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Managing IT and the role of the IT Coordinator

By Lasa Information Systems Team

Many organisations are realising that they have to devote more resources to the important issue of managing their IT. A key component is an IT Coordinator or 'Link Person'. So what is a Link Person, and what do they do? Cliff Ashcroft, the IT Coordinator at Lasa, describes his experience of this 'vital and difficult' role.

A few years ago we were running a small network, mainly for word-processing, and a few local databases when suddenly we began to expand; more PCs appeared, we started using email and the Internet, we installed a new integrated database.

No one was actually fully responsible for IT but we did have staff with IT skills, some knowledgeable on email and the Internet, others on word-processing, and a few more, like me, struggling with the development of the database. 

A typical day would often involve one of us attempting to reconcile data reports between the new and old databases being interrupted to answer a query on the use of spreadsheets and then another on why a just saved document could no longer be found.

Another staff member would halt work to deal with a PC crash or a stubborn refusal to access the Web. Returning an annoyingly unreliable PC to its maker involved yet another person in a great deal of trawling through old financial paperwork just to find an invoice and serial number. It wasn't unusual to find 3 or 4 people gathered round a problem PC offering their opinion as to the cause of the difficulty. Valuable work was slowed down and the PCs inexhaustible clamour for attention was starting to take us over.

Something had to be done.

The Project Group

As our network had grown in size so had our problems and queries. It was glaringly obvious that we needed to make some decisions about how we were to satisfactorily manage this complex resource. So we sat down and tried to work out where we wanted to go with our IT. We set-up a framework for dealing with IT problems (see Lasa's framework of support below) which involved the creation of the Coordinator, a number of 'Super-Users', and an IT Project Group with a brief to look after 5 areas:

  1. Strategy It seemed vital to regularly meet and compile the overall IT strategy to be agreed by the Management Team and Board. This would provide the framework for future decisions and the processes by which our IT was managed, including the IT Project Group.
  2. IT Administration Someone had to backup the network each evening, add and remove users from the network, keep records of our equipment, maintenance agreements, licensing, update virus software, data protection registration and so on.
  3. Installations Again someone was needed to install a new machine when it arrived and give its user access to the network, Lasa software, email and Internet.
  4. Queries and support A clear chain of response was required to deal with the regular stream of queries and problems.
  5. Training Always an important issue, the Project Group needed to start work on a training needs analysis and the development of an in-house training programme

As we can see from these areas and the Framework of Support, the role of the Link Person was developed as someone who bridges the skills gap between what we knew as users of the network and the often technically complex problems that were occurring. Ideally the Link Person would liaise with external support (consultants or suppliers), co-ordinate the running of the network and communicate with the support agency when things went wrong. In other words a mediator between IT consultants and ordinary mortals, with particular responsibility for the task areas- installations, administration work, queries and support.

Fate chose me for the job.

What the Lasa IT Coordinator Does

We tried to create an organised framework and a specific brief for this role. Now it was clear that maintenance and administration tasks fell to me.

When a new PC arrived I installed it, and kept a record; if we required new software licences I got them.

If there was an IT query or a problem, I was one of the first ports of call.

If it couldn't be dealt with, I was the one responsible for liaising with our external IT consultant about the problem, assessing its urgency, implementing what the consultant suggested, or placing the problem on a list to be dealt with at the consultant's next routine monthly visit.

A routine week could see me installing a new PC for a member of staff, logging the specifications of the PC and setting up a file; so if we had to return the PC its records were easily accessible. I may be answering a few simple queries on why a document won't print (printer off-line) or how to set the margins in a Word document (Page Setup under File menu), or I may get a thorny problem like - why am I not receiving any external email. Ideally, a phone call to the external IT consultant would point me in the right direction. A sporadic problem like interrupted access to the network would go on the consultant's list for examination on the next visit.

Meantime I'd be assembling the agenda for the coming IT Project Group meeting. Needless to say, time-management is one of the required skills of the role, but what others are necessary?

What Level of Technical Expertise is Required?

Technical expertise depends on the size and nature of the organisation. Having said that, technical elements are involved in the Link Person role at Lasa, though it is not in itself a full-on technical job. The functions of administration and mediation seem just as vital.

I've found that it is important to be conversant enough with IT to carry out routine tasks and maintenance (like running and checking a backup each day, installing anti-virus software, knowing your way around some of the software central to the organisation). Crucially I need to be able to converse intelligently with an IT consultant (though assertiveness skills may be more helpful here when it comes to asking for explanations of technical detail and their implications).

The following abilities are suggested -

  1. to install new software and allow users on a network access to it,
  2. to work out whether a small hardware upgrade would be worthwhile or not,
  3. to adjust a monitor,
  4. to uninstall software and defragment disks.

That's about the level to aim for, though again, it does depend greatly on the structure and size of your workplace.

A rule of thumb - it is not the IT coordinator's job to fix (for example) a broken PC themselves, but to ensure that the problem can be described and steps taken to get others to fix it. Most of us don't do our own plumbing, but we can describe a leaking tap and phone up a plumber.

Strategy

The coordinator can also contribute to work on IT Training and strategy. From my own experience the role enabled me to record the difficulties people were having with software and so provide feedback on our training needs. I could also monitor the day-to-day performance of our PCs and network as part of the weekly routine.

We've found that the Link Person is often in the best position to advise on what is working well and what is not. For example, regular disconnections of PCs from the network traced to deteriorating cable can be brought up at strategy meetings as an issue for repair or replacement with a new type of cabling.

Without a coordinator small queries can quickly mount up (unrectified minor problems now can easily turn into major problems later), records are hard to find, there is no systematic maintenance of backups etc. Staff are often diverted from their proper duties, and importantly there is no real organisational overview of training needs or strategy proposals.

The IT Coordinator can have a valuable role as a translator of technical jargon into understandable IT choices, which allows managers to engage with the IT planning process and so make decisions in line with the organisation's broader goals. It can be hard work and it requires a certain kind of mind-set to co-ordinate such a broad range of tasks - the highly technical to the basically filing. But dependent as we increasingly are on IT, the need for such a role, in Lasa at least is clear. 

Lasa's Framework of Support

The framework consists of these key components:

  1. A 'Super-User'. Problems are initially referred to a Super-User, a person who has an expertise in a particular software package like Word or Excel. The idea is to recognise this person's skills and develop them with additional training. The Super-User is typically an administrative worker or one person in a department or group of workers. If they can't make any headway with the difficulty it is referred to -

  2. The IT Coordinator or Link Person, who attempts to solve the problem. In our case the Link Person is also a Super-User with some network skills. If the problem remains intractable then it is discussed with the designated manager and some of our internal experts. We assess how urgent the problem is and the Link Person contacts our -
     
  3. External technical consultant. The problem, depending on urgency, can either be dealt with a.s.a.p or placed on a list to be attended to at the consultant's next routine monthly visit.
     
  4. Management and the IT Project Group become involved when the Link Person feeds back information to them from discussions with the consultant. This may be on issues that have implications for the organisation as a whole and so require a decision at the appropriate management level.

The intention is to spread responsibility for solving the problem out over the members of the Project Group. It then proceeds in what we hope is a clear hierarchical chain up to Management. This seemed preferable to letting it rest on the burdened shoulders of one person or haphazardly picked-up and dropped by a variety of people.

Ideally the problem can also be dealt with in a manner transparent to the person with the IT difficulty, usually with an estimate of how long before it will be addressed.


About the author

Lasa Information Systems Team
Lasa's Information Systems Team provides a range of services to third sector organisations including ICT Health Checks and consulting on the best application of technology in your organisation. Lasa IST maintains the knowledgebase. Follow us on Twitter @LasaICT

Glossary

Backup, Database, Hardware, Internet, Line, Monitor, Network, Ports, Software, Virus

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Published: 15th July 1999 Reviewed: 25th April 2021

Copyright © 1999 Lasa Information Systems Team

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