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.