Infrastructure review synthesis: Post 3, IT support

This post is the third in a series of ten posts that have been created to identify the best practice found in FE colleges by the Jisc infrastructure review service. An introduction to the infrastructure review synthesis project is provided in the first post in the series.

IT support

In the colleges that benefit from a mature IT organisation the support teams are well structured, with all staff members having clearly understood and well communicated roles.

In larger colleges the IT teams are divided into sub-teams. Operational or ‘first line’ support teams that provide direct support to students and staff. A technical or advanced support team, who provide second or third line support. This group may also manage elements of the core infrastructure, especially in small to medium sized organisations. In the highest performing colleges, a development group will build and test new systems and services prior to these being made available to the wider college community. By separating out these roles the best colleges are able to ensure that service delivery is maintained in parallel to technical or development work. Relationships between the IT team and allied teams are good, for example with MIS teams, LRC teams and others who provide technical support such as reprographics teams and audio-visual technicians or technicians that support digitally intensive subjects such as media.

The most effective support teams in FE colleges are sized appropriately. Where the support ratio of IT support staff to supported users exceed the 1:350-450 range we would expect to see examples of the IT team being under stress, we consider this to be an optimum range in most cases. There are some cases where higher support ratios are sustainable, however in these examples the higher support ratios are only possible when the college has invested heavily in automation and systems management tools to enable a smaller number of team members to support larger numbers of staff and students. In the highest performing colleges, the IT teams are of a size that matches the strategic goals of the college in terms of what the college is planning to achieve through the use of technology. In the leading colleges, the management vision for the use of technology is fully matched by realistic staffing, both in terms of staff numbers and the skills base of the team.

  • High performing IT staff teams are well led, by IT leaders who:
    • Have a wide experience base and critically higher levels of recent training.
    • Receive both leadership and management related development as well as technical training.
    • Have a clear understanding of the business of a college, both in terms of curriculum requirements and in terms of line of business functions.

The skills base of the highest performing teams is broad and not held by particular individuals. This enables teams to share core responsibilities such as security and reduces the number of key person dependencies and associated skills gaps. Skills development and continuing professional development is mapped to the known training needs of the team, based on the identified systems and services that the team is providing to the college community.

In the colleges where there has been sufficient (recent), high quality CPD made available to the IT team we see clear advantages over those colleges where this does not happen.

Where staff are supported and developed into their roles staff turnover may be lower. The IT team is well qualified and in the best examples, staff teams are well qualified with a range of both academic qualifications and IT vendor certifications. Training is not solely done online, rather this higher quality training may also be tutor led or classroom based, e.g. academic or vendor led (Microsoft, Cisco, VMWare etc. certifications) that allows improved collaboration and interaction with instructors and peers. Succession planning is considered carefully in high performing IT teams, this results in an absence of critical key person dependencies and skills gaps and generally higher morale which in turn leads to stable teams.

Effective teams make use of software tools to prioritise tasks and time. This can include a fully featured service desk software that enables staff and students to log support ‘tickets’. Service desk software is most effective in larger teams where such use is developed to include regular oversight of team member workloads and where metrics can be used to identify where tasks are ‘stuck’ for whatever reason. Reports from the service desk may be useful where data can be extracted to assist with management oversight and to maintain or evidence a KPI (key performance indicator). It is also possible to use this data to plan what equipment should be replaced based on analysis of failure rates. Colleges that use SLAs (service level agreements) will monitor this against KPIs, often using the service desk reports to evidence such. IT teams may find a service catalogue useful when managing expectations and ensuring that the IT team activities align with strategic objectives. Change control processes may also be useful to ensure high quality service delivery. Where SLAs are in place, they include realistic response times and aid in planning IT service delivery.

Where IT teams provide useful self-support materials to their user base such as making secure password reset tools, or a knowledge base available to staff and students that contains useful guides or other how-to material, this can reduce the burden on the first line support team.

Proactive IT teams undertake appropriate systems monitoring and alerting in order to prevent systems or services from being interrupted by technical service outages. This includes a proactive ‘daily routine’ that may involve physical inspections of locally held equipment, checking specific logs or alerts, and checking that automated tasks have completed such as backups or critical reports have been generated and supplied appropriately.

Some smaller colleges find it useful to have access to a trusted third-party MSP (managed service provider) that provides some kind of third-line or advanced level IT support. This support can help colleges with smaller teams access specific skills that it may not be possible to maintain internally due to resource constraints. It can be useful to have a third party to call upon (as a backup to the local team), in the event that there is sickness or other issues causing absence, especially for smaller IT teams.

How Jisc can help:

  • The infrastructure review service has routinely collected support ratio data since late 2016. In early 2018 the average support ratio for FE colleges was calculated to be 1:450 (IT support staff to supported users), we acknowledge that this figure was based on a smaller sample size than that now available to us, however two years later this has almost doubled to 1:814. This represents a substantial decline in the support available to students and staff.
  • The ratios in sixth form colleges are lower at an average of 1:609. This should be taken into consideration alongside the point that the majority of SFCs are much smaller and the overall IT teams are commensurately smaller than their GFE counterparts. The support ratios in HE are typically lower, but as specified in the first post in this series we do not have enough data on HE from this service to generalise further.
  • The Jisc IT support skills assessment provides a gap analysis of the overall skillset of an IT team. We start with a matrix that lists all the skills required to run an IT organisation, this is customised based on the infrastructure review in order to accurately reflect the systems and service provided by an individual organisation. We colour code the matrix in order to show at a glance where there may be concerns. This enables us to be very clear when communicating concerns to senior leaders about any key person dependencies or other risks that may exist. We can also make recommendations about what new posts might be prioritised, if it is indeed possible to create any new posts. New posts can be designed with the skills base of the current team in mind. We can also consider what training that the current members of the team may benefit from. For these reasons, the skills assessment has been our most popular ‘next step’ consultancy offer.
  • The Jisc subject specialist team has also provided bespoke organisational design and recruitment support to Jisc members. This has included role design (role and person specification), interview question and task design and our specialists have also sat as recruitment panel members, notably when senior IT and technology roles are being recruited.
  • Jisc also offers a range of technical and other training directly to our membership.
  • Jisc has facilitated best practice sharing between Jisc members, this enables colleges and other organisations to see what has worked elsewhere and for exemplar organisations to share solutions with their peers.

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