Help desk, rebooted: Social, mobile remake tech support

Device-toting users are taking help into their own hands, but enterprise apps still need enterprise help.

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A senior executive, hit with balky connectivity moments before an international video call with investors, sticks his head out his office door. Soon several of his direct reports are crowded around his laptop, trying to re-establish a solid VPN connection for their stressed-out boss.

A new sales hire, too embarrassed to admit to his co-workers that he doesn't know how to set a custom print area in Excel, uses his smartphone to discreetly ask his Facebook buddies instead. Later, he watches a 5-minute video, hosted on the company's internal wiki, that walks him through the top ten Excel FAQs. Problem solved.

What's missing from these scenarios? The help desk.

Employees have long sought assistance from their office neighbors, but now social media, employee mobility, cloud computing and the consumerization of IT are amplifying that trend, so much so that one at least one research firm -- Gartner -- says enterprise help as we know it may cease to exist.

Presented as part of a "Top 10" list at its Infrastructure & Operations Management Summit (pdf) last June, Gartner predicted "the possible end to the traditional help desk," to be replaced by crowdsourcing, where co-workers and friends provide answers to technology questions through social media and enterprise social networks, and by self-service surfing, where workers search for their own IT answers through vendor websites or blogs of trusted experts.

"Users and their mid-level managers are crowdsourcing already," says Jarod Greene, a Gartner analyst who has been following the trend. "We call it 'Hey, Joe!' support. It's not about opening a help ticket or closing the ticket. It's 'I just need to know how to use this better.' "

For their part, enterprise help experts acknowledge the terrain is changing at a rapid pace, but say news of the help desk's death is greatly exaggerated.

"For most users, if they have a problem, they call the help desk," says Franz Fruewald, CIO for the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. "That has not changed, and I don't see that changing. And even if things do change, the help desk won't go away entirely. Definitely not."

Crowdsourcing help

To be sure, help desks have been refining their missions over the last few years, automating solutions to the most frequent inquiries from users -- such as how to change a password or fix a printer -- so help technicians can provide higher-level care for more pressing issues, such as network problems or malware on users' computers.

That's a great start, says Greene, because it allows workers with simple, common tech problems to fix things themselves.

For more complex but still common questions -- creating Word documents, setting up spreadsheet macros, sending group emails, for example -- crowdsourcing can play a part, he says. "The role of IT here is in the community management function, which [will] become critical to the next-generation help desk. If you know there's a specific problem with a certain application or process, why not share it?"

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