Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Is your Tech Support team any good?

This is such a loaded question as the immediate implication is that ‘they’ are not, and more to the point it implies that there is a ‘them’ – which also means there is an ‘us’. As many within the Redbridge school community know I have worked as a member of Tech Support teams in several organisations before I trained as a teacher. I therefore have tremendous respect for the role.  If you are a senior IT manager in a school it is, however, your responsibility to be self-evaluative and ensure that the Tech Support function is effective.

Tech Support – they’re diamonds!

It can be helpful to see our Tech Support colleagues as a diamond that has several different aspects. Each facet shows a different side of their sparkle, and their precious quality arises out of the fact that they often have to handle tremendous heat and pressure! It also provides a helpful mnemonic for reviewing their work:

F: Flying by the key dials
A: Ability to respond well
C: Change management expertise
E: Every day/week/month activities
T: The dominant culture

This post is part of the Redbridge Management Calendar (ICT-RMC). If you manage ICT in your school you may like to take a while to look at your Tech Support team from these angles. The best managers will undoubtedly do this review with the Tech Support team to support their professional development.

1. Flying by the key dials

When we teach we assess work to ensure that the learning is going in the right direction. When you fly a plane (if you ever have the opportunity) you don’t look at the hundreds of dials that surround you - you pick out some key dials. These dials tell you whether you are upright, maintaining your intended altitude and heading in the right direction. Obviously you can look at the other dials if your key dials suggest something is wrong.  This 'key dials' analogy can be useful when managing Tech Support.

What do you look at as your key dials to know whether your Tech Support team is flying well? Obviously each school might have its own priorities but my key dials are the following:

1. How many ICT incidents were reported to the Tech Support team last week?
2. How many ICT incidents in total are currently unresolved?
3. On average, how old (in days) are the unresolved issues?
4. How many incidents did you resolve last week?

Obviously to answer these questions on a weekly basis you need to record every incident that is reported to you. Some Tech Support teams still don’t do this and feel that this gets in the way of actually doing the job. It does not. It ensures that the job is being done well. If you don’t have a method for reviewing the key dials on a weekly basis (a simple spreadsheet will do) now is a very good time to start.

(An example spreadsheet is available in the Redbridge FITS Fronter room.)

2. Ability to respond well

A large part of the Tech Support team’s job is to respond to incidents and problems that occur within the school. Time is the critical factor. There is a tension between solving the jobs that are easy to solve, and solving those that need to be solved. It is helpful to have (a) a good way of keeping a record of all requests and (b) a way of prioritising.

There are many ways of recording all requests. (A book in the staff room; a spreadsheet that everyone has access to; a google form; even web ‘helpdesk’ software can all meet the need depending on the school.) What you don’t want is a flurry of post-it notes stuck to various things around the server room and several different to-do lists – each one out of date in a different way. A consistent recording method is key to responding well.

Prioritising can be done in a variety of ways – and it is not an exact science. I tend to consider the factors of 'impact on learning' (the more learners it impacts the higher up the list it should go), 'age of request' (if the request was made 2 weeks ago you must find time to deal with it) and 'mission critical' (if the requests impacts a core activity [like registering student attendance] in the school it must be dealt with fast).  Sometimes our friends (or the senior managers) try and jump the queue. Sometimes a work-around is achievable in seconds even if it means you have to solve it properly at a later date. Sometimes things happen that you can’t foresee and you do need to drop everything to focus on it.

The easiest way to find out whether your Tech Team responds well is to ask the users. A short survey to all the teachers once a year is an exceptionally useful way of establishing whether users are confident (or otherwise) that the Tech Team responds well.

(An example survey is available in the Redbridge FITS Fronter room.)

3. Change management expertise

We expect ICT systems to change in schools. It is often said that change is the most reliable constant! When change happens it should not be managed by the supplier (although they can help). Suppliers will give you a price for the products (servers, laptops, etc.). They may even give you a price for the physical installation, software configuration and ongoing maintenance. However if the Change Management is not owned and managed by someone within the school (often by the Tech Team) then you are unlikely to ensure the project is completed to your schedule, to your budget and to your specification.

Project management is a profession in its own right. Even if you are not an expert in this field of management the qualifications are often just formalised good planning principles. If you want change to be done well it needs to be planned in detail before doing it; scheduled to ensure it minimises disruption; and a fall back plan needs to be in place if possible. Ideally all plans will be agreed by all those involved in the project (including where necessary the school caretaker, a classroom teacher and the member of senior management who authorised the project).

Your Tech Team is often at the centre of Change Management activities. How many projects were run last year? Did they (a) come in on budget; (b) finish on time and (c) achieve their intended objectives? Do you support the Tech Team by chairing meetings for all the stakeholders? Could you do anything to ensure that change management runs smoothly next time?

(An example Change Management process is available in the Redbridge FITS Fronter room.)

4. Every day / week / month activities

There are several jobs that need to be done regularly. No-one will thank the Tech Support team when these jobs are done, but if they are not completed then a catastrophic situation could easily develop. These are often referred to as operational activities.  Some jobs that should be done regularly (how regularly depends on how mission critical each system is):

- Is the data backed up?
- Has that software been updated?
- Have we checked the capacity of the different systems we manage?
- Have we practiced our restore procedures?
- Will any of our licences expire?
- …

Your Tech Support team can generate a school-specific list of Operational Activities, clearly marking who will do them and how often. You may want to set up a sign off sheet so you can initial every time you have checked and completed that job.

5. The dominant culture

Ideally in your school you want the Tech Support to have a culture that is positive and supportive of helping the school achieve its core function – which is learning. There are some analogies that can help you think about your own Tech Support team culture.

Kingdom vs Service?

Some Tech Support managers look out over their domain and are proud of their estate. “This school network would work wonderfully if it wasn’t for those students” is a direct quote I have honestly heard from a Network Manager. The best Tech Support teams realise that their roles exist to enable the learning activities that take place in the school. This doesn’t mean that the Tech team should be perceived as servants – it simply means that when some technology goes wrong it is potentially reducing the teaching and learning and that must be resolved asap.

Security vs Useability?

The Tech Team are often responsible for ensuring that all data is kept safely. This does not, however, mean you must lock everything down such that it is not useable. Often this comparison is about getting the right balance. E.g. you want a network that allows the playing of music files; using the right-mouse button; teachers to play youtube clips… Just because it is possible to shut something down it doesn’t mean that that necessarily supports teaching and learning. Is the balance right in your school at the moment?

MI5 vs PR?

The Tech Team is not the secret service (even though they may have more gadgets than 007). If you know something and it will help all the users – tell them. If you honestly don’t know something – tell them too.  E.g. “We will be working on the servers over half term so please don’t expect to access your emails on Tuesday or Wednesday” is a very helpful bit of PR to publish on the staff room notice board. Similarly “The internet has gone down, we have contacted our ISP who are looking into it – as soon as we know when it will be fixed we will update this notice” is also helpful.

(An example Support Department Charter is available in the Redbridge FITS Fronter room.)

Concluding remarks

One of my repeated concerns about Tech Support in schools is so often schools employ a small team to swing from trapeze to trapeze and walk the tight rope of network management without a safety net. This strategy is fraught with risk and if the Tech Support function is being done by just one person it is actually quite irresponsible.

If that person is ill for two weeks (or wins the lottery and flies without warning to Bermuda) – an IT situation might occur and no-one is there to keep the management information system; the teaching devices and the learning devices working. Also if a problem occurs that is beyond your Tech Support team’s experience then the problem is potentially irresolvable. I believe that a school should have an ongoing relationship with a ‘3rd line’ technical support team (be that commercial or Local Authority based) is essential so that when your Tech Team run out of ideas, or simply run out, there is someone there to call.

There are a range of Best Practice standards that school based Tech Support staff can work to. This is called FITS – the Framework for ICT Technical Support. It has been prepared by Becta for schools based on industry’s ITIL standards. In Redbridge we run this course regularly and it is next scheduled to run on the 5-6th March 2013, and 18-19th June 2013. This is a great course for any Tech Support staff, and ICT managers in schools have also benefitted from attending. LGfL schools get a significant discount. Click here to register your interest.

As always should you require further support please do get in touch. We are able to support schools directly on these, and a range of other issues.
Alex Rees, @alxr1

This post is part of the ICT - Redbridge Management Calendar (ICT-RMC)

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