The Official Web Site of James R. Cummins III
My real talent is in identifying what people need to do their work and implementing information technology resources that accommodate those needs. It seems very fundamental, and yet all too often it is the consumers of technology resources who must accommodate the needs of information systems instead of the other way around.

In spite of any lingering luddism, information technology is an inescapable reality of every day life. Implemented and supported well, it is as ubiquitous and reliable as the telephone or electricity. Just as you expect a dial tone, or the light to turn on, plugging into the jack on the wall should provide access to a wealth of resources customized to your specific needs and preferences.

If it doesn't work that way for your business, maybe we should talk.

Beyond the Help Desk - Integrated IT Resource Management

This document addresses the issue of Information Technology (IT) technical support and is the first part of a working document that can be used to define the role of the IT technical team, establish the foundation for a strategic technology plan, and identify long and short term process improvements.

The unfortunate reality is that "technical support" is a negative stereotype lampooned in popular culture: Dilbert, Saturday Night Live, etc. The "tech guy" is arrogant, rude, condescending, impatient and without any social graces. Only he knows how to properly use the systems he has implemented, leaving the users of those systems frustrated and confused. They are completely dependent upon him to "fix" whatever they "broke" as they attempt to get their work done. And he is constantly in a rush to go and "fix" the next problem. Users feel so demoralized and demeaned when dealing with him that they are very reluctant to contact him in the future and will do so only when desperate.

If this scenario sounds familiar, then you are reading the correct document. There is no reason to tolerate such a poor excuse for IT technical support. The "tech guy" in the stereotype is probably beyond redemption, but the real problems with dysfunctional technical support are systemic, not human resource related. Even IT professionals with the best intentions can be trapped in a system that makes them ineffective and creates conflict and tension between them and the users they support.

The Role of IT

As we shall see, the IT technical team is essentially a service entity whose activities affect every other organizational function.

For any entity, either an individual or a group of individuals, to be effective in an organization, it is essential to clearly define the role that the entity plays and for the entity to understand that definition. Typically this definition is encapsulated in a mission statement that succinctly summarizes the entityís role.

Not surprisingly, the members of a dysfunctional IT technical team either do not know or do not agree on the mission statement, either because one has not been articulated or because it has not been communicated. Which means that they do not, at a fundamental level, really know what it is they are supposed to be doing. And since the users who rely on the IT technical team also do not know or do not agree on the mission statement, they do not know what the IT technical team is supposed to be doing either. If this is the case, it should not surprise anyone that no one is satisfied with the level of IT support.

So letís start with a working mission statement and determine what is required for the IT technical team to fulfill its mission.

Mission Statement: The IT technical team provides appropriate and accessible technology resources to best meet the business requirements of the companyís management, employees and clients.

Focusing on the mission

In order to succeed, the IT technical team must understand and communicate the answers to these three questions:
  • What do we do?
  • How do we do it?
  • When do we do it?
In each case, the answer must come from an analysis of the mission statement.

The most important part of the mission statement is: "to best meet the business requirements of the companyís management, employees and clients." It should prompt some questions:
  • What are the business requirements?
  • Are they the same for the three constituencies specified?
  • How are conflicts between requirements resolved?
In an ideal world, the IT technical team can access managementís business requirements documentation and answer all these questions. In the real world, if any business requirements are formally documented, they are related to sales and marketing goals, or as part of a business plan. In any case, the IT technical team needs to begin to document its list of known business requirements. Since the list is neither static nor absolute, it will require continual review and updates.

The document you are currently reading is not going to encompass a complete business requirements analysis. Instead, we will formulate a minimal number of broad requirements that will help to determine how the IT technical team should function. As we do so, it will be quite clear that the requirements for each of the constituencies can be quite different. Consider the following requirements:
  • Management: maximize revenues and minimize expenditures
  • Employees: complete assigned tasks in an acceptable manner within an acceptable period of time
  • Customers: have access to and use the companyís products and services such that the value of those products and services is at least equal to their cost.
While perhaps a bit oversimplified, these three requirements set up much of the conflict in which the IT technical team finds itself. The companyís management wants to make a profit, its employees want to do their jobs, and its customers want the best service or product for the least cost.

With some idea of the companyís business requirements, we can return to the mission statement and see that the "IT technical team provides appropriate and accessible technology resources." Again, we should immediately have some questions:
  • How do we know what is appropriate?
  • How do we determine accessibility?
  • What distinguishes technology resources from other corporate resources?
As the business requirements for a particular constituency, organizational group or functional role become less generalized and more specialized, technology must be implemented in a way that reflects those differences. An example is the requirement for the HR manager to have a searchable database of resumes representing the pool of candidates available for recruitment. While appropriate for the HR manager, it is probably not a resource that would be provided to a member of the software development staff. In addition to the implementation based on functional role, there is also the consideration of whether the technology resource is appropriate for the task. The HR manager may decide to store e-mail with resume file attachments in a separate folder, and use the search function of the e-mail client to find candidates suitable for recruitment. While technically a searchable database, the limitations inherent in this implementation fall far short of "best" meeting the business requirement. Some other technology resource should be provided that is more appropriate for this task.

The accessibility of a technology resource refers to both its availability and the interface or mechanism by which it is used. Availability is determined both by the proper functioning of the technology resource and limitations imposed by infrastructure or security considerations. For example, the company intranetís availability is based on the proper functioning of the hardware and software on which it is implemented, the desktop computers used to access it and the network infrastructure which connects them. An additional limitation on its availability from a remote location might be to require the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection, making it unavailable to remote computers that cannot establish a secure, trusted connection.

The interface to the technology resource is as important as its availability since, if you canít effectively use the resource, there is little value in having it available to you. Even for the same resource, the userís interests and skills will determine how the resource is presented and used. A business analyst accessing a reporting resource will likely need a full range of selection options and is interested in and has the ability to create ad hoc queries. A sales representative accessing that same resource is more likely to be interested in seeing the results of prepared queries, with some limited specification of different criteria.

Determining what constitutes an "information technology resource" that falls within the mission statement of the IT technical team is not as complicated as it might at first appear. Starting with a very broad definition we can start to refine the resources for which the IT technical team is responsible.

Information Technology Resources: all services, software and equipment related to the storage, transmission and retrieval of electronic information.

While the simplest of definitions, some organizations may want to have some specific types of resources put in other, separate functional groups: broadcast media, audio-video equipment and media, and telecommunications. Other complications occur when the company does its own software development, either for internal use or for sale. Code source control, platform configuration control, build environments and QA environments have to be integrated with the overall company support structure. Ideally, the IT technical team supports software development engineers and quality assurance engineers according to the same business requirements driven mission statement.