CXO

Don't be premature in closing your help desk

The new generation's familiarity with technology does not mean it's capable of troubleshooting. Think twice before you let go of your help desk.

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 Internet email is commonplace and even outdated to most newer workers, yet it was an earth-shattering innovation to the generation that grew up with memos, faxes, and telex.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.

About

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 ...

14 comments
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182
Murfski-19971052791951115876031193613182

I know a lot of people out there who drive a car every day, but don't know the difference between a carburetor and a fuel injection system, much less how to diagnose and fix a problem. A lot of these young kids (for me, that's anyone under 30) can drive their computers at full speed on the information highway, but if they run out of gas, they call a mechanic to fix it for them.

mslizny
mslizny

When we "review" where to find files, how the computer works and similar basics, students in my classes come up and thank me for the help. Yet there is a belief among administration and other faculty that students today already know the basics. This means that students are assumed to have many computer skills that they don't. Faculty are impressed with what the students can do that the faculty cannot do, but this does not always translate into enough information about how computers works to use them professionally.

anup_gupta2001
anup_gupta2001

This is a good observation from the author. But as inferred at the end of the article - familiarity does not mean - that the user will be able to troubleshoot a problem in the system. After having managed users for about 10 years in various environments - I have seen that the more IT Savvy the user is - the more complex the problem is. And sometimes - it really becomes very difficult to explain to them the solution - because even a super user of an e-mail like system - does not understand how it works. As they say - Half knowledge is dangerous - it is very apt !!

wtburnette67
wtburnette67

And this goes right along with the BYO craze.

CACASEY
CACASEY

Until and unless human operated systems (of all types) operate without error, the need for support (of some type) is a foregone conclusion. While I don't agree with Patrick a lot of the time -- well done. Related to this topic, I have suggested to my current client that an IT initiative be undertaken to educate several thousand users about how to use the support desk (and self-help functions) to their advantage. This is in contrast to the typical "here's the help desk phone/e-mail/url; you know what to do" model a lot of companies employ. The idea is simple: with improved front-end input the back-end result will be faster and better, if not less expensive.

TooOldToRemember
TooOldToRemember

all of the studies stating that Help Desk groups should be shut down. Ours runs as a customer/user support function that has had to change as time passes. And we have people in the company that fall across the spectrum in needing support, explanation, assistance or whatever the correct way to say it is. As technology becomes even more pervasive in companies, there will always be those who need support as they lag behind the technology curve while they maintain their currency on export-import laws, FASB rules, IFRS/GAAP changes and the like. While we rely on them to know the minute details of their areas of expertise, they in turn will call on us when they feel the need to do so. As some have alluded above, it is sometimes those that profess they need no help that require the most in remedial help.

russell.powell
russell.powell

Highlights perfectly the kind of installations we are seeing of our software of late. Much more focussed on the help desk as a proactive source of knowledge rather than a reactive service provision. Well said Patrick. www.oxygenhelpdesk.com

TRgscratch
TRgscratch

create worse problems when they try to fix a problem themselves? resulting in *increased* responsibility at the help desk? How many of the self-fixers carefully document what they've tried before they called ?

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

The majority of "help desk" techs should be writing knowledge base articles rather than answering the phone. It's not closing the help desk, it is, as Patrick says, changing the focus.

eldergabriel
eldergabriel

An astutely observant article; "it’s quite obvious that familiarity does not necessarily breed a deep understanding and troubleshooting capability for the underlying technology." Obvious to [i]some[/i], that is. You hit the nail on the head. It's still nothing short of forehead-smackingly stunning to me just how many people think they're capable of troubleshooting and managing their own technology just because they feel comfortable using apps on their smartphone. Most people these days know just enough to be dangerous. And the [i]attitude[/i] you sometimes get from these "power-user" types is just icing on the cake. Yes, folks, amazingly enough, the guy with the electrical engineering degree who can create the software you use actually DOES know more than you do about technology.

dave
dave

that are much younger than me are good at using the technology or at least the social media part. My 30 something kids do not fully understand when the WiFi goes dead or drastically slows down. Can they fix it? Many times with a great deal of research and effort. When they are consuming all the bandwidth due to downloads, etc they like most kids do not understand that there are thruput limitations. Try to get a stable thruput running Logmein at a coffee shop. Young adults can run the applications that they use very, very well. Better than I will ever be able to. How those applications work over the network and all the limitations that go with it not likely. Even todays coders are very, very dumb in this respect. One customer of mine had a group designing a client / server application. Worked well in HQ with 100/1000 to the desktop. When it was put in the field running over a 256Kb link it failed. Why? Well they put very tight response times in the server side. If the client didn't respond in so many milliseconds then the server would drop them. The timers needed to be set up to several seconds to handle the limited thruput of a 256 Kb link. Don't think that such bandwidth limitations exist today? Look at the upload speed of many DSL and lite cable services. What we may be seeing is a shift in what the help desk does. Less of OS and application assistance and more into the infrastructure to support the applications.

WZ17
WZ17

Furthermore, lets create more help desk jobs here in the U.S. I believe there is a unanimous appreciation from all sides of the table when troubleshooting with a person who natively speaks English.

adrian.ron
adrian.ron

well all is well cept the bloody companies will send it out to like china or india or asia due to cost....cant fight economics

dave
dave

Before Nortel got slammed with too many complaints about overseas telephone support I remember one incident. I called in and got a Level 1 person whose english was actually refreshing / surprising until we started to talk about the problem. I might as well been talking to my dentist as she didn't know what a switch was let alone a failed port. My only way around this was to ask for the supervisor on duty and request an escalation to Level 2. Level 2 was in North America. Yahoo.

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