Service Desk is an obsolete model

The concept of help desk was originally invented in 1970’s but it got its current form in 1980’s and became popular in 1990’s. The Single Point Of Contact (SPOC) was a service innovation as previously users of IT were required to hunt down the right person or persons to answer their questions. The help desk solved the problem of trying to locate the right person and at the same time it decreased the amount of telephone calls for the IT professionals.

As the model is older than most people who are using it today, it is necessary to describe how things worked in 1980’s office. There were no portable phones and no e-mail. Paper was an important media for distributing information. If a manager wanted to produce a report on sales numbers the process might have gone like this. The manager used a reporting tool to order the report. The report was then created in a batch job on the mainframe and printed on paper. The computer printed reports on continuous paper which was folded in boxes. The print operators would then cut this report and put it in internal mail. The mainframe computer and its printer were behind locked doors where the manager had no access. If something went wrong, the manager could call reporting tool specialist, computer or print operators depending on the nature of the problem. If they were talking, he got a busy signal and needed to call again. All these people knew only their own part of the operation. The system was not very flexible and it was quite likely that the manager had to pick the numbers he needed from the reports and do the final calculations by hand.

The PC arrived at mid 1980’s. It offered new ways of working and allowed to do things without the cumbersome mainframe, but at the same time it also brought new kinds of problems. Computers were new to all users; nobody had a PC at home. All problems were new. The help desk model was perfect in this situation. There were a large and homogenous group of people who had problems with the new technology. It was fairly easy to create a function which could support all of them. The situation started changing towards the end of the century. At this time e-mail was becoming popular, people started using laptops and many had computers at home. Support was getting harder but at the same time there was a growing need for IT pros which resulted in rapid turnover in the help desk. The help desk became the helpless desk.

The ITIL Service Support book was published in 2000 and it created a new concept, the Service Desk. Actually the service desk was exactly the same as the help desk but the name change gave an opportunity to start anew when bad management had ruined the name of the help desk. The “new” concept was important; it took about 15% of the pages of the Service Support book. In the latest version of ITIL, the Service Desk covers less that 4% of the Service Operations book.

The following ‘00 decade was the time of the cell phones and the laptops. New models came fast and supporting them was hard. Meanwhile the IT departments had learned to love their service desks. The desk created a protective barrier between the IT pros and the angry users. The solution to increasing complexity was standardization. All workstations were made similar; there were only a few acceptable models. The configurations were loaded from the servers every time a person logged in. This made support easy; a workstation could be easily replaced with a new one.

Now this path is coming to end for several reasons. The standardized workstation is cumbersome, starting up can take more than 15 minutes. There are many free tools which people cannot use on their standardized workstations as they are locked. Many users have networks of computers at home and have more experience of supporting end users than the novice analysts at the service desk. People have started smuggling their own devices to work as they become much more productive. Now this is becoming mainstream. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is a reaction to the failing service desk model.

What is then the new support model? I wish I knew, I would start consulting and training it. One thing is fairly sure, social media and peer-to-peer support will be an important part of it. This will not mean the end of service desk but its role and position are changing.

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Anonymous (24/11/2011)

"Many users have networks of computers at home and have more experience of supporting end users than the novice analysts at the service desk. People have started smuggling their own devices to work as they become much more productive. Now this is becoming mainstream. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)"

This does not mean the end to the service desk - just that the service desk has to up its game and have more high level skilled people at front line - though this coes at a cost so business may not want this. So the situation manifests from a commercial factor.

Mark.

Anonymous (24/11/2011)

"People have started smuggling their own devices to work as they become much more productive. Now this is becoming mainstream. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is a reaction to the failing service desk model."

The 'consumerization' of IT is not a failure of the Service Desk but a failure of IT. Too long IT has been acting like the last great monopoly treating its customers with disdain and ultimately not adapting quickly enough to the needs of business. Salesforce.com (which opened the door to SaaS) succeeded because of dysfunctional IT departments not able to deliver a business solution in an acceptable time frame. The reality is that VP's of Sales were powerful enough to move around IT and get the job done despite them and not because of them.

Anonymous (28/11/2011)

The lack of end user confidence in IT is more likely to come from the overall IT department's capability/maturity when it comes to providing the infrastructure, policies, strategy, security, etc required to meet new business requirements.

If the service desk have been trained and have been provided with instructions on how to process incidents and requests, I fail to see how the service desk model can take the full blame.

Business Relationship Managers and Service Managers (?) should be close enough to the business to help identify potential projects/pilots etc and help seek funding for portable devices or other tools to make the business more productive.

Locked-down standard builds and software packages reduce total cost of ownership of IT assets and reduce the risk of an organisation's systems being compromised.

Maff Rigby (30/11/2011)

Interesting article. I believe we will see a combination of BYOD supported by a community-based (or crowd-sourced) "Service Desk" in the very near future

ITSMdoc (30/11/2011)

The article is classic "turning the saw upside-down" SEO job. We all know that many ITIL concepts can be challenged, but Service Desk is not one of them. Nice try, anyway :)

Aale Roos (19/12/2011)

I notice that I may have been understood as saying that the Service Desk is obsolete and must go. That was not my intention.

Of course a Service Desk will be needed, the point is that the way it works must evolve with times and the ITIL model is pretty old. We need to move beyond ITIL

Mark wrote: "..the service desk has to up its game and have more high level skilled people at front line - though this coes at a cost so business may not want this." This has been true for the last 20 years and it will not change.

The Service Desk beyond ITIL will be more open and social, it will not see itself as the only source of support but as a facilitator of support.

Anonymous (21/12/2011)

You ask: "What is then the new support model?"

Does the answer have to be singular?

Although it's common information that "cookie cutter" computers are falling out of favor, some industry verticals (finance and banking for example) are driven by compliance considerations to not only standardize devices, but remove capabilities from them. Wireless cards are removed, USB ports disabled, and so on, turning them mostly into dumb terminals except when they are wired up at workers' desks. The virtual desktop, contrary to popular belief, will not be a broad solution until truly high-speed connectivity is ubiquitous.

In other places--higher education, for example, BYOD has been in place for some time, and is working fairly well, though not without challenges and risks.

The service desks in banks and universities may perform somewhat similar functions in the broadest sense, but their ways of doing business are very different, from the channels used and monitored to the importance of certain metrics to the service levels promised and delivered.

There will be many models for service and support, not one, I think, from homegrown social support to complex technical support to security-driven oversight and assistance.

Thanks for your thoughtful post.

Anonymous (27/02/2012)

This book is wtetrin in a direct, simple style that makes it very useful. The diagrams are ok, but it is the books prose which is really the value here. I've used a Visible Ops book and another by Pink Elephant, but I keep coming back to Rob Addy's book, and always get good advise.The level of detail strikes a good balance, and I find the bullet points to be very helpful.I especially like the common mistakes sections in many of the chapters.

Rick Carper (22/05/2014)

Oh I do agree we have to pay attention to the diminishing relevance of classical service desk principles. I now wonder what I have do to stay on trend toward a future where the mobile, digital lifestyle dominates and firms begin to learn the productivity advantage. What is this future? Yet, for now all you have to do is back up and survey the sad state of Customer Service Portal web sites...and see all the work you have before you :)

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