Once an outcast, help desk now stars at TVA

Tennessee Valley Authority utility combines operations and help desk to create mission control for customers

The Tennessee Valley Authority's help desk was a career graveyard. It was that way for years and customers suffered for it.

Only about half of all help desk calls were resolved in the first call, a percentage below industry average. IT problems were festering for the TVA's 12,000 employees, and an almost equal number of contractors.

A lack of credibility set off a self-destructive cycle of IT underfunding. Equipment was aging. Business units were contracting for their own services, bypassing IT.

"[IT] was considered irrelevant," said Dan Traynor, the utility's CIO. "You can't even have a conversation about 'what do we want to invest in' if we can't get their problem solved."

Traynor was hired two and a half years ago to address these issues, and one of the major fruits of his effort was just completed.

In June, the utility opened a center that combines help desk and network operations. This 12,000 square-foot facility in Chattanooga operates 24-by-7 and is staffed by people who monitor networks, servers and applications and fix customer problems.

It has a mission control type of layout. Across the front of the main room is a wall of large screen monitors that keeps everyone abreast of operations and help desk demand.

The work stations accommodate three to five monitors, but keep a low profile to foster collaboration. There are meeting rooms off to the side where staff can use iPads to control audio, video and lighting.

There are about 80 people, out of an IT staff of 580, who work in what's called the Information Technology Customer Operations Center.

Inside the new Information Technology Customer Operations Center. Photo: TVA

The help desk is no longer the job of last resort. It's become an entry point into the IT organization for computer science graduates. These novices are balanced out by some highly experience IT professional, who do root cause analysis and will handle the more difficult calls.

Getting some of the TVA's veterans, including those with rock star technical reputations, to work in this center was important, said Traynor. "These are people who have a lot of credibility across the organization," he said.

"It helped improve the image of the help desk to have people like that," Traynors said.

The goal is to handle any issue in one call, whether it's completed by the first level or moved up a level.

Traynor said the center is now seen as a desirable place to work. The first call resolution rate is about 80% and he hopes to get it higher. Customers have also gained online self-service access to address routine help desk issues.

The TVA's decision to put network operations and the help desk in the same room may not be all that common, said Roy Atkinson, an analyst at HDI, formerly known as the Help Desk Institute.

But Atkinson says that there is lot of experimentation going on in the help and service desk areas to reduce resolution times as well as adapt to demands coming from enterprise use of social media and consumerization.

"There has been a movement to put more technical expertise on the front line so you don't have to wait," Atkinson said.

Atkinson said the industry average for first call resolution is 66%, but that's typically defined as the first person who answers the call, not necessarily the handoff. But even with a handoff, the TVA's figure resolution is high, he said.

Traynor said he is seeing changes in how IT interacts with the business. There is now an advisory council to help prioritize IT investments. The TVA's IT budget is about $200 million a year.

Traynor is working to move the IT organization into more strategic roles to help the business innovate and run better. That will be possible because, "we're more in a leadership role than we used to be," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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