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."
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 later 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. The e-mail address pours into Footprints, a software package from UniPress (www.unipress.com) that facilitates the management of technical support-related correspondence. At Washburn, Footprints directs all correspondence to the first tier of technical support. "We are educating Tier One personnel on what needs to be solved at that level and what needs to be moved up to Tier Two employees," Jarchow explains.
Up until two years ago, Washburn wasn't using Footprints or any other type of ticket-tracking software. All technical support inquiries were submitted strictly via e-mail. "It was a nightmare trying to keep track of whether something was finished and following up with customers," Haverty recalls. "Having Footprints has saved us; we are able to follow up with customers and know when something is complete. We can efficiently follow a problem from beginning to end."
Gary Knigge, workflow coordinator in the IT Services department at University of Wisconsin-River Falls, notes that security has become a primary concern with respect to service and support. Knigge oversees a team of eight, which is responsible for coordinating support for Windows workstations (as well as some Macs) for all faculty and staff and student employees, which comprises a total of approximately 750 computers.
"Security has become a huge issue; there are all of the things that bombard us via e-mail that may impact us with spyware or adware applications," Knigge notes. "There are the viruses that come through e-mail or crawl from computer to computer." Not long ago, anti-virus software was sufficient to combat these threats to the network. "Now, that's not the case at all," he says. "Sometimes even when you have all of the Windows patches in place and your anti-virus software up to date, and a personal firewall, you can still get into trouble."
Which makes it more difficult for everyone involved: now, before connecting to the network, every computer must be "inoculated."
A more efficient infrastructure also enables technical departments to remain on top of things, rather than simply reacting--sometimes frantically--when problems do arise. "It's better to be in a proactive position rather than a reactive one," Jarchow emphasizes. "The way to do that is to clearly define what your services are."
Knigge, whose main concern is security, agrees: "This has taken us a bit out of the realm of responding to someone who has a problem that we react to, to asking ourselves how we need to configure our workstations up front and manage them remotely so that they are not susceptible to new, emerging threats."
This can only be achieved if technical departments emphasize strong communications between technical staff and those that they serve. "For those of us at the directorship level, it's our responsibility to communicate with deans and directors about what we are doing in the area of service and support so that they can help their employees to understand," says Jarchow. "Communication is very important throughout all levels of the university; you can't just send an e-mail to everyone and assume that it's done. You have to work one-on-one with people to help them understand why you are going in a specific direction with your service and support."
Carolyn Heinze (email@example.com) is a freelance writer/editor.