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.

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.

Users and mid-level managers are crowdsourcing already. It's not about opening a help ticket or closing the ticket. Jarod Greene, Gartner

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?"

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."

Enterprise applications need enterprise help

Bill Benoist believes help desks will remain important despite changes brought about by the cloud and BYOD for a key reason: the large number of homegrown, custom applications used by enterprises that can't be supported externally.

"There is no way you can Google them or go outside to get help because those applications don't exist except in-house," says Benoist, vice president of information services for Calabasas, Calif.-based real estate company Marcus & Millichap. When users have really tough IT problems, the help desk is still the best place for them to get assistance, he says. "These people are not in the technology field, they're in real estate."

So far, Marcus & Millichap, which supports about 2,000 users, is exploring BYOD but has not implemented any policies or plans, says Benoist. "I don't see the cloud or BYOD leading to the end of the help desk," he says. "Many of our calls are application-specific and often involve user education and training rather than troubleshooting. These calls will still be with us whether or not the application is on the local desktop or in the cloud."

Having 4,000 people describe what they did when their Excel spreadsheet didn't work is a waste of resources. Michelle Garvey, Warnaco

Where help desk calls have been going down, he says, are in areas such as hardware, malware and viruses due largely to improved computer operating systems, better virus protection and better hardware from vendors.

At New York-based clothing wholesaler and retailer Warnaco, CIO Michelle Garvey likewise agrees that crowdsourced help isn't appropriate for business applications specifically configured for a company's infrastructure. "If it's a problem with an SAP or Oracle application, I don't think that's possible, because those problems are very situation-dependent."

Where social media could be a beneficial tool for enterprises is in sharing internal legacy knowledge about core business functions -- which in Warnaco's case center around retail details like successful product displays and locations, she says. But for solving individuals' problems, not so much.

"Having 4,000 people describing what they did when their Excel spreadsheet didn't work really is a waste of resources," says Garvey. "There are just so many more interesting things to talk about in a social media platform than discussions of questions that would normally go to a help desk. Discussing technology is way down the list in terms of where that would be most valuable."

The future of help: Self-help

IDC analyst Rob Brothers says he doesn't see enterprise help desks disappearing anytime soon, particularly with the rise in remote workers looking for assistance at all hours from any location worldwide.

"I do see it evolving into more self-help, with the help desk utilizing new and better tools to solve issues," says Brothers. There may be fewer people manning the help desk, he says, but the function itself will still be critical for enterprises. "We have no idea about the myriad issues that will arise in the next five years."

We have no idea about the myriad issues that will arise in the next five years. Rob Brothers, IDC

Vendors like LogMeIn, Bomgar and Citrix are working on those kinds of remote support capabilities, he says, building applications that allow users to get remote help wherever they are located. They allow remote technicians to take control of users' devices when necessary so they can solve problems then and there, he says.

"With crowdsourcing, you're waiting for someone to [participate]. In this case, you are getting a more immediate response. That's why these companies are coming up with better applications to match the end users' questions with the proper technician."

Fruewald, the CIO of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, says BYOD certainly is changing the corporate help desk, but rather than negating the need for help, it actually highlights the need for enterprises to maintain quality help desks, he says. "If users have a problem with those devices, they're calling our help desk," he says. Likewise, the Archdiocese's decision to put some of its key applications the cloud makes them easier to use across multiple organizations, but still doesn't erase the need for help.

"These things have maybe taken some pressure off, but it by no means allows me to reduce my help desk," says Fruewald. "Our help desk is busier than ever."

Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter, where his handle is @TechManTalking, or email him at

Read more about bring your own device (byod) in Computerworld's Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Topic Center.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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