Letting power users provide technical support to their peers is an accepted practice for most support pros—if the power users’ role is minimal and their tasks remain simple.

But according to our Member Debate (“Are helpful power users a bane or boon?”), power users who aren’t kept in check are likely to cause more problems than they solve.

Here’s what your peers had to say about the value and risk of using power users for support tasks.

Please, step away from the machine
Many of the members who participated in the discussion said companies should avoid enlisting the help of end users for support.

Support teams should stay away from enlisting end users because:

  • Power users who provide support services aren’t doing the job they were hired to do.
  • Some PCs and even networks could be damaged by inexperienced users who are not actually responsible for maintaining either.
  • Support staff will be forced to spend a much longer time repairing the damage done by power users.
  • The IT staff may lose perspective on the health of their networks if end users address problems without telling the support staff.
  • The use of power users may demonstrate that a company is ignoring the fact that the company needs more support staff.

One former power user, who is now an IT pro, told the story of working for four hours helping a coworker recover some data because he believed the company’s support staff would have just reformatted the drive. Member aric.buckholt responded by asking: “Who did your job for the four hours you were doing that instead of your other work?”

TechRepublic member mmcnaught pointed out another problem: These peer support people are often the most motivated and valued employees. If productivity falls, their supervisor may start pressuring them to either quit supporting their peers or force them to perform tasks that are beyond their skill level or knowledge.

Power users who help with application support are valuable, aric.buckholt said, but troubleshooting a PC can cause problems for everyone. One power user may help fix a problem on a machine, but a different user may be called upon when the PC fails a second time. When the machine fails a third time, support pros often have difficulty backtracking in an effort to diagnose the original problem.

“The IT department loses its perspective of the actual health of the network if problems are never reported to IT and repairs are attempted locally,” wrote snyderd. “The original problem is now buried in the current mess, making root-cause analysis impossible.” Without that analysis, snyderd added, IT budget expenses for repair parts, diagnostic software, etc., may be underreported, skewing projections for the following year’s budget.

Not only does the IT budget fail to reflect what is needed, but power-user programs also hide the true costs of adequate support and lessen the value of the IT staff, several members pointed out.

Packratt summed it up for some users.

“But please, come back and tell me about your humility when, after the many years of your own hard work, you are devalued by some power-user-program-initiating manager who thinks anyone can do your job just because he/she finally figured out how to double-click.”

Everyone needs a little help from his or her friends
But adopting a power-user program can produce benefits, some members argued. Even in situations where there is adequate support staff, knowledgeable end users can take over simple and mundane chores, freeing support pros to tackle major problems.

A few of the arguments for peer-to-peer support are:

  • Power users can help with demands placed on support staffs.
  • A proper power-user program can include logging.
  • Many IT support pros started out helping coworkers before getting into IT.

TechRepublic member bjallmon, who works in a government agency, agrees.

“I believe that distributed training could bear good fruit,” bjallmon wrote. “I refer to it as distributed trust because it’s still my responsibility to react to end-user support and training relating to IT. I know that I need to distribute some of this responsibility to others, through a workgroup way of thinking.”

If you pick the right people to help, they will relish the added responsibility and feel like they are helping their end-user peers.

“I think the point has to be stressed with power users that it’s not about how much you teach them but who you decide to teach it to,” according to TechRepublic member User Deleted. Good power users have the right attitude and the honesty to admit when they take on more than they can handle.

It also doesn’t mean that they can’t keep the IT staff informed about what they have done, if a formal system is set up. That’s how it works at a United Kingdom organization, according to member tinyc.

“All work they undertake is logged as it is for support staff and closed with the knowledge of the IT help desk,” tinyc wrote. “Once power users have proved their worth and reliability, they may have their permissions extended.”

Those permissions don’t have to compromise network security or functionality.

“Educating and creating power users does not imply that they may install anything they want on their machine or that they are walking roughshod on network policies,” according to dehak. “In most environments, a power user is someone who understands the basic fundamentals of how the systems work and interact with the users.

“A few of these scattered about the department or organization can save hundreds of hours of needless support for the infamous ‘I saved the file, but it is gone now; can you restore it from back-up’ call.”

And how many times does a power user prevent a help desk call in your organization? You will never know, according to brackst, who adds, “Can you honestly say that your workload would be any less if you didn’t have power users?”

Technochic said that many IT professionals have forgotten how they got their start in IT as power users. “I have taken it upon myself to learn as much as I can to provide the best service—without forgetting my humble beginnings.”

Tinyc agreed.

“I am now going for certification, because I have been supported by IT staff, encouraged, and corrected where necessary,” tinyc wrote. “As far as I can see, everyone wins, don’t they?”