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Why You Need IT Support

By Lasa Information Systems Team

Relying on someone from Yellow Pages when a computer goes wrong is a recipe for disaster. This article outlines the case for having proper support arrangements in place.

You come into work one Monday morning to find that your toilets are completely out of action and a very unpleasant smell is filling the building. One of your colleagues has found a large plunger and is approaching the toilets with an expression of grim determination. Clients are starting to arrive. You've got to find a plumber but no-one can find an up-to date copy of Yellow Pages.

What do you do?

You come into work on Monday morning to find that your network server is completely dead. No-one can get at their word processing files or the client record system that is absolutely central to the work of your organisation. A colleague is sitting at the file server feverishly trying to contact the friendly management committee member who helps with the computers. The waiting room is starting to fill up and no-one can find that copy of Yellow Pages. 

What do you do?

Yellow pages might just provide a solution as far as a plumber is concerned, but any agency which depends on IT to deliver good quality services has got to have proper arrangements for IT support. You have to be sure you've got someone to turn to when things go wrong.It would be nice if you had someone on your staff who could deal with every problem, but even the biggest companies find it hard to cope with everything in-house.

IT is just too specialised and problems are too episodic to sustain in-house staff with adequate skills. It is far more cost effective to contract specialist help to be available as and when you need it.

Reliable support isn't cheap or easy to find, so what can you expect and how can you make the best use of it? We talked to a number of people who provide IT support to get their views on what works best for voluntary organisations.

Andy Gibb ran East London-based Type Help for 13 years, providing IT support focused specifically on voluntary organisations.

Andy was very clear on the three main requirements for effective computer systems.

  • Systems must be set up systematically
  • Organisations must manage and provide effective administration for the systems 
  • External support must be technically competent and available

Systematic set-up might sound obvious, but Andy was quite clear that this is the essential foundation of reliable systems. This means taking the time to think through what you want, have it set up systematically and professionally, and then leaving it alone. Too often voluntary organisations set systems incrementally and then continue to tinker with them. This may be because time isn't made to sit down and plan, or because technical enthusiasts enjoy fiddling, but it isn't a recipe for reliable systems.

Andy's second point is interesting because he places responsibility for good support on sound administration within the agency. This includes very basic things like good record keeping: maintaining an inventory of all equipment, knowing where the original disks and manuals are kept, and keeping a log of all problems.

Central to this is the link person or IT coordinator who acts as the main point of contact between the organisation and the support company. Having someone clearly defined in this role makes everyone's life easier. He or she can build up a relationship with the support company, and act as an intermediary between technicians and members of staff. The Link person also acts as a filter, keeping a log of problems dealing with more minor problems and only calling on external support where necessary.

Andy didn't see this as a very technical role, and has found that home grown voluntary sector staff do it better than many technical people who often aren't good at record keeping.

He also emphasised the importance of the training element of the role. Many of the problems people have with their computers are connected with a lack of training and an IT coordinator who can provide support and training when it is needed can be very effective in reducing problems.

Andy also highlighted the different types of support that are available. It would be nice to be able to get all support from a single source, but in fact support comes in three flavours. First there is basic hardware support - the familiar maintenance contract on your computer or printer. Second, comes systems support - most typically support for network server and operating systems and cabling. Finally there is application support - providing help with application software like Microsoft Office or a specialist application like an accounts package or database.

TypeHelp increasingly tried to combine hardware and systems support, looking after an organisation's network and all their PCs. This worked well because they ended up with complete responsibility for the system, and it also meant that they could supply new or replacement PCs. However they didn't do applications support. This is usually provided by the software supplier, like Microsoft, or the specialist accounts or database supplier.

Philip Anthony of Cooperative Systems echoes many of Andy's views. Co-op Systems has been providing IT support to London's not-for-profit sector since 1987 and is now the largest provider of IT support aimed at the sector. Philip also emphasises the importance of a link person because it makes things so much easier for the support company. He points out that from their point of view, some small voluntary organisations can be quite difficult to support. They have high expectations but few resources and so expect a lot from their support company. They don't devote enough of their own resources to IT, and often don't allocate a main point of contact for IT problems which can lead to frustration all round.

Successful support companies are much in demand and are beginning to choose who they want to work with and are tempted to walk away from organisations which are just limping along, in favour of their more professional colleagues.

In Philip's view there is a cultural problem in some voluntary sector organisations which still refuse to recognise the importance of IT. For example an organisation with a ten workstation network and an annual turnover of half a million baulked at spending £1500 on network support. Even though they depend heavily on the network and £1500 is just over half a percent of their turnover, much less than they spend on their photocopier, they still think it's too much.

Paul Ticher is a consultant rather than an IT support company but his experience bears out the views above. He worked with a national organisation that was installing computer systems in its offices around the country. Some of the computers were professionally set-up at head office and then distributed around the country. Others were distributed first, with staff at each office handling their own set-up. Guess which ones had subsequent problems? The ones which staff set-up themselves weren't done so systematically, caused more problems and were harder to support.

Another issue which became apparent was the need for the link person. It was easier to help those offices which had allocated responsibility for the computer system, but where responsibility was divided or unclear it was harder to sort out their problems.

Paul also has thoughts on dealing with the tendency of IT staff within an agency to constantly fiddle with systems. He feels that this is very much a management issue for the agency, and that IT staff shouldn't be left to change systems as they saw fit, but should be only do so with clear authorisation on the basis of discussion on how the agency's needs can best be met. Support staff need clear job descriptions, there's no place for mavericks.

So what's the conclusion?

  • Good support depends as much on you as it does on your support company.
  • Most of what you require in-house isn't very technical but is based on good administration.
  • If you can find a good support company take care to maintain a good relationship - a link person is essential.
  • You'll have to pay for good quality support - but of course Yellow Pages always comes free.

For more on IT support see the knowledgebase articles Working with an IT Support Company and What to Expect from an IT Support Contract.

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


Database, Hardware, Network, Software

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Published: 15th February 2001 Reviewed: 25th April 2006

Copyright © 2001 Lasa Information Systems Team

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