Letter: Getting IT back in step

Your editorial in Computerworld (November 6, p14) really struck a chord with me and I felt enthused enough to respond. Who am I? I am the IT manager at what is now a regional campus of a large metropolitan university.

We decided in 1993 (pre-university takeover, but that's another story) that the traditional make-up of our IT support group was out of step with the needs (or even desires) of the organisation. We had technical staff - very clever staff - who really couldn't hold a conversation to save themselves. Letting these people loose on our clients was causing all sorts of intangible grief and was marginalising the IT group at a time of quite severe cutbacks. Hmmmm - a problem!

We invented a new group called the Client Services Group which included every IT staff member with direct external contacts (PABX, user consultants, technicians, reception, help desk and the like) and spent considerable time and effort on nontechnical aspects of training. What we quickly realised was that, as Woolfe observed in your editorial, it really WAS far easier to train for technical competencies than for behavioural ones. Hmmmm - another problem!

After a great deal of teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing, we decided to re-appraise every one of our position descriptions and rewrite them with a view to spelling out the additional personality traits necessary to gain employment with us. In a climate of public-service-like red tape, this was no easy feat.

Guess what? It worked! And it has improved our situation beyond expectations.

We still have high technical standards, but we offset them against the "look and feel" of the individual. We find that our clients (who eventually decide our relevance to the organisation) prefer to hear "I don't know but I'll find out" from someone with a HUMAN personality than "The answer to your question is blah, blah, blah" from a patronising, smart-arse IT nerd.

Staff numbers? Yes they've dropped by around 30 per cent - we didn't see the value of paying a full-time salary to keep a job that (a) is necessary only 20 per cent of the year, (b) is able to be done somewhere else and (c) has a HUGE ongoing training cost associated with it. Funnily enough, this has also succeeded and my staff now often informally cost out their involvement in tasks to see whether they should do it themselves or look for outsourcing solutions. We are now able to be far more responsive to our client demands, which include strategic advice to senior managers, than ever before. My staff morale has improved, my bottom line has improved and our relevance to the organisation has improved.

I have been mildly amused to see other organisations, especially universities, just starting to address the same issues five or six years later on. The FACT is, if in-house IT organisations don't (a) address their in-house perception rating and (b) LITE-n up, they will go the way of the dinosaur. Make no mistake, the EDS/CSC/IBM, etc "one-stop" outsourcing "solutions" can look far more palatable to CEOs (and boards) than the expensive black hole of in-house IT groups.

Peter Johnson,

Systems support group,

La Trobe University, Vic

p.Johnson@latrobe.edu.au,Desktop

PS: Opinions expressed are the author's own and do not represent a formal statement by La Trobe University

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