Many medium-size and enterprise-level organizations divide the IT staff into at least two separate departments: desktop support (help desk) and network administration. While this division is often necessary, a lack of communication between these two groups can slow the resolution of support calls, frustrating both the desktop support staff and end users. In this article, a couple of IT pros from TechRepublic offer their insight into the help desk/net admin relationship and suggest ways for both to work together effectively.

Two sides of the coin
TechRepublic support technician Ted Laun once worked for an organization that failed miserably when it came to net admin/support communication.

“You never knew what you were getting into,” Laun said about troubleshooting calls at this organization.

Communication was extremely poor between the support staff and the network administrator. Laun once e-mailed the net admin about a problem and finally received a response two years later.

“I have a feeling they finally got a network administrator who actually checked the [mail] account,” he said.

Because of the communication issues, Laun never had a good picture of how the organization’s network functioned, which seriously limited his ability to support end users.

From the net admin perspective
Mike Laun, a network administrator at TechRepublic who is also Ted’s brother, has worked both for the help desk and net admin groups. There are a host of issues that play into the administrator/support dynamic, he said.

“Net admins try to get their work done without impacting the end users,” Mike Laun said. That’s why they often have to work outside typical business hours.

Yet it’s not uncommon for net admins to perform certain tasks during the normal working day, and 90 percent of the time they can pull it off, he said.

“I’m not talking about rebooting an Exchange server in the middle of the day,” Mike Laun said. “I’m talking about redundant servers that aren’t mission-critical or aren’t used constantly.”

At some large organizations with elaborate change control procedures, it can take days or months to get permission to drop a server to perform a routine task. Under the theory that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission, net admins have been known to “accidentally” stop a server to do their job.

“It really creates more work for the desktop people when net admins don’t notify anyone [when they’re taking a server down],” Mike Laun said.

“I understand the help desk’s frustration. Something happens that you haven’t been told about and now you have all these users complaining.”

A symbiotic relationship
While you might not have the power of a CIO or even an IT manager, there are things the average support pro can do to improve communication between the help desk and network administration groups.

Many companies will allow support personnel to do some tasks traditionally associated with network administration. When Support Republic Community Editor Bill Detwiler worked the help desk for a large utility company, he and his coworkers had the ability to reset passwords, configure network share permissions, add new user accounts on all systems, and perform user account security updates. This allowed the net admins to focus their attention on more serious issues, such as network outages and server crashes.

When problems did need to be escalated to network administration, the help desk could do so through the IT department’s call tracking system. From that point on, the net admins owned the problem, and when they resolved it, they were responsible for contacting the end users.

“We escalated very few problems to the network administration group,” Detwiler said. “The calls we did escalate were either clearly defined network issues or network problems that we tried to troubleshoot thoroughly but couldn’t resolve.”

The net admins appreciated the fact that the help desk was making every effort to resolve problems, instead of simply dumping all network-related problems on them. Net admins at the company tried to respond quickly to end user problems because of this relationship with the help desk, Detwiler said.

Even so, the help desk/net admin relationship suffered because the two groups were located on different floors of the same building, he said.

“It’s always helpful for organizations to get coworkers together on a regular basis,” Detwiler said, “This helps foster a sense of unity and understanding between various groups.”

If such meetings are impractical within your organization, at least put both the help desk and system administrators on the same e-mail distribution lists, Ted Laun suggests.

“It’s better to do a limited amount of spamming, then have people not knowing what’s going on,” Ted said.

Can you help?

If your organization splits the job functions between support and network administration, and it has an effective way of getting quick responses for help desk questions sent to net admins, tell us about it in the discussion below.