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Help desk, rebooted: Social, mobile remake tech support

By Todd R. Weiss
October 12, 2012 06:00 AM ET

Such crowdsourced help can be facilitated -- by IT and other channels -- through in-house wikis, enterprise social networks, internal portals or even through intranets. A key benefit to such options is that a frazzled user can post a help question to colleagues in real time and get an almost immediate answer, says Greene.

"What will change is the mentality of the help desk, which has always been 'detect and fix,' " he says. "With social media, mobility and BYOD [Bring Your Own Device], that's changing."

Employees using personal devices now have more options to seek help outside the confines of the enterprise, he says. "The traditional help desk is dying or dead in some organizations. That 'log it and flog it, detect and fix' model is dying."

Changing, perhaps, but dying? Not so fast, say a sampling of executives Computerworld spoke with about Greene's assertion.

People still need people

True, mobility, BYOD and enterprise social networking are affecting help desks, but those emerging trends are not going to morph tech support into a crowdsourced-or-nothing future, says Fruewald of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, which has a help desk staff of nine who serve some 3,000 users in 125 locations.

To reduce help calls, upgrade tech

Forces like cloud computing, mobility and social media may be changing the corporate help desk from the outside, but at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the biggest impacts instead have been coming from internal changes.

Washington-based BBG, which operates networks including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, has been "relentless" in upgrading and automating its infrastructure, and in turn reducing help desk calls from their 3,000 global users by 27%, according to CTO/CIO Andre Mendes.

Previously, BBG struggled to patch and maintain myriad operating systems running on antiquated hardware, all of which has now been replaced. BBG now has most users on Windows 7, with Windows 2008 Server R2 as the back end, says Mendes. The company now runs Microsoft Exchange, SharePoint and Lync all in the cloud.

By updating its infrastructure, BBG was able to eliminate many of the reasons people needed to call the help desk, says Mendes. As for the future: "We're now implementing the next step -- virtual desktops -- so that the interface at the user level is much simpler and much less likely to create issues that need to be resolved."

"Folks have been crowdsourcing before the term even existed. They had a friend, a relative and they got tips, then they tried them. Sometimes they helped and sometimes they didn't."

And that's the main problem with crowdsourcing: If the wisdom of the masses is wrong, it can exacerbate a user's problems, and worse, misinformation can snowball through the enterprise. "It's not as easy as changing just one thing, because it impacts others," Fruewald says. "We would prefer that our people come to us. It's easier for us to fix things the first time."

Likewise, while automated cloud-based solutions are being touted as a next big thing, Fruewald says they too only go so far. "Anyone who's ever worked with automatic response call-in systems in an organization would probably share my frustration with them," he says. "For some of our users, it would be a recipe for disaster. Often, you don't get the answers you are looking for. Certainly we use the cloud for other things, but not for our help desk."

The Archdiocese's help desk serves a diverse collection of users, from schoolteachers to medical staff in hospitals to workers in nursing homes and cemeteries. "A vast majority of our users are not road warriors who can solve their own technical issues wherever they are working," says Fruewald. "Instead, they rely on the help desk to help them with their problems. It really depends on the organization."

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