Network administrators need to improve communications with the help desk and other support staff in order to serve the best interest of end users and the organization at large.

That’s the sentiment that some members expressed during a discussion about the “Promote communication between support desk and net admin staff” article that appeared recently in Support Republic.

Members suggest that there is an “us-against-them” relationship between corporate support staffs and network administrators at many organizations. These two groups don’t seem to be on the same team, although they must coexist in the same organization.

When you get past the name-calling and finger-pointing, the general theme of the discussion seems to be that support personnel want network administrators to tell them what’s going on with the network, and why, so they can resolve related end users’ problems.

Bad communication is the root of the problem
Overall, the comments from support techs reveal that support techs think net admins are arrogant and unsupportive of their IT peers on the help desk.

Support tech Paul Hudson wrote that the net admins where he works are “control freaks.” Hudson believes the negative attitude stemmed from the net admins’ run-ins with previous, underqualified support techs, although Hudson said his organization has now hired support staff with more experience.

Now the admins feel threatened because their implausible explanations of why users can’t connect to a server won’t fly anymore. This has caused such a breakdown of communication at Hudson’s organization that support techs have to hack their own network to resolve problems, he said. Unfortunately, Hudson hasn’t had any luck discussing this fact with network admins. “Talking to a brick wall has more effect,” he added.

“Both sides, and management, pay a lot of lip service to communication, but when network problems occur, the help desk is still the last to find out,” he wrote.

Raymond G. Henry said that barrier-preventing communication between support staff and net admins at his company is as large as the “Great Wall of China.”

Henry has worked on both sides of the help desk/net admin barrier. He believes that most of the problem has to do with net admins forgetting what it’s like not to have the knowledge they’ve gained through experience.

“They seem to think that they are now on a higher plateau,” Henry wrote.

Because they’ve forgotten experiencing their own learning curve, admins tend not to offer training to support techs, which ends up causing a general lack of communication about new techniques or changes to the network.

Another member agreed with Henry that status seems to hobble communications, and pointed out that having a broader understanding of network issues doesn’t change the fact that the network group is there to support the help desk and the rest of the organization.

Effective change will have to come from the network group, because it is higher in the IT department hierarchy, the member said. “They must see the support group as their customers and reach out to them,” the member wrote.

Net admins, how do you reply?

Is the ball squarely in the network administrator’s court to eliminate communication problems with the help desk? Share your side of the story in this discussion.

A few ways to make the relationship work
One way to make sure that support staff members are getting the information they need is to include them on the distribution list that describes current and future network issues.

In the original article, TechRepublic support tech Ted Laun described working at an organization where it took him two years to get a response from a network administrator—and he was no longer employed there by that time. Apparently, Laun is not alone in this kind of experience.

“Frankly, the network engineers may as well be on another planet,” wrote Bill Finlan, who works the help desk in a law firm with about 350 users.

Finlan said that the help desk is never aware of any network changes until 20 users are complaining that they can’t get to something or that something doesn’t work. He believes the net admins think that support folks (“obviously lower life-forms”) just wouldn’t understand the importance of a change in the operation of the network.

An example of this is when administrators in Finlan’s organization recently moved some research software and files to a different server. As a result, the shortcuts on a number of PCs quit working. Amid 25 servers, the help desk eventually found where the administrators moved the files and fixed all the broken shortcuts.

“We really need to know about what is up with the network-level stuff, because when it hits the fan and the users are calling, we at least have a clue where to start looking,” Finlan said.

Bmajors had a similar experience with a lack of information from the network administration side. In his case, however, the head admin made a mistake and just didn’t want to tell anyone. Apparently, this admin deleted a group of users from a printer share. The calls came rolling in to the help desk the next morning.

“It gets pretty frustrating most of the time due to situations like this, especially when you’re flooded with calls from the field,” Bmajors wrote.

Some support problems found in policies
Relief for the help desk can sometimes be found in how policies are enforced within an organization.

A typical scenario, particularly in organizations where the security folks are not quite up to date on the latest theories, occurs when users are required to change passwords frequently.

One member recalled a time when he worked at a bank where the security chief required passwords to be changed every 30 days.

“Every 30 days, our help desk would be swamped with a flurry of requests to unlock accounts, synchronize NetWare/NT/Notes/Mainframe/Remote Access passwords,” the member wrote. A bureaucratic paperwork trail accompanied every password request.

While security is no doubt an important function, the security chief must balance security objectives with the cost of supporting this repetitive function—something that cannot be known without consulting the support staff.

Managers have a responsibility to make it work
It takes two to communicate, according to Matyasicm, but it takes an extra effort by management to get the two sides to communicate.

He, too, hails from both sides of the issue, having worked in support and network administration. The blame cycle is difficult to break if managers don’t help each side understand the frustrations of the other.

Matyasicm suggests that representatives of support and net administration meet on a regular basis when changes are planned. That helps everyone take ownership in the potential problems and solutions and eliminates any surprises.

“It creates a cohesive environment and allows everyone to work for the betterment of the organization,” he wrote.

What’s your take?

Is it always management’s fault when communication fails between support and network administrators? Do managers or net admins have a special responsibility to initiate communications? Join the discussion and tell us your ideas.