Network: When IT hurts

Beleaguered helpdesks need help - at least to fend off their own irate clients.
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IT HELPDESKS at many British companies are themselves in need of succour and soothing. Even those who run them admit they're understaffed, underskilled and overwhelmed. Even some FTSE 100 companies seem to be complacent about investing in IT staff.

"The general opinion is that our helpdesk is useless and we often find they don't know what we are talking about and we know more than they do," said one employee of a FTSE 100 firm. "This means that the secretaries have to work as their own on-the-spot helpdesk. We had a new system implemented with NT and Office 97. Guess who got all the training - the secretaries."

Such concerns, led David Taylor to form the Association of IT Directors recently. As president, Taylor has made it his mission to recruit IT directors to his cause - to make businesses more aware of the needs of IT and to make IT more business friendly. So far he has got 38 firms, including the AA and NatWest, on board, but found it an up-hill struggle.

Consultants who help install systems and train people also complain of a malaise among IT helpdesks. When he went freelance, Alexander Rose , a west London-based software consultant, opted for a client list that did not include local councils as his experience of them as a staffer had been "dire". "One local authority spends more on the decor than it does on its IT staff."

Taylor admits that the more cash-strapped the organisation, the less goes on training - leaving little hope for councils and charities. But this does not correlate with what's doled out on software and hardware systems. Last year industry spent pounds 26bn on IT, with just a fraction on training.

Yet even training cannot claim to be the great helpdesk healer. Anne Russell - chief executive of the Information Technology National Training Organisation (Into), a government-funded body involved in the updating of the national curriculum - said a survey in Computer Weekly - claiming a 41 per cent increase in IT spend over the last year - showed commitment to training was there.

"But there is bound to be a mismatch in the helpdesk area," Russell said. "It is a difficult one in which to match skills with job description. There are so many systems. Staff may be trained to use each one, but those helping them may not be." Taylor agrees: "Even if a firm has only one operating system, you can't possibly get all the skills you need at one time."

Acceptance of an industry standard for helpdesk staff may be growing, but is still little more than a whisper. Anne Russell thinks the more people who're recruited on a single qualification, the better. "One FT- SE company only takes on IT people who've reached NVQ level 2," she said. "But I think it's an industry that's still growing very quickly and not yet seen the need for a standard qualification."

The British Computer Society (BCS) claims to have the nearest thing to an industry-recognised qualification. It obtained a royal charter in 1982 and has around 38,000 qualified members. "But it's not a licence to practice," says Kate Edwin Scott of the BCS.

Degrees and qualifications are anathema to Taylor, who does not think that a single standard is necessary. "It's something academics try to plug," he said "The BCS exams are linked to engineers, far removed from the most important application - the use of IT in business.

"People with an IT degree are at a disadvantage. The academic institutions have got a lot to answer for - they just teach the theory. I've worked for firms where these graduates literally have to unlearn their skills afterwards." He urges developing more interpersonal skills to cut through technical jargon.

Taylor's solution is to implement a service charter, with each firm setting an expected standard of its IT helpdesk. But any changes are still more likely to be based on cold hard cash, as when it comes down to it, IT, especially in business, is about making money, not spending it.