The evolution of the IT service desk, from ticket-ticking to critical business function
In the first of a three-part series of blogs, Chuck Darst of Cherwell Software tracks the changing role of the IT service desk and what it means for ITSM pros.
What is the difference between an IT help desk and a service desk? Over this series of blogs, we’ll be exploring these differences, and importantly why that difference matters. While it may seem that this is a purely semantic discussion, in fact the distinctions tell an important story about the evolution of IT and its current place and priority in organisations large and small.
To tell this story, we need to look back at the history of IT service management. The 1980’s era of mainframes and the emergence of the DOS operating system saw the first help-desks, primarily concerned with keeping the data centre running getting hands-on with malfunctioning hardware and sorting basic software issues. It was their job to ‘keep the lights on’, ensuring critical IT resources functioned through the processing of tickets, incident resolution and service requests. They were not focused on the needs of the end user, nor seen as a business enabler, but as a purely functional service that often delivered a ‘one size fits all’ approach across an organisation.
A service desk, on the other hand, is a function focused on enabling business processes, with integrated support which adapts to the needs of the business. The concept was born out of the ITIL® (IT Infrastructure Library) framework. In the late 1980’s, the UK government decided that too much resource was being wasted on disparate systems and processes that were evolving separately across its various departments. The result was a widely-adopted protocol that describes best practices for IT service management. This would enable both public and private sectors to work to benchmarks that would help streamline services, as well starting to shift expectations towards business support, rather than just issue resolution.
Practice and process, does one size fit all?
While ITIL gave rise to the understanding that IT ‘help’ and ‘service’ were different, in the early 2000’s the monikers were often used interchangeably.
In fact, ITIL® ignores the term ‘help desk’, instead encompassing its functions as part of the ‘service desk’. However, many organisations that have adopted ITIL® still refer to a ‘help desk’ as a function within a service desk typically covering level one support, handling incidents and requests. Anyone who went through ITIL® training (especially those in the UK) would generally use the term ‘Service Desk’ to describe the function.
In other parts of the world where ITIL® adoption was slower, teams would use the term ‘help desk’ more frequently, often in less mature organisations and especially those that hadn’t adopted ITIL®.
It would take a cultural shift over the course of the 2000’s for IT leaders, and their C-suite counterparts to appreciate how a service desk could be a proactive business enabler as opposed to a reactive trouble-shooter.
This was a period of massive expansion in the sector. Even IT professionals were yet to fully appreciate the impact IT would have on the evolution of business functions. ITIL® proved a positive move in aligning the vision of IT leaders towards refining best practice and process. However, ITIL® still often took a ‘one size fits all’ approach. It would take a cultural shift over the course of the 2000’s for IT leaders, and their C-suite counterparts to appreciate how a service desk could be a proactive business enabler as opposed to a reactive trouble-shooter.
Fast forward to now and the service desk and help desk are increasingly understood as providing different but important and coordinated functions. Clearly, the ability to quickly and efficiently deal with ‘day-to-day’ IT issues is essential to any organisation reliant on IT systems. However, the rise of the service desk approach drove a different perception that elevated IT to a vision leader in the organisation.
Evolution at speed for the service desk
So, what does the future hold for the help desk and service desk? For one, big data technologies are making the service desk increasingly central to understanding business user needs. The intelligence gathered at the service desk enables companies to identify and adapt business models to deliver more through technology. Over the next decade harnessing data from the service desk and applying technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation should see this function evolve faster and further than ever before.
And what about the help desk – how will this evolve? With the blurring of lines between at-work and at-home expectations, we are already seeing this function adapt to how it resolves issues. From the use of social media as an input to a help desk, to intelligent ‘chatbots’ and AI virtual agent solutions, the help desk is not being left behind in the innovation stakes.
What is important however, is that – whether dealing with the day-to-day or helping set future vision for an organisation – IT understands how its functions can support the business as a whole. This is what we will explore through this series – the structures, strategies and semantics that matter when it comes to building a futureproof IT function, no matter its history.