Evolution of The IT Service Desk

Read time 5 mins

Written December 2017

Humble Origins

The early Service Desk (more commonly referred to historically as the Computer Helpdesk, or just Helpdesk) was a simple beast, with capabilities ranging from fault reporting to direct assistance. It was technically capable, but also very much ‘tech’ focused. IT was not yet seen as the business enabler it is now recognised to be, and early Helpdesks did not focus on the needs of the user. It was simply about ‘keeping the lights on’.

In the early days, Microsoft predominately drove the agenda, as its Windows operating system reached the desktop – and the masses.

Next came the advent of Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) in the late 80s. Under the old Conservative regime, it was decided that government was spending too much replicating IT across different departments so should look to adopt a standards-based approach for best practice. With ITIL, a set of practices for IT Service Management (ITSM) were established that focused on aligning IT services with the needs of business. Outsourcing now had a code of practice and could make strides to benchmark the public sector against the private sector.

Although ITIL is still alive and kicking (and often necessary), we tend to focus on a unique model for each customer; establishing what their organisational requirements are and then building the processes around these, rather than blindly implementing a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

A key point in its evolution (in the mid to late 90s) was the point where the Helpdesk became the Service Desk, providing a wider set of user-oriented services, and offering more mature outsourcing and service management opportunities. Historically (and even sometimes still currently), Service Desks have been divided into lines, with staff passing on from first line to second line and so on, often without a focus on the needs of the user and with obvious implications for user satisfaction, productivity, and speed of successful assistance.

In its latest incarnation, more mature Service Desks offer a new intelligent and capable ‘first line’ as a ‘one-stop-shop’, with the Service Desk working in collaboration with service management to achieve visibility of end-to-end service levels and shine a light on the real problem areas. The “shift left” approach – of providing resolution support as close to the front line and user as possible – reduces waiting time for users, reduces the cost of dealing with the incidents, improves the service and the user experience, and, most important, enables genuine productivity improvements.


The typical current capability of a Service Desk involves ITIL adherence (sometimes ill considered), a mix of first and second line support, and telephone & email communication channels. It tends to be service KPI driven, typically covering core hours rather than round the clock support. Despite the potential benefits it is, unfortunately, often viewed as a cost/necessary evil, and is hence heavily under-invested. Basically, it is the bottom of the food chain in terms of IT capability and focus.

Current & Emerging Capability

The leading current capability of Service Desks offer more mature organisations a ‘Window to the world’ of their users – acting as a key interface for Business Relationship Management (BRM). It is always on, is business attuned (understanding user’s business function and how that interrelates to the technology they use), user experience focused, multi-lingual (dependent on demand) and offers situation-appropriate communication channels to suit the needs of the user regardless of time, location, or impact. It is also underpinned by strong Identity Management processes, and provides a Self-service/provisioning interface that can be utilised by users for ease of self-fulfilment (especially for Service Requests). For larger customer environments, it is aligned with SIAM, enabling a multi-sourced, best of breed environment to exist. At the leading edge, you might see the use of newer technologies, like location aware augmented reality support, and Internet of Things (IoT) monitoring.

Emerging capabilities include offering business service dashboards to provide ‘at a glance’ visibility to users of the performance/availability of their critical applications and services. Journey and capability profiling is starting to be used to build a picture of the support assets that a user may have already dealt with, and the tech-savviness of the user themselves (in turn allowing for a more empathetic service). When delivered correctly the Service Desk, and it’s associated processes and channels, can be leveraged further into the wider Corporate Services space, acting as an extended focal point for HR, Payroll, Facilities and other centralised services. Service Desk Ambassadors will wander around organisations, extolling the virtues of the Service Desk and encouraging users to make the best use of it through education, coaching and direct support.

Ultimately, the biggest test for the emerging capabilities of the Service Desk (as well as the inherent ones) is to establish the true business benefit of the service. Instead of measuring broad KPIs around telephone answering and incident fix, it should be possible to measure the positive business productivity impact of the Service Desk. In simplistic terms this could be the ability for each user to produce one more ‘widget’ per day, based on the improved IT performance that the Service Desk enables.

The Future

And what about future capabilities? Just around the corner for the Service Desk are Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics. AI interfaces will inevitably join the Service Desk team within the next few years, providing a self-learning, highly knowledgeable (and spookily realistic) alternative to a human interaction. Robots may replace ‘old-fashioned’ deskside engineers, controlled like a remote control vehicle by a Service Desk agent. The integration of Line of Business (LoB) support will continue to move closer to the user through enhanced ‘shift left’, and Dev Ops Lite might also become a reality. Charging will become more commoditised with users paying a differential for support based on what interface or channel they engaged via. Discounts will be applied to charges for AI interactions, although the opportunity to engage with a human will, we think, continue to be maintained. Inherent product support capabilities will improve, with augmented reality interfaces showing virtual product manuals to users, providing content sensitive guidance.

And who knows, maybe we’ll get to a position when software and services ‘just work’, and the role of the Service Desk is more of a guide or facilitator. We’re sure that’s still many years away, but you never can tell with the potential rate of technological development in this current day and age.

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