Addressing the Challenge of Supporting Information Technology for NDSU Agriculture
E-mail, the world-wide web, word processing and data collection, storage and analysis are only a few examples of the many critical uses of Information Technology (IT) that our organization relies on daily. Our use of IT will continue to expand as technology advances and as each of us continues to gain experience with IT. As a result, we face the question: How do we provide technical support for our 1,100 staff with 1,400 computers located at 69 sites across the state.
To address this question, we propose a revision in the organization’s strategy for providing IT support. Major components of the strategy include:
- Establishing an IT advisory group that represents users, technicians and administration that will define a baseline of IT (hardware, software, and network) that the organization will support. The group will also revise the baseline as technology and IT needs evolve.
- Use of the baseline to guide IT support policies, decisions and planning. The baseline goal is to support 80 percent of user’s needs 80 percent of the time. The remaining needs are likely to be unique or required by only a few and would be the direct responsibility of those with such needs.
- Establish a mechanism to facilitate closer collaboration and coordination among IT staff in Ag Communication and individuals who provide IT support in their department or unit.
- Expand IT training opportunities for users to reduce the number of questions or difficulties that require technical support, and to enhance the users’ ability to employ IT effectively in fulfilling their job responsibilities.
This strategy can be accomplished with minimal increase in funding for centralized IT support. What is required is administrative support for this change in strategy.
Goals of the Strategy:
- Provide better IT support by reducing the variation among hardware and software used.
- Clearly define the level of support everyone can expect from Ag Comm.
- Allow units to acquire the IT needed to fulfill their responsibilities.
- Enhance coordination between centralized and distributed IT staff
- Develop broad-based user participation in defining and understanding the organization’s IT needs.
Results of the Strategy:
- Several computers on hand for temporary replacement of non-functioning systems
- Reduced time to make repairs
- Reduced time to set up new systems
- Allow IT staff and users to focus attention on baseline
- Flexibility to allow users to meet needs that require IT outside of baseline
- Establish expectation among users as to what questions can be readily answered by IT staff
A key, behind-the-scenes result of this change in strategy will be a shift in focus for Ag Communication's IT staff from fixing problems (firefighting) to preventing problems (fireproofing).
E-mail, the world-wide web, word processing, and data collection, storage and analysis are only a few examples of the many critical uses of IT that we rely on daily. Our use of IT will continue to expand as technology advances and as each of us continues to gain experience with IT.
The Department of Agriculture Communication has a critical role in providing IT support for our organization. However, expanding demands far out pace any increase in IT support that the organization is able to commit to the Ag Communication department. Statistics describe the scope of the challenge.
- Approximately 1,100 faculty, specialists, agents, technicians, staff, and administrators comprise the organization led by the Vice President for Agriculture.
- About 1,400 computers are in use throughout the organization.
- In addition to the offices and laboratories on campus, computers are located in 68 offices statewide including county, district and regional extension offices and research extension centers.
- About 60% of the computers are located on campus; the remainder are located at non-campus offices.
- Studies, including one by the Gartner Group, an IT Consulting group, suggest support of one technician per 70 computers. At that level, our organization requires 20 FTEs to provide technical and network support for our IT.
- As of June 1, 2000, Ag Communication had a little more than 6 FTEs providing technical and network support.
- There are considerable informal FTEs invested in IT support throughout our organization. The departments of plant sciences, agricultural and biosystems engineering, agricultural economics, and veterinary and microbiological sciences, and non-campus offices such as Hettinger REC and Burke county each have staff providing some support for their unit’s IT. However, we do not have accurate information about how much we are investing in informal IT support. As a result, it is difficult to assess the efficiency of the organization’s IT support.
This document addresses our organization’s IT support needs and
reflects ideas that are detailed in The Crisis in Information
Technology Support, an article that describes the situation that
institutions like ours are encountering as IT continues to grow at an
explosive rate. The article can be found at
Based on ideas from this article, we suggest a strategy for enhanced IT support. Key components of the suggested strategy are 1) an IT advisory group, 2) a defined baseline for equipment and software, and 3) closer cooperation among staff providing IT support. This document also contains definitions, assumptions, and an implementation plan.
When these terms appear in italics in this document, they will have the following meanings:
- Vice President – NDSU’s Vice President, Dean and Director for Agricultural Affairs
- Organization – All of the people and entities overseen by the Vice President. The organization encompasses the College of Agriculture, the Extension Service, the Agriculture Experiment Stations, research extension centers and portions of the College of Human Development and Education.
- Advisory Group – A group of individuals who will advise the Vice President regarding IT issues of concern to the whole organization. The members should be representative of the whole organization, including users, IT support staff, and administrative perspectives.
- Central IT Support Staff – The group of people responsible for ensuring that the IT support services recommended by the advisory group and approved by the Vice President are provided to everyone in the organization and includes maintaining the organization’s network/connectivity and supporting the baseline.
- Distributed IT Support Staff – Individuals throughout the organization who provide IT support for a designated unit or department but do not have an IT support responsibility to the overall organization. They focus on supporting the unique or non-baseline IT needs of their unit or department, and some baseline needs. Currently the IT support role for many of the distributed staff is an informal responsibility.
- Primary support – Assistance that is provided at the time of first contact; IT support provided directly to a user.
- Secondary support – Assistance that occurs after the first point of contact; e.g., IT support provided by central IT staff to distributed IT staff.
The IT support model described in this document is based on assumptions about our organization and its IT needs. These assumptions include
- Reliance on IT and use of IT will continue to increase.
- The organization will replace about 450 computers annually.
- Although the number of computers may grow at a slower rate, the complexity of the hardware and software will continue to increase.
- Major new versions of each software application will appear about once per year; minor version changes occur more frequently.
- Clients will continue to add a wider variety of peripherals (e.g., printers, scanners, diagnostic equipment, digital cameras, video-conferencing equipment) to their systems.
- Need for networking and compatibility will continue to be important, but compatibility of networking among offices will improve.
- An increasing number of computer users are willing and able to learn more about the IT they use.
- There will always be such variation among users’ needs that the organization will never be able to provide fully centralized IT support.
- Funding for centralized IT support will remain static.
- Maintaining the organization’s connectivity (network) is best accomplished through centralized support; maintaining departments’ unique IT needs may be best accomplished through distributed support.
Our Current Model for IT Support
Centralized Primary and Secondary IT Support -- Ag Communication Computer Services is responsible for all computer technology training and support issues. These services are centrally funded, with no user fees. However, due to the level of resources available for central IT support, an informal distributed IT support mechanism has developed.
Suggested Model or Strategy for IT Support
After reviewing several models for providing IT support (see appendix), the Department of Agriculture Communication recommends that the organization adopt a Baseline Support Model. Key characteristics of the model include
- the organization supports a specified number of applications and equipment; that is, it provides technical support for a defined set of hardware and software; applications or equipment that deviate from the baseline definitions are the responsibility of the individual client or department requiring that service;
- an IT advisory group representing users, technicians and administration will define and revise the organization’s baseline as technology and IT needs change; and
- the organization relies on a combination of centralized and distributed IT staff to provide technical support, but their activities are closely coordinated.
Goals for a Baseline IT Support Model
- provide better IT support by reducing the variation among hardware and software used in the organization;
- everyone within the organization receives a predefined level of IT support (this proposal, however, does not suggest any changes to the current strategies for funding IT);
- allow individual departments or units to acquire the IT needed to fulfill their responsibilities, but IT support needs beyond the baseline will be the responsibility of the department ,unit or individual;
- enhance coordination between centralized and distributed IT support staff;
- develop broad-based user participation in defining the organization’s IT needs and understanding the cost of meeting those needs.
Implementing a Baseline IT Support Model
The baseline level of support will be defined by a permanent IT advisory group that considers the needs of all departments and individuals in the organization. Recognizing the broad range of IT needs throughout the organization, the goal should be that the baseline encompasses 80% of the people’s needs 80% of the time. The remaining needs are most likely unique or required by only a few, and therefore would be the direct responsibility of those with such needs. This is consistent with the expectation that decisions about IT will be enhanced if users are involved in making decisions and understanding the cost of IT.
Establishing baseline hardware and software standards will:
- Allow central IT support staff to maintain several computers in stock to be used as temporary replacement for a non-functioning system,
- Reduce the time required to make repairs,
- Reduce the time to setup new systems,
- Allow IT staff and users to focus their attention on the baseline,
- Give users the flexibility to meet needs that require non-baseline IT, and
- Establish an expectation among users as to what questions the IT staff will be able to answer without research.
The organization should plan to support the baseline either through central or distributed IT staff. If the staff necessary to support the baseline exceeds available IT staff, the organization will need to either assign more resources to IT or downsize the baseline.
The baseline will need to be changed as IT advances. The advisory group will regularly review the baseline and revise it as necessary. Changes to the baseline will include adding new IT as well as removing older IT. This means that the baseline will not always include the most recent developments, instead technology will be added to the baseline when appropriate according to the number of potential users and how well the technology meets expected needs. Likewise, older technology will be removed so IT staff do not have to spend resources to support old IT when only a small number of individuals still use it.
IT Advisory Group
The IT advisory group will be established to advise the Vice President on defining the baseline and related IT support issues. The members should be representative of the whole organization, and include the perspectives of users, IT support staff and administration. The central IT staff will implement what is approved by the Vice President. The advisory group will have a responsibility to help balance the cost of maintaining the baseline with the resources available for IT support.
The advisory group will schedule regular meetings to review how the baseline definitions conform to this plan. Information obtained from departments, individuals, Remedy database, new software releases, equipment database, web activity, training staff and the IT support staff should be the basis for revisions. The advisory group will define the baseline and address how the organization will provide this support. The advisory group is expected to consider the relationships between cost, quality, and timeliness of technology support.
The baseline definitions will be posted to an advisory group web site. A review process will allow adequate time for comments before implementing new baseline definitions. Additional procedures will keep users informed about, and involved in, existing and proposed baseline definitions.
Deviating from the Baseline
Departments and individuals that require technology and IT support not provided for in the baseline will be encouraged to acquire such IT, but will be required to assume the cost and responsibility of supporting it. Reasons why individuals or units may have needs outside the baseline include
- have not needed to adopt the most recent changes in the baseline, but instead continue to use IT that is no longer included in the baseline;
- using emerging IT that has not yet been defined into the baseline;
- have unique needs beyond the IT baseline.
Departments/units that provide their own IT staff (that is, provide a distributed IT staff) may not receive as much hands-on support from centralized IT as a department/unit that does not provide a distributed IT staff. But departments/units that provide an IT staff person should benefit from
- having access to IT support for their non-baseline needs,
- quicker response than if they relied exclusively on centralized IT support, and
- having an IT support staff whose understanding of the department/unit’s subject matter allows them to identify relevant IT.
However, departments/units with a distributed IT staff will receive support for the baseline from the central IT staff but it may be in the form of consulting, training, hardware/software specifications, or installation-ready software. This is based on the assumption that in many units or departments with a distributed IT staff person, it will be less complicated to rely on that person to provide the department’s primary support than to have baseline primary support coming from central IT and non-baseline primary support coming from the distributed IT staff person. Restated, central IT support may frequently be in the form of secondary support in those departments/units that have distributed IT staff.
Desired Key Characteristics of a Baseline Strategy
- A dynamic, reliable baseline infrastructure will be provided to everyone within the organization.
- Vice President, department, and individual level support mechanisms and costs will be more clearly identified.
- Costs will be more closely associated with those receiving the benefits. Departments and individuals will become more involved in IT planning.
- Responsibility for defining the focus of the central IT support staff will be placed on the organization as a whole.
- Demands on the central IT support staff will shift from fixing problems (firefighting) to preventing problems (fireproofing).
- Resolution time will decrease for problems within the baseline.
- Support quality will improve for problems within the baseline definition.
- The importance of distributed IT staff in resolving the IT support challenge will be better understood.
- Coordination among central and distributed IT staff will be improved. Central IT staff will assist distributed IT staff by providing hardware/software specifications, consulting, and training.
How is the Baseline Model an Improvement?
The baseline model offers several advantages over the current model; these include
- users will receive better service because the IT staff, especially the centralized IT staff, can focus on the baseline.
- users have a better understanding of what IT support they can expect;
- administration should gain a better understanding of the cost of IT. In particular, baseline cost will be measured and there will be better opportunities to measure distributed IT support costs.
- users will be more involved, through the advisory group, in defining what will be supported and will have a better understanding of the IT support effort.
However, defining a baseline does not impose the disadvantage of restricting the IT that faculty, specialists, researchers, agents, staff and administrators can use. Departments and individuals will be encouraged to use the IT necessary to meet their needs, but they will bear the responsibility of supporting these non-baseline items.
What the Baseline will Likely Include
Key components of a baseline include network/connectivity, hardware, software, and IT support.
1. Network (servers, web-hosting, LAN/WAN)
The central IT staff will provide and maintain, for example,
- WAN/Internet services, web server, e-mail, and organizational databases, such as the staff directory
- local area network services needed for file and printer sharing,
Each office or department that wants to maintain a network server will need a contact person (a distributed IT staff person) who is knowledgeable about the network operating system. This individual(s) will be responsible for implementing changes, maintenance, and assisting with troubleshooting.
The baseline will include, for example:
- specifications for minimum computer systems that users should purchase.
- specifications for the minimum computer system that central IT support staff will support.
- specifications for other IT-related items such as printers, scanners, and digital cameras.
The baseline will most likely:
- identify software products and versions.
- include at least one application in each of the following areas: word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, electronic mail, web publishing, web browsing, virus protection, FTP, and Telnet.
- be revised to include other applications or versions when they are needed by a sufficient portion of the organization to justify a reallocation of resources.
- identify software products and versions to be removed from the baseline.
- include plans for orderly migration as baseline software is redefined.
4. Levels of IT Support
A question that arises with respect to IT support is what level of support can users expect as part of the baseline and what support will departments or units be expected to provide for themselves.
The baseline will define "levels of support" and set priorities for the levels. Some of the support activities that need to be considered relate to the IT infrastructure such as: email, FTP, web server, LAN/WAN, and Telnet. Others include software development and ordering, installing, troubleshooting, and repairing hardware and software.
Levels of support may be categorized as hands-on, consulting, research/development, training, and documenting. The first two levels are reactive, that is, in response to specific questions or needs. The last two levels of support are more proactive and taken in anticipation of future needs/requests. The middle category of research/development has characteristics of being both reactive and proactive.
As a result of adopting a baseline IT support model, central IT staff should be able to shift their role to emphasize proactive strategies of training and documenting. A baseline strategy also should allow central IT staff to spend more time researching emerging IT and potential applications, and developing software to meet the organization’s needs.
A. Hands-on IT support
All users will not be expected to know how to fully maintain the technology they use. IT support staff are necessary to address more technical issues. Users, however, will be expected to continue to enhance their technology skills and increasingly be responsible for solving routine IT matters.
Distributed IT staff will provide hands-on IT support for non-baseline needs, and possibly some baseline needs for their unit. Central IT staff will provide hands-on IT support for the baseline in units that do not have a distributed IT staff, and cooperate with distributed IT staff in meeting baseline needs in their units.
Questions/issues to be resolved include 1) how will distributed IT staff inform central IT staff about their support activities (specifically, how will distributed IT staff document what they do so there is a record of current status of IT in that department or unit); 2) how to cause users to contact the appropriate person for IT support (that is, do they contact central IT or their distributed IT staff member?); 3) helping department or units decide whether to invest in their own distributed IT staff; and 4) how a change in staffing is accommodated; that is, documenting current set ups and adequate staffing to backfill during position vacancies or employee leave.
Distributed IT staff will provide answers to their immediate users for non-baseline needs and probably baseline questions, as well. Central IT staff will provide consulting services on technology issues by answering specific questions.
Categories of questions that IT staff may need to address include 1) what needs to be done to solve an IT problem, 2) what hardware and software is needed to complete a particular task, and 3) what IT can we expect to be available in the future.
An issue that remains is whether central IT staff will provide consulting as primary support (directly to users), secondary support (directly to distributed IT staff), or both? Similarly, should a help desk be staffed?
C. Research and Development
Research and development activities generally fall into two categories
Staff development. Central IT staff need opportunities to learn about emerging IT.
Computer program development. Central IT staff provide some programming support, especially for organization-wide administrative needs.
IT will be used more effectively if users more fully understand the technology. IT training is one method of providing users opportunity to enhance their understanding of IT.
The advisory group and central IT staff will help identify IT training issues. They will collaborate with others in Agriculture Communication, ITS and outside sources, as appropriate. Training will occur in a variety of ways, including one-to-one interaction, small group presentation/discussion, or relying on computer-based training (CBT) and other reference materials. For example, the advisory group may specify that users will be responsible to obtain enough training to meet basic Windows environment skills. The organization will then need to address the question of how to make sure the appropriate training opportunities are available.
E. Documenting Standards/Specification and Current Setup
Standards, specifications, and procedures will be defined and documented. All documents will be posted to the advisory group web page. Some of the documents will be:
- Procedures for obtaining IT support services
- Minimum specifications for new computer systems
- A list of baseline (centrally supported) software programs and versions
- A description of the minimum/baseline system configuration/hardware that will be centrally supported
Documenting also involves central and distributed IT staff recording their activities to ease "backfilling" when IT staff are away from their office or when new IT staff are employed.
The magnitude of the challenge of providing IT support for the organization requires a team-approach. Accordingly, the central IT staff will work with department and county computer support personnel, NDSU ITS, ND Association of Counties, NDIN, ITD, and other key individuals. Collaboration between central IT staff and distributed IT staff is critical to meeting the challenge of IT support.
- Identify the department/unit’s IT needs and share a summary of those needs with the advisory group. For non-baseline needs, departments may want to determine whether the need extends throughout the department or is unique to only a portion of the department.
- Decide whether the department/unit will support a distributed IT staff person.
- Assure that non-baseline needs do not interfere with operation of the organization’s baseline.
- Assure that distributed IT staff collaborate with centralized IT staff.
- Inform central IT staff of changes in the status of the department/unit’s distributed IT staff.
- Prepare formal proposal.
- VP and ag cabinet review, revise, or reject proposal, in principle
- Present the policy to department chairpersons and leadership team for discussion and revision
- Present revised policy to ag cabinet for action
- Vice President form IT advisory group
- Central and distributed IT staff meet to discuss common challenges
- Advisory group studies baseline environment definition
- Develop procedures for group to gather input from users throughout the Organization
- Define baseline
- Assess feasibility of supporting baseline environment
- review central IT support staff assignments and recruit, replace, or relocate if necessary
- describe process to provide coordination with distributed IT support staff
- Departments assess feasibility of supporting non-baseline environment
- Advisory group makes recommendation to the Vice President
- Vice President approves baseline environment
- Central IT support staff works with distributed IT support staff to preserve organization’s IT goals and plans.
- Central IT support staff provides support services as defined in the baseline.
- Central IT support stqff monitors industry trends and suggests baseline changes to the advisory group.
- Advisory group meets regularly to assess the baseline environment.
- Central IT support staff develops implementation plans for changes recommended by the advisory group.
Other IT Support Models Considered
Totally Decentralized Support Model -- Each department or unit is totally responsible for their own support.
Fee For Service Model – All services provided to clients by the central IT support staff will be billed to the client. Some services of general utility, such as Local Area Network (LAN) support, might be billed directly to the Vice President.
Centralized Primary Support, Outsourced Secondary Support Model -- Initial problem reporting would be to the central IT support staff. Those problems that couldn’t be resolved on the phone would be outsourced to a commercial service provider.
Fully Outsourced Support Model – All support would be centrally funded and provided by a commercial service provider.