Getting Beyond Break/Fix

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As long as the help desk is thought of only as a problem solver,it will never play as full a role in educational objectives as it could.

Technology SupportYEARS AGO, the manager of the support group for a technology manufacturer was on the verge of submitting his resignation out of sheer frustration. All of his pleas for better tools and more people had fallen on deaf ears. Finally, in desperation, he burst uninvited into the office of the senior VP of sales. The senior executive was surprised at the intrusion, but even more so at the question put to him: “Would an improved company reputation for support quality helpyou to sell more product?”

Fifteen minutes later, the VP and the support manager walked out of the company president’s office with a signed $250,000 requisition for a new phone system. Granted, an academic body is very different from a technology maker, but nonetheless the action taken by the support manager and the results it bore relate distinctly to the challenges facing support staff in K-12 schools and districts. By casting tech support as more than merely a problem solver but also a force in marketing and an influence on the bottom line, the manager created a shift in how the administrators viewed the help desk team. The same issue confronts tech support teams in K-12: a need to expand the vision of what the help desk does from merely break/fix (“stuff breaks, we fix it”) to something more integrated into a school’s wellbeing— something based on a well-conceived strategy.

This is not a new problem. The image of tech support as a merely functional group that goes from glitch to glitch has been entrenched for years. It limits what managers and their teams can do, and also confines the help desk to low priority, leaving it vulnerable when budget season rolls around, with unfortunately predictable results: staff layoffs, canceled tool purchases, and elimination of funds for professional development.

Ed Zaiontz, executive director of information services for Round Rock Independent School District in Texas, gets to the heart of the problem when he says: “I don’t think most administrators would regard technology support as a ‘strategic issue.’” Zaiontz says fragmented support efforts that exist problem to problem mean more people are required for support, systems are down more frequently, and the technology is used less frequently because students and staff find it unreliable. Aran Puritch, systems administrator for Distance Education Schools of British Columbia, agrees. “An inconsistent support strategy results in ambiguous timelines for solving problems,” he says. “What ends up happening is that support goes to the squeakiest wheel, or many problems end up being unreported.”

Developing a Strategy

What can help desk managers and CIOs do? The first step is to recognize why the existing arrangement is unworkable, and then to create a fundamental shift in the way the school or district administration thinks about support. However, it’s no accident that management doesn’t regard support as strategic— support folks themselves don’t see their role that way. It is up to the help desk to redefine itself, create a new vision of what support could be, and sell that vision to the district. It is upon them to face up to the question: What else could they be doing with their skill sets and resources to add value to the operation of the school district? As things stand, if asked for a definition of their support strategy, most CIOs, help desk managers, and supervisors would respond by talking about the purchase of a call/case tracking system, or the creation of a support website for self service. A few may cite some variation of break/fix.

An inconsistent support strategy results in ambiguous timelinesfor solving problems. What ends up happening is that support goesto the 'squeakiest wheel,' or many problems end up being unreported.
Aran Puritch, Distance Education Schools of British Columbia

Certainly, all technology requires some level of support. However, administrators can easily fall into assuming that support is only about break/fix. The trouble with break/fix is that it isn’t a strategy, it’s a tactic. It is essentially reactive: Fix one issue, and 10 more arrive to take its place. Resolve those, and there are 100 more on the way. So long as support is only about break/fix, the help desk team is trapped, forever trying to play catch-up with whatever resources are available. An aspect of a true strategic role for the support team should be to make break/fix go away and construct a new vision in its place.

What would this new vision look like? Round Rock’s Zaiontz notes that one common tactic taken by districts is to standardize technology, and to buy high-quality products so that support issues are minimized and money is saved. The help desk has a great opportunity here to broaden its impact, drawing on its access to important data about school technology usage. How do school personnel actually use their technology? What specific data on technology usage would be most helpful to which members of the administration? How should that data be packaged and presented? These are all questions best answered by the support staff, which should be involved in making technology purchases—but almost never is.

It’s the IT execs and the purchasing group that make those decisions, without regard to support’s data. IT says, “We want to buy this kind of a system.” Purchasing says, “We’ll get it for the lowest possible price.” Support, if consulted, might say:

“That system is unreliable; the parts are expensive and don’t last as long.” Again, the blame starts with support itself, which has the information to back up its claims, but typically sits on the data and expects everyone to come forward and ask for it—which doesn’t happen. So the data doesn't get used, and the purchasing decisions are not as sound as they could be, which ultimately impacts teaching and learning.

Creating a New Vision

Instead of being seen as a problem solver, support should be viewed as a player in the effort to increase the productivity of teachers and students, through use of the school’s technological resources. Support alone has the expertise and the data to ensure the effective application of those resources. That’s the vision of itself that support should be promoting, one that is woven into the school’s singular goal of student achievement, not one that lives outside it.

For this shift to take place, someone in the organization has to create a strategic vision for support that goes beyond the day-to-day tactics of what and gets to the more comprehensive issue of why; namely, Why do we exist? Sometimes all it takes is stepping forward to pose the right question, such as in the example at the beginning, where the support team manager, rather than pleading overtly for new resources, puts his request in the context of selling more product, and suddenly is seen as a critical participant in the organization’s success. K-12 is no different. There are powerful allies to be found among administrative leaders; strategic questions that can cause a similar shift in thinking are waiting to be discovered and asked. But first, support folks must think of themselves as strategic players. Until they do, no one else will either.

Mikael Blaisdell is principal of an IT support consultancy, MikaelBlaisdell & Associates, serving highereducation and corporations worldwide.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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