Help yourself

Help desk software goes from problem solver to problem hunter

Help desk software is becoming proactive. Though designed to respond to requests for assistance, the programs also can lower the cost of running your network, simplify change and prevent problems.

The latest features in help desk software include the ability to diagnose and solve problems remotely, via Internet or wirelessly.

In its simplest form, help desk software tracks problems from the time they’re reported by users to the time they’re fixed. But these days, the programs are taking on new roles, incorporating new technologies and satisfying new demands.

Government IT is in a tough position, facing more burdens—from complex applications, mobile and Internet access, and security requirements—with tighter budgets and fewer personnel.

In the worst case, technology support could outweigh technology benefit. Help desk software can help restore the balance.

Some tasks can be shifted back to the users, while other tasks can be automated. When external users—customers or constituents—are involved, the applications could involve customer relationship management components. Asset management also is a part of the solution.

An obvious development in help desk software is the expanded use of the Internet. Many products are already Web-enabled, so users can submit requests via browser, which solves many cross-platform difficulties.

Web-hosted helpers

Studies have consistently shown that Internet channels are less expensive than phone calls. IT departments also can respond to users via Web or e-mail, and even remotely investigate problems anywhere via the Internet.

Rather than install and run help desk software on their own machines, many agencies are choosing hosted online applications. In this case, a vendor or service provider takes care of all the implementation details, while users tap into a browser to interact with the system.

User self-help is another emerging approach. Some agencies have reduced or eliminated user training from their budgets, with the result that IT departments must field what should be trivial questions. Help desk software can provide users with some of the answers and techniques that more traditional training used to supply.

In fact, many users tired of waiting for tech support would prefer to handle problems themselves and gain expertise that will prevent the need for additional support.

Some programs have self-healing capabilities—they scan machines for known problems, such as security vulnerabilities, and either automatically initiate fixes or offer the fixes to users.

Help desk software is in a unique position to gather information about machines and applications. Managers can put that information to use when making decisions about upgrading agency resources. Some products also monitor software license compliance, both to ensure that the agency is not violating software agreements and to save money on unused licenses.

Because help desk software often includes a workflow component—routing requests to the most appropriate staff members for resolution—this can become the hub of more complex activities that cross lines of responsibility.

For example, when a new employee is hired, it is not surprising that the task “provide computer” might trigger a number of subtasks, such as acquiring a machine, installing applications and supplying network access.

Help desk software might allow more general tasks like “new-hire,” which include cross-departmental subtasks like initiating benefits, granting building access and providing a computer. In this sense, the help desk software becomes a primary interface between the agency and its employees.

Know your needs

While remote control and remote management have long been a part of IT capabilities, they are moving to new platforms. Why be limited to a desktop machine to handle help requests? Some products support interaction via a variety of handheld wireless devices.

Agencies have many considerations when choosing an appropriate help desk program.

A good place to start, as always, is by defining your needs. Don’t buy products you don’t need—comprehensive packages can load you down with unnecessary features. Modular packages give you the option of choosing the features you want and avoiding the ones you don’t.

Ease of use is a primary concern: The last thing you want is a help desk program that requires help itself. IT personnel should be able to install, configure, customize and maintain the system without formal training; users should have a simple and intuitive means to report problems. Consider if there are any existing systems—such as inventory or human resources—that the help desk application needs to connect with.

Web access is growing in importance, as agencies expand geographically. Standard browsers make for a simple and familiar user interface. But there could be good reasons, such as security, for avoiding the Web and sticking to a network deployment. If workflow capability is important to you, make sure the software can adapt to your processes, not force you to adapt to it.

IT departments might want a zero-calls approach, where self-service is the strategy. But what do users want? If users are not willing or able to help themselves, it’s time for Plan B. Even if you do aim for self-service, be prepared to provide staff help.

And remember that the goal is to provide assistance with minimal staff involvement. If your users don’t use the system, the system won’t work. You might need to sell your users on self-help to ensure success.

Several trends in help desk software could become significant. These systems can be a gold mine of information, which some vendors are starting to make available. Data mining this information can help you make decisions about staffing, products, vendors and other issues.

Emerging technologies such as Extensible Markup Language and Web services can simplify interfaces between help desk software and other systems, including HR, inventory and purchasing. Web access will grow more widespread, except in cases where security and confidentiality are paramount.

Edmund X. DeJesus of Norwood, Mass., writes about IT.

About the Author

Connect with the GCN staff on Twitter @GCNtech.


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