Lending the help desk a hand

Whether it's a research company, a manufacturer, or a bank, the benefits of problem resolution software far outweigh its implementation difficulties.

By Charles Waltner | Posted Sep 1, 1999
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In the past Robert Neve, associate information specialist at New York-based Pfizer, would have been worried if a two-year veteran left his IT help desk at the pharmaceutical drug manufacturer's central research facility in Groton, Conn.

But the rookie who replaced a veteran member of the help desk earlier this year has been doing a bang-up job maintaining help desk performance standards.

Did Neve luck out by finding a gifted help desk prodigy? Well, not exactly.

Thanks to problem resolution software from ServiceWare of Oakmont, Penn., the employee did not have to start from scratch. Whatever information other help desk personnel had already learned was waiting to be tapped into.

"ServiceWare's Knowledge-Pak Architect makes the experience of a two-year veteran available to someone who's only been working for two days," Neve says.

Knowledge-Pak provides Pfizer's help desk employees with a structured interface for entering information about IT problems and their solutions into a relational database (either Oracle or SQL). The knowledge stored in the database expands as time goes on, but unlike experienced help desk employees, it never leaves the enterprise.

Sophistication brings demand

Certainly, problem resolution applications from companies such as ServiceWare are increasingly popular because they offer a lot in return for the investment. These systems offer a big boost to internal help desk solutions, a market that will grow about 30% annually for the next six years, according to a report by Frost & Sullivan, a Mountain View, Calif., research company (see the chart, "Help desk software to the rescue!").


"Our clients are the guys making money for the company and if they are out of action because of a computer glitch, then that hurts the company," says Steve Conway of 3M.

Strong demand is due to the dramatic benefits these sophisticated knowledge sharing database packages bring to IT help desks. Key benefits include reduced training time and greater efficiencies, such as increasing the percentage of questions personnel answer without referring the caller to another expert.

The bottom line on problem resolution software is that it helps help desks get new employees up to speed more quickly and reduces employee downtime resulting from computer glitches.

"Our clients are the guys making money for the company and if they are out of action because of a computer glitch, then that hurts the company," says Steve Conway, manager of an IT help desk for 3M of St. Paul. The manufacturing conglomerate recently implemented a problem resolution application from Seattle-based Primus.

So, what's the catch?

But such bold benefits don't come without a price, explains Carter Lusher, a research fellow at Gartner Group, the market research firm based in Stamford, Conn. Lusher says this type of application became available early in the decade but never took off because of the overhead involved in capturing, validating, and maintaining the information for the databases that drive these solutions.


AT A GLANCE:

Pfizer

The company: Headquartered in New York, Pfizer is the one of the world's largest pharmaceutical drug manufacturers, with $2.2 billion in revenue from sales in 150 countries for the healthcare, animal health, and consumer markets. Pfizer's 20-person help desk staff serves the 4,000 employees of the company's central research facility in Groton, Conn. It answers questions on more than 75 applications ranging from typical corporate apps such as Microsoft Word to proprietary in-house programs.

The problem: How to control the overhead costs of help desk training created by a 30% turnover rate per year.

The solution: Knowledge-Pak Architect problem resolution software from ServiceWare in Oakmont, Pa.

The IT infrastructure: Pfizer uses a Microsoft SQL database to house the Knowledge-Pak information, which runs on a Compaq Dual Pentium Pro 200 running Windows NT 4.0. Because it is a purely Web-based system, help desk employees only need a browser to access the application and use a variety of clients for this purpose.


Indeed, according to IT help desk managers, keeping problem resolution application databases up to date is the biggest part of the job. "It's a double-edged sword," says Jeff Kendall, manager of technology and training, and head of the 120-person call center at Toronto-based Bank of Montreal. "You have to make sure the information in the application is good or people will lose faith in it and not use it." The bank implemented the Problem Management module of Tivoli Systems' Service Desk help desk management suite in April 1996 to boost help desk productivity and lower training costs.

In general, problem resolution applications work across popular platforms, including Windows NT and UNIX, and various mainstream clients. They are also fairly flexible about which help desk management applications they work with. Some problem resolution packages, however, are tied more closely to certain management applications than to others. Most problem resolution applications can take and assimilate information from existing enterprise or third-party IT technical information, such as other databases or vendor tech CDs.

"Licenses for this stuff are trivial compared to the maintenance costs," 3M's Conway says. Some IT managers indicate that the ratio of maintenance to license costs is 3:1 or 4:1, which Lusher says is the biggest challenge of any problem resolution application.

Bill Keyworth, a research director from Gartner Group, says only one-third of his company's clients have successfully implemented problem resolution solutions, primarily because of management challenges.

Companies need to take such steps as providing incentives to employees for contributing knowledge into the systems or allocating enough resources to provide the databases with proper care and feeding, Keyworth says.

He adds that all database-driven product resolution applications are similar and that choices depend on a company's specific situation. Some solutions integrate with other help desk tools, while others are designed for rapidly changing support environments. Most of these products also offer Web-based self-service modules, which take even more heat off of help desks by giving employees access to the IT department's solutions database.

"Problem resolution applications are one of the best ways to lower the cost of ownership--I'm convinced of that," Keyworth says. "But a lot of companies don't understand what it takes to make these work." //

Charles Waltner is a Seattle-based freelancer specializing in high-technology issues. His e-mail address is cwaltner@netos.com.


Lessons learned about problem resolution software

 Problem resolution software can dramatically reduce the time necessary to train a new help desk employee.

 The quality of help desk performance can significantly improve with problem resolution software, including reduction of wait times and increased first-call resolution.

 Problem resolution applications generally operate on a variety of platforms and can run as stand-alone or tightly integrated modules to a call management or trouble-ticketing system.

Help desk managers can expect to spend several times more money on building and maintaining problem resolution software databases than they spend on licenses and deployment.

Given the overhead and initial costs of problem resolution software, the applications are most appropriate for large IT help desks with inexperienced staff members or high turnover.

The choice of a particular problem resolution application boils down to the specific situation of a company, such as its existing call management application or the types of questions the help desk answers.

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