The Peelian Help Desk

22 March 2016
Categories: Uncategorized

I’ve worked in IT for more than twenty years. Along the way, I have worked in a lot of different realms: academia, government, finance, publishing, manufacturing. What’s strange is how each of these very different fields—any field, really—is pretty much the same from an IT standpoint: provide user and systems support, manage improvement projects, and enable data flow. It almost doesn’t matter what the data is, as long as it flows quickly and smoothly, and as long as the users can do their work, what the work itself consists of is immaterial.

Much has changed in those twenty-plus years, yet some things don’t, and primary among those is the fact that IT, in particular the help desk, is all about customer service. It’s also an unfortunate fact, and an even more unfortunate stereotype, that many of the people who find themselves in IT due to their technical skills lack some of the all-too-essential people skills to maximize their potential in that role. I have therefore long striven to improve my own abilities in that respect, and have likewise tried to improve the people skills of the IT teams I have led.

At one point in my career I supported the law enforcement community, which was an interesting and eye-opening job—I could tell some stories. But one thing I came across during that gig has stayed with me more than anything else: Sir Robert Peel and his nine principles of community policing.

Sir Robert PeelSir Robert established London’s Metropolitan Police Force—hence the nickname for London cops, “bobbies”—and in the process created the concept of modern policing. The Peelian Principles are still essential to law enforcement today, more than 180 years later. (One can find the Peelian Principles in their original form many places online, such as here.)

Now, IT support techs are not cops, even those techs who act like they wish they could be issued a gun and badge. That said, IT support is much like law enforcement, in that both are essentially public service roles that strive to minimize the troubles of the community. Therefore I believe that the Peelian principles apply as well to the IT help desk as they do to a police force.

We can take the nine principles and in each case replace “police” with “help desk,” “public” with “users,” and “the law” with “good computing practices.” Replace “crime and disorder” with… well, with all the disorderliness of IT: bugs, errors, downtime, crashes, and yes, even user error. Lo and behold, at least on a conceptual if not strictly literal level, Peel’s principles suit IT very well.

Here they are, rephrased for IT:

  • The basic mission for which the IT help desk exists is to prevent computer problems.
  • The ability of the help desk to perform their duties is dependent upon user approval of IT actions.
  • The help desk must secure the willing co-operation of the users in voluntary observance of good computing practices to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the users.
  • The degree of co-operation of the users that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force. [Think of “physical force” as the more drastic (if not Draconian) methods of IT, such as user account lock-out, restrictive computing policies, and unscheduled shutdowns.]
  • The help desk seeks and preserves user favour not by catering to user opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to good computing practices.
  • The help desk uses physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of good computing practices or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.
  • The help desk, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the users that gives reality to the historic tradition that the help desk are the users and the users are the help desk; the help desk being only members of the users who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every user in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  • IT help desk should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of upper management and corporate policy.
  • The test of IT help desk efficiency is the absence of IT issues, not the visible evidence of help desk action in dealing with them.

I particularly like that last one. What it says to me is this: help desk efficiency is not about how many trouble tickets you can clear, nor how quickly. Efficiency is the result of actively working to improve the computing environment, not only with better and more reliable systems but also with user education and involvement: training, documentation, and open communication are all essential.

In fact, open communication may be the most important element of all. I often reiterate to my teams: communicate it first, fix it second. When something is broken, five minutes of radio silence from the help desk can seem like a catastrophe, but one well-timed and well-written email to the users, explaining that the help desk is aware of the issue and working on it, can buy untold amounts of leeway to work the issue and come up with a solution.


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