NEW ORLEANS - New automated systems are increasingly making help desks or at least some of their members expendable. But managers overseeing these support groups argue that phasing out people can only go so far."People are already mad at a computer when they make a call to the help desk. We don't want to make them talk to another computer," said Scott Koon, help desk manager\/director at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.Preserving IT help desks means evolving them as well, says Koon, who attended the IT Infrastructure Management conference last week with about 500 others in the IT service management business. Tying customer support to various lines of business topped the to-do list for attendees.The\u00a0Help Desk Institute, a user organization for customer service and technical support staff, and\u00a0Pink Elephant, a consulting and training firm, sponsored the conference, which featured sessions on how to extend help desks beyond first-contact support so that they become critical sources for all IT services.Helpless deskKoon said his 79-person department is still working to change its reputation as the "helpless desk.""We had a 38% call-abandon rate, and our overall call rate dropped because people just weren't calling back," he said. Part of the problem was a lack of communication with other IT subgroups at the clinic, he says, citing a situation in which the help desk got caught off-guard having to answer questions about an application it didn't realize had been rolled out.To address such issues, Koon installed Remedy help desk technology and streamlined processes to make his staff the go-to group for IT problem reporting and resolution. Now his staff fixes problems on first contact with three-quarters of the calls received, and only 5% of callers hang up while waiting for help.Tammy Aswegan, who heads the IT help desk team at MidAmerican Energy Holdings in Des Moines, Iowa, has established her service desk as the gateway for all IT departments in the company. Her department tracks projects, inventory, knowledge and other metrics for all of IT."We are the interface between our customers and all other IT groups. We are aware of net administration, security, application and hardware support," Aswegan said. MidAmerican ties data collected from HP OpenView and Microsoft SMS management software into its Axios Systems Assyst incident and change-management systems. The integration keeps configuration, knowledge and change-management databases up-to-date, she says.Stephanie Miller, Remedy applications manager at Hershey Foods in Hershey, Pennsylvania, links Remedy with IBM Tivoli Netview event management software and BMC Control-M scheduling software. The integration helps her staff more quickly detect possible links between network and system performance and end user support calls, she said.Improve the processA common thread among these IT managers' approach to improving help desk performance is process."What we realized is that we were doing\u00a0ITIL\u00a0already, but we just didn't have a name for it," Aswegan said. Information Technology Infrastructure Library is an extensive set of rules, first adopted in the U.K., for how to deliver IT services more efficiently by improving processes across IT and other business departments.Large U.S. companies such as Procter & Gamble and State Farm Insurance have extolled the benefits of ITIL, but overall adoption across the country has been slow."I am interested in learning more, but every time I start to hear about it, it seems to be a lot of information," said Priscilla Milam, dean of technology at Kingwood College in Texas. There are free ITIL resources available online, but typically anyone interested must take weeks of training.Mayo Clinic's Koon, an ITIL advocate with certification, said it is possible to adopt ITIL in digestible chunks."People think it's all or nothing with ITIL. You can enjoy its benefits without pushing it out across the entire organization," he said.