The Future of Desktop Support: A Road Map


by Members of the HDI Desktop Support Advisory Board


Charles Darwin once said, “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It’s the one that is the most adaptable to change.” This was a man who spent most of his life studying the effects of change, and that statement is as true today as it was in 1850. “Survival of the fittest” has implications for technical service and support professionals, too, because if we’re unable to keep up with technology as it evolves, we’re doomed to extinction.

The world of desktop support, or second-level support, is on the cusp of major change. Attend any technology conference, or visit any online support forum, and you’ll find that there are a number of issues that are causing desktop support managers, analysts, and technicians no small amount of worry and consternation. In 2013, the HDI Desktop Support Advisory Board convened to examine the issues facing the industry and craft a road map that would provide interested professionals with a means of navigating these challenges and a guide to leveraging the unique skills involved in providing second-level support and expanding our role into other areas.

We identified three areas that desktop support professionals need to be familiar with in order to be successful.

  1. Strategy. How do we create a brand and make ourselves more visible to our peers and the business? We need to help them understand that we’re more than just “those guys who fix broken computers.” 
  2. Business skills. We need to be able to speak the business’s language. Find out what the business does, learn the basics of finance, and gather as much knowledge as you can about your industry. 
  3. Current technologies. We need to understand current technologies: what they are, how they work, and how changes in those technologies apply to the business. We need to do more than just provide support; we must become a solutions provider, someone the business can go to and rely upon when it’s faced with real-world business problems.

To learn more about business skills and technology, be sure to check out “The Future of Desktop Support: A Road Map,” a white paper that brings together input from professionals in a range of industries. In this article, we’re focusing on the strategies that will ensure a successful future for desktop support.

Clearly, ongoing technological changes are going to compel desktop support professionals to evolve. But there’s more to it than simply learning new skills. Desktop support staff—managers, in particular—need to become advocates for the skills needed to work in new and more fulfilling roles.

Even now, the kinds of technologies and methodologies supported in our business environments have necessitated a change in our support tactics. In the past, desktop support was truly deskside support, where a technician or analyst would physically visit an end user’s desk to troubleshoot and resolve incidents or install new software. With the advent of remote support technologies, self-help, and self-healing, such deskside visits are, by and large, no longer necessary.

Therefore, the first thing we need to consider is changing the perception—among end users and managers alike—of what desktop support actually does, since “desktop” is really an indication of the type of technology we support, rather than a physical device or end user. The idea that the function of desktop support is to work on hardware is passé, but the perception of the function of desktop support is stuck in the past. The first step toward changing that perception is simple: change our name.

Our primary goal is to support our business units and individuals through technology that enables them to attain their business goals. What we call our support team should reflect that, which means we need be sure our name speaks to what we actually do. So, what name speaks to the true function of the desktop support team of the future? Second-level support? End-user support?

According to the 2013 HDI Desktop Support Practices & Salary Report, some common names for this function include IT service desk, technical support, desktop services, field support, and PC support.

With such a range of names, the question really becomes, “What differentiates the type of support we provide from the support provided by the service desk or other support teams?” The answer to that question will likely vary based on your industry or scope of support (which is often dictated by the size of the business). But we can make a few assertions based on the traditional role of desktop support.

First and foremost, desktop support professionals typically have excellent troubleshooting skills. They’re knowledgeable about a variety of technologies and how they work together, and while they may not be experts in specific applications or technologies, they often have a broad sense of how things work and the networking expertise to know whom to contact when they’re stuck on a problem.

This broad-based knowledge can be even more important in businesses that use proprietary applications that were developed in-house. The desktop support team likely has a much better understanding of how these applications are used and the challenges faced by the business than any other support team, because they’re dealing directly with end users and their issues on a daily basis. This deeper expertise in the integration of end-user technologies and services can be leveraged at many different levels, beyond direct client support, and we should take every opportunity to advocate and market these skills to anyone who has influence over the support organization.

The most important target for our advocacy efforts should be the IT organization’s senior leadership team. Consider what your support team does and which specific skills they possess, and consider which leaders in your organization might also benefit from that expertise. Because desktop support technicians often have a broad range of knowledge about many different types of technology, they’re poised to take on greater responsibilities in enterprise-focused roles. For example, cloud services, in the form of a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) or software as a service (SaaS), might open doors for desktop support staff because they know how applications behave, how they work together, and how the business uses them. This knowledge also makes them candidates for leadership roles outside of IT.

Businesses are already used to working closely with their desktop support teams; they know them, and they’re probably comfortable working with them. Leverage this relationship by moving desktop support professionals into IT liaison roles. These liaisons will work for the business, but they’ll be familiar with both business and IT process and have relationships on both sides. There are many desktop support professionals who could fit into that role like a hand in a glove!

If you’re an IT support manager, the next level of advocacy is with your peers in the IT organization. Leverage your networking skills and make sure your peers, leaders, and technical partners know that desktop support offers a great pool of talent for a variety of support operations. As noted above, emerging technologies are creating plenty of opportunities to leverage the knowledge analysts and technicians have gained over the years.

Next, we must make sure our staffs are aware of and ready for changes in the technology landscape. Be clear and candid about how technology changes are likely to impact the desktop support team. The reality is that new technologies require less direct interaction, and much of the interaction that needs to occur can happen remotely. Consequently, this lessens the need for traditional desktop support staff, especially in larger organizations that can afford more automation tools and technologies. If we see that in the future for our teams, we must share that information. This information isn’t intended to scare or threaten; rather, it’s meant to keep your staff informed of how the technical landscape is changing so that they can make informed decisions about their career paths. We should help them understand their strengths and weaknesses, and encourage them to pursue other areas of technology or even business that play to their strengths.

We also need to keep ourselves and our teams in the loop on business changes; if we’re aware of those changes and what they will require, we’ll be in a better position to offer guidance or research on technical solutions, which could, in turn, create opportunities for support staff.

This type of coaching takes time, but that’s all part of being a manager. We need to show our staffs that we care about them and want them to be successful. The advantage we gain in the meantime is a higher level of performance because we’re sending the message that we’re looking out for them even in the face of change.
If someone on your team is ready to take on additional responsibilities, one way to help them expand their role is by delegating important work. The benefits are twofold: the delegated work gives the team member valuable experience, and delegating work frees you up to focus on your strategic responsibilities and prepare for the future. It also sends a valuable message that you trust your team to get the job done with minimal oversight.

As noted above, it’s important to talk about how technology is changing and encourage your team to consider their career goals. It’s equally important to provide them with opportunities to learn about these new technologies. To do that, you may need to invest in tools and training, whether that’s computer-based training, classroom training, or book-based training. Even if you have little or no budget, there may be free online resources you can direct your team towards, with the understanding that they will be given adequate time to take advantage of them.

Desktop support technicians have historically been generalists; to accurately troubleshoot hardware and software issues, they needed to know a little bit about a lot of things. However, as we move into a new era of technology support, technicians need to become more specialized. The skills developed over years of diagnosing technology failures put desktop support in a unique position, and once we’ve come to terms with the fact that the world of technical support is changing, we can begin to consider alternative uses for these skills. Desktop support professionals have a lot to offer their businesses, but we must be willing to adapt our approach to support if we wish to maintain a useful relationship with them.

One way to leverage this experience is by using desktop support professionals in an advisory capacity. In all likelihood, the desktop support staff is in the best position to know and understand how the business is actually using the technology that keeps things running. They’ve worked with end users, built great relationships, and have a good rapport with clients. All of this can help desktop support provide direction and influence when helping the business understand how it might utilize new technologies.

Desktop support can help the business change how it deploys new technologies. Lawyers, doctors, scientists, researchers—all have very specific, nuanced needs. Why not build tools that meet those needs? For example, instead of rolling out Microsoft’s standard toolset, desktop support can manage a project in advance of the rollout to engage the end user community, both formally and informally, in business analysis activities that will enable IT to customize the toolset to suit the organization’s end users. Who’s in a better position to engage end users in those conversations than desktop support?

Another option is including simple consultations in desktop support’s overall service offering. Do you know an end user who often schedules complex video conferences in your largest conference room but is reluctant to actually use the video conferencing technology? That end user could engage desktop support for assistance but also receive training in the system’s easy-to-use self-service capacity. In this way, desktop support can empower end users to overcome any intimidation they feel when confronted complex technology.

The more desktop support engages in consultation and analysis, the more it will reinforce its position with end users. The difference here is largely the approach: leveraging years of expertise and trust and applying that to core business problems in a more integrated, focused way. By giving desktop support a seat at the table in more complicated matters, higher level business problems, and urgent issues, it will have an opportunity to not only resolve those issues but also build a reservoir of knowledge regarding the challenges that plague their end users and the issues that have the greatest impact. Ultimately, desktop support will be able to make recommendations for solutions that can have a positive effect on the business.

 

The primary mission of the HDI Desktop Support Advisory Board is to provide advice and guidance for the creation of industry standards, best practices, research, and professional development. The twenty-five board members represent organizations from a range of industries, and regardless of how large their organizations are or which support model they employ, each member provides critical insight into the trends and needs of the desktop support community.

The white paper this article is based on was itself based on discussions that began at the March 2013 board meeting in Dallas. Completed in December 2013, the road map project was led by Michael Hanson and is the result of the combined efforts of board members from the business, technology, and strategy subcommittees.

Tag(s): desktop support, future of support

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