To Support and to Serve: Technical Departments Must Employ Good Communication Skills to Manage an Increasing List of Responsibilities

Article excerpt

We've all felt it: the panic when the screen of your computer goes black, the frustration when it won't boot up again, no matter how sweetly you talk to it, that despair when you realize that the last time you backed up your data was before you spent two all-nighters on that career-breaking project.

It is a helpless, lonely feeling.

Those of us who have experienced this several times are smart enough to build up a network of computer whizzes and IT specialists who will come and make everything better on a moment's notice. In universities--as is the case in many organizations--this team of experts is provided automatically, in the form of the technical department.

While faculty, staff, and students were once able to call their IT departments and receive help on a moment's notice, technicians at many universities are finding that they are unable to attend to their clients immediately these days. The increasing complexity of technology--and the number of systems they are responsible for overseeing--has grown too large.

"Our users are accustomed to calling and thinking that they can have something done right away, and that just isn't the case anymore for the bigger projects," says Susan Jarchow, interim co-director of Information Technology Services at Washburn University (Kan.). "There is a lot more demand. In an academic setting, I used to think of us as a nine-month shop, and then during the summer we had a chance to catch our breath before the fall semester. Now we are busy 12 months out of the year."

DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF

At Washburn, the IT Services department is responsible for servicing and supporting the university's telephone system, instructional media and multimedia, the wired and wireless networks, and the university's residential living connections. Approximately 40 technical personnel serve between 1,200 to 1,300 university employees and 7,000 students. The department presently handles almost all service and support in-house, but other options are being examined. "We are looking at doing more outsourcing in the near future, because it's very difficult for us to keep up, especially with the maintenance of our equipment," Jarchow says.

When the time comes to outsource tasks, Jarchow and her team plan to take great care in constructing maintenance contracts. "This is very important, because you want to make sure that it's clear as to who is going to be doing what," she says.

Currently, the department is in the process of replacing the phone system, which, according to Jarchow, is overutilized. "We also have some Voice over IP, which makes it challenging because we have two types of systems in operation--the old-fashioned system as well as VoIP."

The biggest issue, however, is directly related to the small stuff: users calling the department with problems related to their PCs. "Our challenge is dealing not so much with the issues that result from the network being down," Jarchow says.

"They call in for more traditional problems, such as someone forgetting their password, or they don't know how to set their password, or they aren't able to access something because their access isn't set up correctly," explains John Haverty, manager of User Services in Washburn's IT department.

To manage this, Washburn is moving toward a tiered support system in the university's Technology Support Center. "Our challenge has been that we are located in three different buildings here on campus," Jarchow notes. "Because of that, communicating isn't as easy, in getting the university to understand that we are one unit. We used to have separate units for academic computing, administrative computing, administrative computing, and instructional media.

Now, it's four years tater and people still don't know who to call."

Washburn's Technology Support Center, which is a new initiative, boasts one phone number and one e-mail address, in an effort to centralize operations. …