CXO

Supporting support: Where does the help desk fit in your IT planning?

There are lots of best practices that have been developed for IT management, but an organization's culture might resist efforts at standardization. This time, a peek behind the curtain to see a particular problem for small offices -- scaling support capacity.

There are lots of best practices that have been developed for IT management, but an organization's culture might resist efforts at standardization. Here's a peek behind the curtain to see a particular problem for small offices — scaling support capacity.

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We've been doing some IT planning in my company recently. Our work has grown considerably over the past few years, and management has finally been convinced that the technical staff has to be expanded to support the new projects that they want to take on. Somewhat troubling for me, though, is that while we're growing the IT staff, much of the expertise we're hiring for will be applied to specific research projects, with IT operations duties taking a secondary role.

I'm not saying that hiring staff to develop specific IT projects isn't a good idea; it definitely is, since historically the IT pros in my office have had to divide their time between long-term projects and user support. Every technical person in the office is called upon periodically to provide direct help desk assistance to staff, and that's not unusual for smaller, cost-conscious organizations like ours. It doesn't change the fact that our management thinks of user support as a commodity, or a utility: as long as the bill is paid, service will be there when it's needed, in whatever quantity is required.

I don't think a quality support environment is built with the minimum possible investment, but I think that's exactly what small organizations like mine end up doing by building a little bit of support time into every technical position. What results is an illusion of coverage, when in reality the technical staff's divided attentions end up having a negative effect on all their responsibilities.

There are lots of ways to manage user support, some successful and many not so. In my organization, the informal academic culture means that there is little interest from our directors in taking an active role in managing IT support. When the wheels begin to squeak around the office is when we start looking to expand our support capacity, rather than trying to get out in front of our needs.

I'm interested to hear from you how your organizations build your user support teams and how your IT management sustains them. I know of other companies (more bureaucratic than mine) that set up formal structures for providing support, where staffing formulas dictate the exact number of full-time-equivalent positions that are required. I've also heard about organizations that run their help desk as an in-house service provider, charging back to individual departments if their consumption exceeds a certain level. This could give the help desk its own revenue stream to spend on staffing, if it sees fit.

What staffing strategies have you seen succeed in making your help desk effective and sustainable? Which ones have fallen short of those goals?

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