Internal and External Help Desks: An Overview
For many years, help desks were an integral part of the information systems department. In recent years, however, many companies have decided to outsource functions that used be strictly internal for many reasons. The information systems department is no exception. For those unfamiliar with help desks, the following provides an explanation of what a help desk is and an overview of the internal and external varieties.
According to whatis.com, a help desk is “a place that a user of information technology can call to get help with a problem.” How this help desk is arranged varies, depending on the size and structure of the company. For smaller companies, the help desk is often a single person sitting at a phone, working to solve users’ problems when possible. If the problem cannot be solved over the phone, either the person taking the call goes to the user to resolve the problem or it is escalated to another group, which will do the same.
How problems are tracked also varies from company to company. Sometimes, tracking is done with a custom database or spreadsheet, and other times software specifically designed for help desks is used.
For larger companies, the help desk is likely to be much more complex. It usually consists of a team (each member usually has a different specialization) that answers calls from users and takes care of the problems presented. Because such help desks usually experience more calls, they often maintain a database of tickets to keep track of unresolved problems and assist in finding solutions to problems that have been encountered before.
The largest of such help desks have two or more levels of support where problems can be escalated if lower levels are unable to resolve the problem.
For many years, companies large and small have maintained a help desk that was internal to the company. But in recent years, many have started to outsource this task to outside companies. Such outsourcing can prove advantageous for some businesses for many reasons.
One reason for outsourcing help desk operations is access to more skilled employees than the company might be able to able to hire internally. Because external help desks usually offer the service for multiple companies, they are better able to afford the salaries and benefits for experienced help desk personnel, thus improving the ability of the help desk operators to resolve problems in a timely manner.
In addition to being able to draw upon more experienced personnel, external help desks have a much larger database of problems and solutions to search. This helps to lessen the amount of research required when trying to solve a problem — solutions are more likely to be found in the larger database, thus greatly reducing the need to search for a solution to the problem from other sources.
Despite these advantages, however, external help desks are not always appropriate. For companies that deal with sensitive information such as defense contractors and medical facilities, the risk of such information leaking outside the organization necessitates that the help desk remain internal.
The overall environment within the organization also can determine if an external help desk is a viable option. For some companies, outsourcing such functions is perfectly acceptable.
In others, though, it would be considered highly inappropriate. For example, in a large company in which employees are unlikely to know the majority of their co-workers, outsourcing the help desk is more likely to be accepted than in a close-knit company in which users will appreciate the more personal service offered by an internal help desk.
Because of the prevalence of help desks, it is important for IT professionals to know the differences between internal and external help desks and when each type is appropriate. This will help provide a better understanding for the reasons behind the decision to keep the help desk internal or outsource to another company.
Steve Fletcher has more than 10 years of experience as an IT consultant with a focus on information security. He can be reached at editor (at) certmag (dot) com<