Business

Help desk calls on the rise

At a time when IT is supposed to be getting simpler, less complex and easier to manage, more people are calling help desks for assistance than ever before, according to a new study.

That's one of the findings that HDI, formerly known as the Help Desk Institute, uncovered in its recently released 2010 study of help desk trends.

What HDI found is that the number of incidents reported to help desks via chat, e-mail, telephone, self-help systems, social media, the Web and walk-ins is rising, with 67% of all help desk operations experiencing increases in 2010. That's roughly the same percentage who reported an increase in 2009.

There's no single explanation for the growing number of support requests.

In recent years, many organizations have moved to centralize their help desk operations and establish a single point of contact for workers, said Roy Atkinson, an analyst at HDI, whose members represent a help desk community of about 50,000 people.

Those centralization efforts have improved incident data collection, which helps to explain the spike in reports. Moreover, creating a single point of contact—and offering multiple ways for people to reach the help desk—encourages users to seek assistance, Atkinson said.

While centralization and better record-keeping may explain much of the increase in reported calls, it doesn't completely explain it. Atkinson said another part of the explanation could be the fact that IT complexity is actually increasing, especially as users seek to connect multiple devices, including mobile phones, tablets and laptops to corporate networks.

"There is the trend to being able to work anywhere and anytime," Atkinson said. And that "requires more support, so the environment as a whole is probably more complex."

Earl Begley, who heads HDI's desktop advisory board and is an IT project manager at the University of Kentucky, said incident volumes for the university's healthcare help desk, which serves the UK hospital, have increased by 15% to 20% a year. Part of this increase can be attributed to the use of new technology in the healthcare industry, he said.

Begley is working to reduce call volumes by leading an Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) implementation at the university, which has the long-range goal of improving IT efficiency .

ITIL incorporates practices and procedures in a number of IT management areas, including the help desk, that are designed to enable organizations to figure out the root causes of IT problems and predict future difficulties.

The increasing call volume at the university keeps the staff busy, said Begley, adding that "it is frustrating, because they see the same problems occurring over and over again." His hope is that ITIL implementation will lead to reductions in some of those repetitive calls.

Technologies that could reduce help desk support demand include things like desktop or application virtualization, where an application can be accessed via a browser. And increasing use of voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology reduces the time it takes support phone systems.

For those organizations reporting an increase in help desk calls, about 41% attributed the uptick to infrastructure or product changes, upgrades or conversions; 26% cited expanded service offerings by the support center; and 22.5% said they have more customers, according to the HDI study.

The increase in the number of help desk support requests is happening at the same time IT managers are cutting money spent on supporting help desks, according to another new study that was released recently by Computer Economics .

In its survey of IT organizations, the IT research firm found that help desk employees now represent about 6% of the total IT staff, after accounting for about 6.9% of the average IT staff for the past several years.

The report said that this decrease "represents a relatively substantial dip and indicates that providing high-quality support to users assumed a lower priority amid the wave of operational budget-cutting and staff reductions that accompanied the official end of the recession."

Computer Economics also said that a number of factors affect the size of a help desk, including the use of outsourcing, an increase in the number of workers with smartphones, ITIL adoption, and improvements in applications and devices.

"Some of these trends are working to diminish the size and function of the help desk, while others are putting more pressure on help desk staff," the research organization said in its report.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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