An interesting assumption has been floating around the IT industry for the past several decades. As technology continues to advance, each successive generation takes for granted technologies that were new and amazing to the prior generation. Internet email is commonplace and even outdated to most newer workers, yet it was an earth-shattering innovation to the generation that grew up with memos, faxes, and telex. What the IT field has repeatedly assumed, and repeatedly been wrong about, is that familiarity with using technology equates to an ability to self-manage technology.
The Facebook generation
The latest manifestation of this failed theory is the stream of predictions that the "Facebook generation" will be essentially self-managing in terms of technology. Proponents envision tumbleweeds rolling through the IT support call center, and cobweb-encrusted telephones as this generation overcomes every technical challenge with nary an email or call to tech support.
The first flaw in this theory is that this "revolution" should have occurred years ago, since today's middle managers grew up with computers and were no strangers to email and web searching, even though they might have visited CompuServe and Alta Vista rather than Gmail and Google during their formative years. Despite this, most help desks I've seen have reduced volume through superior self-help options, rather than an increased technical capability on the part of their users. Interestingly, an increased savvy has arguably increased the complexity of help desk inquiries.
Familiarity doesn't equal troubleshooting capability
If one looks at other areas of technology, it's quite obvious that familiarity does not necessarily breed a deep understanding and troubleshooting capability for the underlying technology. In the early days of the automobile, owners were largely responsible for maintaining the vehicle and troubleshooting whatever problems they encountered, lest they remain stranded on the side of the road. In our modern times, despite Americans in particular sporting a car (or three) in every garage, I cannot think of a single friend or acquaintance of mine who does something as rudimentary as changing their own oil. In fact, most car owners can't even be troubled to track service intervals on their cars, leading to a "service minder" light being installed in most autos, which incidentally, and not unintentionally, has broadly increased service revenue for most vehicle makers.
Playing to the next generation's strengths
While someone who grew up learning how to use email might be able to give an explanation of SMTP and IMAP that would result in a blank stare from the generation where email "simply works," there are still opportunities to play to the strengths of newer entrants to the workforce. For the current generation, human interaction when seeking information is usually lower in the list of priorities than for past generations. A help desk designed to field a high volume of calls would be suboptimal for this group compared to an easily-searchable help database or email/IM-based ticketing system.
Similarly, the new generation has grown up with rapidly changing products and added "beta" to the common vernacular, as the mark of a trendy new tool, rather than a risky and untested platform. Where previous generations of workers prized stability and robustness at the cost of a long release cycle, the newer generation of workers wants functionality today, even if it's incomplete.
While most organizations would be premature in closing their help desks in anticipation of the "self-supporting" generation, there's no harm in rethinking how you deliver and support your organization's IT services.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.