Don't shut out the head of the helpdesk

It costs little or nothing to include helpdesk managers in consultations about new IT projects, but leaving them out can be a...

It costs little or nothing to include helpdesk managers in consultations about new IT projects, but leaving them out can be a very expensive option. Julia Vowler investigates

Helpdesk work may not be glamorous, but that is no excuse for leaving it out of IT project planning. New research from helpdesk supplier, Touchpaper suggests that, "Nearly half, (47%) [of help desk managers] are not involved in crucial IT projects from the start, but are then expected to support them."

The business value of an IT system is entirely derived from its use in the operation of the company on a daily basis. Implementation is not, as IT so often likes to believe, an end in itself.

However well implemented a system is, its usability and supportability must be taken into account from the outset. A system that takes no account of what issues of support might crop up once it has gone into production will soon run into trouble.

"The helpdesk should be involved in project planning right at the start, and be part of the design team," says Nigel Beighton, chief technology officer at Internet travel company Lastminute.com.

But the prevalent culture of the helpdesk can work against this imperative. "It is by nature a reactive function," says Beighton. "It's a problem-fixing culture, so it tends not be consulted because it is just given what it's going to have to do."

Yet supportability issues affect the choice and design of application software right from the start and, warns Lee Chadwick of Touchpaper, the helpdesk manager should be able to anticipate them early on.

But, "Getting the helpdesk involved in an IT project as soon as possible is the easiest thing to say, but the most difficult thing to do," he admits.

The helpdesk is often off the radar of those involved in systems implementation and there is seldom any mechanism for taking into account the whole lifecycle costs of IT. Implementation may have its own budget, but the total cost of ownership of a system goes way beyond the go-live date.

If the cost of supporting a system is never identified, let alone charged back to the business department whose staff use the system, there is no way that supportability will be considered before a project starts, warns Chadwick. If the helpdesk is free to end-users there is no drive to reduce the burden on it from systems with a heavy support requirement.

"The helpdesk is often a hidden cost that no one sees," says Chadwick.

Whether or not the application or the helpdesk is outsourced, "The main thing is for the helpdesk to have service level agreements," he advises. That will spell out the cost of support.

No system exists in isolation. Systems interface with one another, draw data from each other, are delivered over the same desktop to overlapping communities of end-users, with different needs and different levels of expertise. This means that the issue of supportability is not confined to each individual system, but needs to be addressed as part of the whole IT infrastructure.

"The key difference is having a very good architecture capability," says Beighton. "You have to have a fundamental overview of the design of your IT architecture, not just the production environment but all the other internal capabilities as well."

That must include the support capability of the organisation. The helpdesk has to be able to take a top-down view and see how the cocktail of systems within the portfolio interact with each other and present to users.

There is another reason for bringing the helpdesk in early. New IT systems are often the means by which the underlying business process they automate is changed or redesigned, says Chadwick. Yet users faced with learning to work in a new way, using new workflow patterns, can feel lost and helpless - and call the helpdesk.

"A phased approach to roll-out can ease the burden on the helpdesk," says Chadwick. "If, say, 50 people get the new system first, they will call the helpdesk with their questions [as they start to use the system]." This demonstrates where the problem areas are likely to be, so that the training department can focus on those for the next batch of users to be trained and the helpdesk can work out the fastest, most efficient way of dealing with those queries.

Although the cost of support is declining in areas such as remote deployment, supporting users costs money twice over - manning the helpdesk and user downtime. A new system that keeps the helpdesk lines humming will win no plaudits from irritated users.

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