other divisions may provide unofficial help desk support, doing part of CIO's job for him. The result is CIO looks good by quickly cutting costs by 10% and everyone else looks bad because their divisions operate less efficiently. This is a win-win for CIOs. CEOs should not allow this to happen but they are too focused on quarterly financial statement to shareholders to worry about the long term. That is a different topic.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

technical item they know how to fix any of the problems with it. I've yet to meet a jet fighter pilot who knows how to do anything more than refuel the plane and check the tyres are up. Most car drivers know only to call for a tow when it stops working and it hasn't run out of fuel. So why should people using computers be expected to be any different?

loewenkampl
loewenkampl

Just because a person can use a computer, does not mean they can fix it when something goes wrong! I work in Education and all students and teachers use computing devices of some type all day long. As long as everything works like they expect it to, they consider themselves to be "experts". As soon as something goes wrong, I get a phone call. Even though most issues can be fixed very simply by doing a quick internet search of the problem and following the directions, most people are too afraid of breaking something to even attempt to fix their own problem.

sparent
sparent

I worked at companies that had fully staffed help desk and I worked at others that prone "self-service." The problem with the latter is the cost of helping ourselves. Not only am I a very expensive resource to fix computers but it also means lost revenue time. As alluded in some of the posts, the help desk also allows you to assess knowledge gaps in your user community.

baggybb31
baggybb31

Whenever BYOD is discussed I always wonder why businesses think it's a good idea. I mean besides the implications of cost, security etc.. why would a business want their staff wasting their time trying to get devices fixed instead of doing the job they company pays them to do. Surely a salesman should be generating sales instead of spending their day trying to fix their smartphone for example?

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

saying with the new cars that self diagnose we don't need to speak to a car mechanic about any issues at all. Thus the auto workshops can close down.

ceso_softdev
ceso_softdev

using facebook, sending emails, installing apps from iTunes/Google Play and playing minecraft does not make you computer literate!! I can tell that many BYOD backers that have been trying to sell the kool-aid of a new era of user computer literacy have not spent half a day at a Help Desk shop. Me and my guys keep getting this stupid Help desk tickets that not only show the blatant lack of computer know-how, but also a complete lack of common sense from average-joe users. Self-evident computing has tricked users into thinking that they really know what they are doing when it comes to using devices, when in reality they are being guided step by step by a combination of hardware and software that has been dumbed-down so much that even a 3 year old children with a functioning index finger can use. Help Desk may be the underdog of IT, even frown upon by other IT folks, but its still an absolute necessity to keep things running.

wizard57m-cnet
wizard57m-cnet

namely "How do you support an infinite number of devices connected to your network/workgroup?" The old style helpdesk probably is not geared for this task, since most were trained on in-house hardware and/or software. How would an organization approach re-training the helpdesk staff? What would be the cost to retrain the staff to handle multitudes of disparate devices versus the organization sticking with providing "in-house" technology/devices? I'm not aware of anyone performing a study of this aspect.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

help desk I've worked on the staff have been hired for their knowledge of the hardware and software the company uses and they are told not to even try and deal with anything else. With all this BYOD stuff, there's little chance the help desk staff will know a damn thing about it and will only be able to tell the staff to ring the vendor's support group.

Dyalect
Dyalect

And on-going training at that. If your helpdesk is your buffer between staff and tech people they had better know how to handle 50% of the issues at the first line. Or you will have deadwood answering the phone.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

all based on prior experience, training, and culture. In most western cultures it's intuitive to research or read things or add them from left to right, then top to bottom; but that's not true of many Asian cultures where they go right to left.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

If corporate allows BYOD, you have a good point: when the devices cause issues on the corporate network, you can outlaw them and require employees to use the corporate devices. However, if corporate [u]requires[/u] BYOD (as more and more are), then IT had better be prepared to support those devices.

Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

I asked one woman in my agency when she didn't use the Help facility on her computer. Her reply? "I did use the help -- I called you." In fairness, however, most of the Microsoft help files are pretty impenetrable.

diman75
diman75

is exactly why I think Help Desk is pretty much relevant even in today's supposed age of "computer literacy", which just happens to be a myth. The level of today's automation makes certain people believe that they can troubleshoot a technical problem without any background in the field whatsoever. Unfortunately it works out badly for us the techs since the management (at least in my company) is under the impression that any yo-yo can do whatever I do and for a lot less.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

We spend more time on soldering training for the limited number of people who assemble printed circuit boards than we spend on Excel training, a tool used by at least a third of the employees.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

that had a huge field sales force, all had company mobile phones. If one had an issue the SIM card was moved to a spare and the phone sent to the vendors repair centre for fixing. The company didn't even try to trouble shoot - just swap SIM, send staff out again, ship phone out to repair as per the contract. Dead simple. If all have their favourite phones that won't always be possible. Another advantage of the corporate phone set up was they were all on the one account with a huge volume discount rate.

Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

My favorite one was about twenty years ago at a gas station. This lady was driving a car with hubcaps that literally cost more than the car I was driving, and I had to help her because she didn't know how to put air in the tires.

spdragoo
spdragoo

My wife teaches at the local community college, & their courses use quite a bit of technology, in particular relying on online solutions like Blackboard and MyMathLab for students to submit their assignments & grades to be posted. Although not a "techie" per se, she did take a few programming courses in high school, & is very comfortable using a computer... so much so that, even though one of her colleagues was my old high school computer programming teacher, the majority of her co-workers come to her for advice when their systems don't work quite right, or they're having trouble understanding the new/upgraded software that was rolled out. That being said... when it comes to more in-depth problem-solving & troubleshooting on our PC -- or for helping her parents figure out an issue on their computers -- she turns to me to fix it. Start talking about "drivers", "settings", and other technical or near-technical terms, & her eyes start glazing over (she'll later tell me that what I was talking about instantly turned into a combination of mumbling & buzzing sounds that don't sound like English at all). So, while the average person is more likely to be a computer [b]user[/b], and be more comfortable using a PC (whether traditional or "non"), there's still a gap between the "average" user and the "power user"/technical expert. So any company that thinks they can get rid of their IT help desk will be in for a rude surprise.

Fairbs
Fairbs

It's not that you can't support a million different devices. It's you shouldn't from a financial standpoint. A rational IT policy would be to support a couple of different phones and tablet lines. Maybe iphone, ipad, an android phone, and one other tablet. If you want something different, you're on your own for support of the device and also making it communicate properly. When did it get to the point that the users dictate what IT supports? What is the business value of having all of these different devices? Training staff to support a couple of devices is manageable. Supporting all devices is prohibitively expensive.

peschool
peschool

I find it hard to believe that the support staff would have difficulty troubleshooting an HP notebook rather than a Dell, or be unable resolve problems with google chrome in addition to IE. As far as phones and tablets go, really all there is to do is setup wifi connections and email accounts. Sure it complicates things somewhat, but do you really think they won't "know a damn thing about it?"

greg.dargiewicz
greg.dargiewicz

...probably half of those (at least) do not have the underlying math or logic skills required to create accurate spreadsheets. Excel does not provide or eliminate the need for those skills.

SKDTech
SKDTech

Articles proclaiming the death of the Helpdesk/IT due to common user "computer literacy" are side-splittingly funny to me. Every time I look at my ticket queue I am reminded of how few people know anything about PCs in an age where households with a PC outnumber households without a PC. Going from my ticket queue to an article stating that support staff are no longer needed provides a refreshing humor break from dealing with users who can't be bothered to figure out how to move a file from their desktop to their Documents folder.

wdewey@cityofsalem.net
wdewey@cityofsalem.net

It is easier and cheaper to support fewer devices because then staff get to know those devices and their quirks more in depth. You learn how to get driver and support and you don't need to have 6 different processes depending on which vendor built the equipment. Complexity costs money which is what BYOD fosters. Bill

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

yes, some models of Dells and HPs have special issues that are NOT normal. I recently lost a damn good HP notebook to one such problem that is not well spoken of by HP in their support area. The BIOS went down big time and it is NOT repairable on that model.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

And this was the [u]Help Desk[/u] that wrote it up: "MONITOR IS STUCK ON THE SIGN ON MENU ASSOCIATES SWAPPED THE MONITOR AND ANOTHER MONITOR WORKED JUST FINE VERIFIED THAT THE PROBLEM IS WITH THE MONITOR VERIFIED THAT ALL CONNECTIONS WERE PROPERLY SEATED AND SECURE" Figure THAT one out just by reading! Added: Oh, the fix? Three fingers...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

I discovered that the hard way back when I was teaching. One of my students was playing the goofball; he set a random BIOS password AND enabled enhanced security, then came to me when he and his lab partner couldn't get the PC past the password prompt. "Well, enter the password." "I don't know what it is." "You don't know what it is?" "No." "Why not?" "Well, I just hit random keys." "Why didn't you write them down?" "I thought I would remember them." "Well then, reset the CMOS." "I tried that. It didn't work." "It didn't work? Why not?" "I don't know." At that point, his lab partner spoke up and said that, when asked if they wanted improved security, they selected "Yes." After I did the research to find out exactly what they had done, I called IBM and asked what it would take to fix the problem and thanked them very politely for their time when they told meI could replace the chip for x dollars or replace the board for x+50 dollars. A new PC would only cost x+75 dollars. I had a PROM burner in the classroom and tried wiping the chip, then reloading the BIOS, but IBM had that password tucked away somewhere I couldn't get to it with any address the 64kB chip recognized as valid. I tried everything, even building a script that would put 00 into every addressable byte from 0 to fffff! No luck. Every time I plugged that chip back into the mainboard and booted, it came up to that stupid password screen and wouldn't take anything I put into it. He was fined the current cost of the PC; the only reason he wasn't charged full replacement cost was that my classroom was scheduled to get new Dell PCs over the summer.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

1.The computer is an older one and a spare board is NOT available from the manufacturer. 2. The computer is recent enough to have a spare board purchasable but at a cost close to that or more than that of a new computer anyway. In either the solution you mention is not a viable solution.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

if you're willing to shell out the cost of a new mainboard... IBM's "Enhanced System Security" in the PC300/350 series worked pretty much the same way: the BIOS password was saved to flash memory on the BIOS chip itself. If you forgot it, you were hosed; the only fix was a new mainboard because IBM wouldn't sell you the BIOS chip separately.

hazmoid43
hazmoid43

Perfectly good laptop is now only good for spare parts because the BIOS password is not resettable. Only option is to swap out the motherboard, which costs more than a new laptop.