Help desk gets a makeover at TVA

The Tennessee Valley Authority put its IT operations and its help desk in a state-of-the-art facility serving 12,000 employees.

For years, the Tennessee Valley Authority help desk was an IT career graveyard -- and customers suffered for it. Only about half of user problems were resolved in the first call, well below the industry average.

The TVA's help desk woes led to a lack of IT credibility among the utility's 12,000 employees and an almost equal number of contractors, setting off a self-destructive cycle in which IT was underfunded and business units bypassed IT and contracted for services on their own.

"[IT] was considered irrelevant," said Dan Traynor, CIO at the federal government-owned power provider. "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 those credibility issues.

His efforts started to bear fruit this summer, with the opening of the TVA's 12,000-square-foot Information Technology Customer Operations Center, which combines the utility's help desk and network operations. The Chattanooga facility operates 24/7 and is staffed by 80 people who monitor networks, servers and applications -- and solve customers' problems.

The facility has a "mission control" layout with a wall of large-screen monitors that keeps everyone abreast of both operations and help desk activity. Meanwhile, each work station can accommodate three to five monitors that employees use to keep track of operations and help desk calls.

With the new facility, the help desk is no longer the job of last resort at the TVA. It has become an entry point into the 580-person IT organization for computer science graduates and is home to some highly experienced IT professionals who do root cause analysis and handle the most difficult calls.

Getting some of the TVA's veterans, including those with rock-star technical reputations, to agree to work in the center was important, Traynor said.

"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."

The goal of the new operation is to handle any problem in one call, whether by first- or upper-level help desk pros. The first-call resolution rate is now about 80%, and Traynor hopes to get it higher.

Putting network operations and the help desk in the same room, as the TVA did, isn't a common practice -- yet, said Roy Atkinson, an analyst at HDI, formerly known as the Help Desk Institute.

But this is an era of experimentation in IT, as organizations look to reduce the time it takes to solve problems and adapt to demands related to the growing use of social media and consumer technologies, Atkinson said.

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

The industry average for first-call resolution is 66%, but typically the "first call" is defined as the first person who answers the call, not calls that are handed off to higher-level personnel, Atkinson noted. Even so, the TVA's 80%, first-call resolution rate is high, he said.

The success of the operation brought credibility to IT, said Traynor, adding that it led to the creation of an advisory council to help prioritize the utility's $200 million annual IT budget.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

Read more about data center in Computerworld's Data Center Topic Center.

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