There are many pressures on education technology support organizations to do more and do it more efficiently. Rising numbers of desktop computers, increased use of server-based applications, an ever increasing demand for network related services and a steady move toward more dependence on technology resources for critical functions puts technology managers in a position of having to deliver more than ever before, with no clear indication that demands will peak. Too often, with all this demand for service comes little support from other senior district managers for increasing the available technology resources. Requests for additional staffing or vendor support services compete with a myriad of other important needs.
Good organization not only helps a manager deliver services more effectively, but it can provide the clear vision needed to allow other managers to understand what will be provided and how resources given or taken away will affect them. This is invaluable in helping to justify increases in staffing, budget, etc., since it helps garner support from the customer base.
Herein I will identify end users of systems and applications as customers of the Technology Resources Support Organization (TRSO). Indeed, they are customers, for without them there would be no need for a TRSO.
Figure 1, Organization Development Process, gives a bird’s eye view of what we will be discussing, the major elements of the process and how they fit together. It begins with gathering information so we understand what is needed, priorities, and resources available. Next, the work is broken down for estimation and planning purposes. Once estimates are made of what is needed, resources required are defined and a desired organization is developed. This desired organization is the vision of where the organization should be heading. The process next takes us into the steps needed to make the best of our situation by assigning available personnel and collapsing the organization to one that can be populated by those currently on staff. Finally, the process provides for monitoring and adjustments as needed.
Developing a vision of the desired organization from good estimates of the actual and anticipated workload is important for a number of reasons. It offers direction and a baseline that is founded on facts and estimates that can be validated, refined and supported. This well developed and supported approach provides a solid foundation for requesting additional resources. It will also serve you well as you explain and point out the types and places where your resources are deficient. If there are cuts in staffing or funds, you will immediately be able to assess the impact.
I purposely use the descriptor “desired” instead of “optimal.” The optimal organization is developed from the desired by testing how well it works and adjusting it. If you have not developed your organization in a bottom up manner such as is described here, you will likely need to go through this process a few times before your organization is optimal. Of course, this is a moving target for a fast growing district and may require substantial adjustments each year.
SYSTEM LIFE CYCLE
All systems have a life cycle that should be understood in planning appropriate labor and activities. The life cycle of systems that are purchased off the shelf or as turnkey installations may require some integration but require no development. Thus, they have shorter life cycles than those that require development effort. Figure 2 shows the system’s life cycle phases in its heading and the activities required from technical personnel during the life cycle below the phases. A final phase could also be added to show system retirement or phase out but is purposely left out here. The life cycle assumes that all hardware required is available commercially as it nearly always is for K-12 projects. If simple hardware such as special cables, racks, or a signal converter is needed, this can be developed as part of the system development and integration phase. More elaborate hardware would need special provisions.
The development of an information system is not unlike that of a building. The skills and labor needed are different, but the processes are analogous. It starts with the system analyst determining what is needed, developing concepts for development, and evaluating the various automation approaches, i.e., determining how best to approach constructing the system. Once an approach is selected, design and engineering efforts can begin. In cases where there is any doubt of the best implementation approach or if the approach is technically feasible, a prototype is built of key facets to assure success for a full-scale development. The process of developing support begins during system development and engineering, but is always considered along with other factors during system analysis. This is because adequate supportability is usually a very big issue, as it should be, with support costs generally being 80 percent or more of overall system life cycle costs.
This view of a system life cycle gives us a framework for considering its support needs. You will want to refer to it as you develop personnel support estimates for various aspects of the work.
To understand what is needed and build the vision of your organization, you will need to gather some information on existing systems, users, and what future needs are. You cannot know too much about the needs you are trying to fulfill. So take some time in this and be sure someone qualified and capable of overseeing the effort is in charge. This work should be led by an experienced systems analyst.
Good organizations are built with a solid understanding of what the needs are and should be flexible enough to accommodate anticipated growth. I suggest breaking these into present, near term, and future. Present would include all existing needs, those soon to exist from systems purchased but not yet delivered, and needs from funds currently budgeted but not yet spent on purchasing new technology requiring support (current fiscal year). Near term are those requirements expected the next fiscal year. Future needs are those beyond the next fiscal year (FY) that are anticipated based on current demands and demand growth as well as new initiatives to add systems and extend capabilities to existing systems, i.e. extend or expand scope of existing systems. I would recommend the future needs be planned for at least 4 years beyond the current fiscal year.
Sources for what needs are will come from the following:
• Inventory of current systems.
• Budget and spending plans stated by district managers.
• Board, Cabinet, and Manager stated future needs and purchasing plans.
• Known and anticipated regulatory requirements.
• Service needs of customers supported.
• District Integrated Technology Plan.
Inventory of Systems. If an inventory does not exist, perform one. You will find this information invaluable not only for developing your organization, but also for such things as budget development, planning new projects, determining impact of new systems, determining impact of staffing changes on support, etc. You will gather information that will be useful in determining a system’s needs, its interfaces, who uses it, what it is used for and when it is needed. If never previously accomplished, this may take some time initially, but is relatively simple to maintain thereafter. A good time to update the inventory information is prior to the start of budget planning. Some important information to gather is provided in Table 1, System Inventory.
Budget and Spending Plans. Solicit from all managers information on what they will be buying in the current FY. Also, determine what their plans for support are, i.e., are they purchasing vendor support. Be sure to get in the loop on all purchases of new systems and software so you will have advance warning of what is coming regardless of what you are told by managers. The best of plans change and you do not want to be caught unaware. This is best implemented as an approval on all contracts and purchases of technology related systems, components and services.
Board, Cabinet, and Manager Future Needs. Future needs point to how the organization must grow and, thus, where it needs flexibility and special attention. Anticipating support growth will allow for preparing the appropriate plans and organization to support this need.
Solicit from all managers what their specific purchasing plans are and where they believe growth in technology assets or services will be. If your district does a detailed breakdown of goals to the manager level from Board/Superintendent Goals, then be sure you analyze each division manager’s goals along with your own to determine where new systems, automation, services, and support augmentation would be useful then discuss your findings with appropriate managers. Be sure district and manager priorities are understood and assigned to any projects or initiatives resulting from your analysis of goals.
When reviewing needs, including division manager goals, it is best to get input from a variety of information system (IS) professionals for their perspectives. So draft an approach to meeting the needs and goals and be sure to let everyone in the IS department review pertinent aspects of the proposals.
Regulatory Requirements. California Education Code (EC), some federal programs such as E-Rate, and even Board Policy may mandate certain systems, system capabilities, etc., be implemented and supported. Analyze these requirements to determine what they are and what is need to meet them.
Needs of Customers. Survey all managers, review service problem areas reported by staff members and, at a minimum, survey users randomly to determine deficiencies (or perceived deficiencies) in support services. This should be done at least annually and as specific problems arise. Discuss with managers and TRSO staff what is needed. Be sure you ask for each manager’s priority on services they have requested. Compile information and use it to plan new systems, modify/upgrade systems, adjust staffing and modify organization as appropriate to best utilize resources provided.
District Integrated Technology Plan. This plan should be developed from such information as that given above, but may not have. Thus, use it as input to the TRSO effort realizing any limitations it may have and making sure these are addressed from the appropriate information sources.
EC Section 51871.5(a) now requires a long range plan be developed to show how technology support will be achieved and with what funding resources. The information above will also be valuable to the creation of this plan and its regular update. So, you may want to synchronize the two efforts.
The personnel labor resources you are given together with the funds made available to you will form the resources you can use for the organization. List the resources available to you. Try to be creative and take all possibilities seriously until they prove otherwise. Such resources as student and parent labor are used successfully in some districts. In addition to personnel assigned to you, one or more of the following should be available:
• Technical Personnel Labor From Other Departments, Special Circumstances Basis
• Teacher Labor, By Way Of Their Interest Or Expected Labor To Earn Stipend
• Community Businesses Donations of Labor Hours
• Student Work Experience Labor Hours
• Student Class Project Labor Hours
• Parent/Community Volunteer Labor Hours
• Contracted Services – Will Call As Needed Basis – Full Spectrum Of Labor Services
If contracts are not set up for overflow work (the types of work you are responsible for), plan on developing these. When the workload is heavy and resources are short, contracting provides a means for managers to get work done ‘through you’ that they would not otherwise be able to do. Also, providing a vehicle that is district wide lends an economy of scales to the purchase and will save the district money across all such service requirements. A side benefit of this is that you will be able to stay on top of what services cost from ‘profit’ centered companies and can use this information when requesting new staff. When several managers are contracting for a particular type of technical resource which is equivalent to a full time person, you would be in a good position to propose they share the services of an additional employee at less cost.
Funding available will be that provided by the district, any grants available from government agencies, grants from commercial companies, and donations. Some districts setup charitable organizations for this purpose. Do not forget to avail yourself of all funding sources, including ‘3% restricted maintenance’ funds and funds from federal programs which can be prorated or charged for services received.
WORK BREAKDOWN STRUCTURE
The type of support systems and services customers need can be categorized to group those with common needs. Figure 3, TRSO Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) for Visalia Unified School District (VUSD), depicts the categories of support I have defined for one district, Visalia USD. A number of factors must be considered when defining the categories including:
• Information Gathered On Needs & Inventory Described Above
• Funding Resources
• Personnel Requirements
• Organization Goals
• Critical Systems
Funding Resources. Specific funding sources may be better served, or even require, that funds be spent for certain types of needs, support, or systems. An example is the reserved 3% Restricted Maintenance Fund which can only be spent according to EC 17070.75. This is a revenue source for which it would be wise to show clearly via organizational lines how it is spent. Thus, avoiding possible audit problems. Digital High School is a grant funding source with special accountability rules. However, record keeping should suffice to show that the program’s support goals are being met. E-Rate and most grant sources for funds can also be met with simple record keeping.
Personnel Requirements. This includes technical knowledge, education, skill, experience, and talent of the personnel needed. Any special capabilities should be noted, e.g. ORACLE relational database design with SQL knowledge in UNIX environment, in-depth understanding of network design and configuration of network devices, ability to train and communicate effectively, etc. Refer to Figure 1 and note the types of tasks needed during system life cycle phases.
Keep in mind that new system development projects require different skills than do system operations. The management is different and there are a number of skills needed that are not often used during the Operational Phase of a system’s life. Plan for the labor needed to carry out these projects and do not try to take them on in addition to a full load of deployment and operations tasks.
Organization Goals. Your district, division, or department may have special goals on which emphasis must be placed. The organization you define should reflect this. For example – how would you support a District “goal” to have a minimum response time of 4 hours and a 95% completion time within 24 hours for all service requests if you did not track service calls? Would a help desk decrease response time? Would someone trained to answer most simple questions further reduce response time? Would a dispatcher further help reduce response time? Organizational decisions can determine whether you meet your goals.
Critical Systems. Critical systems require special provisions for support to assure they provide the needed system availability and reliability required. Administrative systems fulfilling regulatory requirements are critical such as the Student Information System, the Business Information System (Accounting/Human Resources/Purchasing/Fixed Assets), nutritional services systems, etc. Infrastructure systems such as e-mail and office automation for administrators and teachers may also justly be considered critical because they provide communication and are the hosts to a wealth of the districts’ records which are required for its operation. Many instructional systems are not considered critical but could be, if the district decides to identify them as such and fund resources to support them accordingly. Thus, criticality of systems may be due to regulatory requirements (e.g. financial system), goals (e.g. certain instructional labs or help desk required to meet goals), or internal dependence (e.g. e-mail and office automation).
When resources are approved for critical tasks, be sure to dedicate them to the tasks for which they were approved. Do not dilute their effectiveness by spreading them over non-critical system tasks. To do so, is to ‘break the faith’ the School Board has entrusted you with.
DEFINING RESOURCES NEEDED
Defining what resources are needed can be done in a quantitative way but is often done by trial and error, e.g.. I have two people now so double the systems will need two more. This is linear thinking without an attempt to be creative. With short funds and many critical needs in schools, we are expected to be creative. It may wind up taking two more people, but THINK about the work tasks to be accomplished and explore alternatives prior to proposing such to your school board. That way you can also relate the alternatives considered and why these are not effective at the same time.
Developing Estimates. If you want to efficiently use your resources you need to know where to apply them and where not to as well as what type of resource to obtain. To do this you will need a good estimate of how much labor and what types you need. This is best done using direct experience with the system’s support needs or that of a similar system. Use your experience and your staff’s. You can also use information from other districts or consultants. What you will be looking for is how often a system fails or needs attention (for whatever reason), how long it takes to troubleshoot a problem, and how long it takes to get it working again. You should keep records on all systems so this type of information is readily available. It will serve you in many ways – including supporting the existence of a work backlog, need for staff, etc.
As part of your development of estimates you should use information which is as clear of other problems as possible. You will want to review the performance of your people to remove biases attributable to poor training, inadequate test equipment, slovenly work attitudes, etc. prior to making estimates for the work needed.
Time Line Effects on Resources. Time lines for operations such as required for a Student Information System and projects should be considered along with ongoing support work to support desktop PCs, site file servers, the network, etc.. By project work, I am referring to such things as the assembly and installation of a batch of new PCs, the installation of a new server, deployment/implementation of a new Business Information System, or development of any new information system. If your staff are already constantly backlogged with work requests, you obviously do not have resources for any project work at all. However, it is still good to know what resources you need so alternatives may be explored to satisfy requirements. Contractors, student labor, or other approaches may be able to relieve backlogs or make a seemingly impossible project a reality.
If you had a programmer that was occupied writing reports for the Student System about half the time, your boss might assume they would have time to write some interface software for a new system. What he may forget to consider is that the interface software development is scheduled during the ‘portion of the year’ the programmer is busy nearly full time writing reports, e.g. during student assessment time. The more staff, systems, and projects, the more complicated it gets to determine what resources are available at which times. NASA, the construction industry and some of our large aircraft companies have developed a number of methods of modeling work activities. A very simple one is the Gantt chart, which plots time lines for activities using a bar type chart. It can be used for simple projects and comparisons. Comparing like activities on same scale charts allows one to identify overlaps and take action accordingly. Other methods are Critical Path Networking (CPM), Precedence Networking, and Performance Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT). Software project scheduling tools are inexpensive and readily available for you to model your work flow during a year or project and determine if there will be overlaps and any resulting problems.
High Operational Availability Effect On Resources. Operational Availability is the probability that a system will be up when you require it and function adequately for as long as needed, e.g. up and reliable from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. It is a function of system mean time between failures, mean time to repair and administrative delay times. The quality of the system, its ease of support, and the quality of the staff maintaining it are important factors. Systems requiring very high operational availability need extra resources readily available that can attend to any problems arising and more importantly, prevent problems from occurring. You may be able to hire a system vendor or third party contractor to provide the extra support needed. If not, you may need to staff for it. In any case, you will want to be sure the resources needed are there since these are usually very critical systems for which any down time gets immediate attention at high levels in the district.
There is a whole branch of logistics engineering devoted to ‘fitting’ support to a system such that its operational availability meets specified objectives without wasting resources. A discussion of it is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that you can ‘outfit’ support for any system to meet required operational availability through attention to system selection, analysis of support needs, and structuring support to efficiently provide what is needed.
It is important to note deficiencies in your staffing, labor resources, support services (internal & external to district), contracts, and funding. A manager cannot be faulted for not providing a resource they asked for but was not given. However, they can be faulted for not asking for what is needed to do the job assigned to them. So make a list of your deficiencies in all resources required to do the work assigned to you.
DESIRED ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE.
You are now ready to define the desired organizational structure. This is the organization you would create if all the resources you need were put at your disposal. You start at the top with managers and it will often follow the break down of work with one or more areas being assigned under a single manager. Figure 4, Desired Organizational Structure, is the management level structure I developed for my district, Visalia Unified School District, a 24,000 + ADA district.
I believe the importance of technology throughout the district supports the need for a manager at the Assistant Superintendent level, a cabinet position. This allows for quick mobilization of technology resources when required to meet needs and also recognizes not only the current dependence of all district activities on technology, but the growing dependence on it.
The other manager positions in Figure 4 follow directly from the WBS in Figure 3 except Contract and Procurement Support. This is a large task that when done properly can reap a big reward and when done improperly will certainly cost the district much more than if done correctly to start. A section is needed to handle this area because of the large amount of this work in districts of our size (24K ADA).
The Instructional System Manager would have responsibility for technology deployment, use, and support in the curriculum. He would work closely with the other technology managers to assure the needs of Curriculum are met. This position does not include development of curriculum.
Once management leads are defined, adequate staff is identified to support each manager and allow all work to be accomplished in a timely manner. In some cases supervisors or additional managers may be defined which work under the lead manager. This will depend on the quantity of work under each manager. The largest sections here are under the Business and Instructional Systems Managers who will support most of the desktop systems in the district.
ORGANIZING TO RESOURCES AVAILABLE
Once you know where you would like to go with your organization you can develop a plan to request the necessary resources from your School Board. In the mean time, you will need to collapse the manager position responsibilities so they fall under the managers you currently have available. Once this is accomplished, you will assign the resources you have to them taking note of priorities, goals, projects, etc. If you note a goal or other important object which cannot be met with available resources, you should note it and what resources are needed to satisfy it. These specific goal/priority/project resource deficiencies should be provided to the District Cabinet and/or School Board so they can be assessed for impacts on the district and possible remedial action.
If you look at Figure 4, longingly, with no real belief it will ever be realized, you are not alone. Many districts lump all the management duties under one individual and ignore requests for staff. Part of this could be the fault of the manager, by not properly defining the needs and supporting requests for resources. Certainly part of it is the ‘exploding’ use of more computers, networks, and communications in all aspects of K-12 schools. However, this does not mean we should not start moving in the desired organizational direction. No destination was ever reached by not taking a step toward it.
At a minimum, lead positions for curriculum support, system planning/development, and systems operational support should be provided even in districts of a modest size. Each of these specialty areas requires unique skills and abilities and there is more than a full time work load in each area even in a modest sized district.
MONITOR AND ADJUST
Each year you will need to update your information, revise your estimates, and review your ‘desired’ and actual organizations for necessary changes to keep these current. I suggest you integrate the effort with development of your five year TRSO Plan. Figure 5, TRSO Planning Time line, shows how to relate the various activities.
PROCESS SHORT CUTS
If you are new at a district you will find the process above a very worthwhile effort in familiarizing you with your new ‘domain’. If you are an IS professional and have been in a district for many years, you will likely be able to fill in a lot of the information needed to perform the above process quickly, from personnel knowledge acquired over years working on the district’s systems. However, I urge you to record all information you use to develop your organization, so you can validate it and bring it forward when asked to support what you have done.
If you lack the systems experience and knowledge to perform the tasks described above, then I urge you to get assistance from your County Office of Education, a consultant, or perhaps, a larger district’s staff.
We have discussed a methodical approach to developing an organizational structure and the resources needed to support it. The annual review of your organization needs and revision of the organization will provide for an orderly transition from one year to the next as your department grows. The effort will establish a firm foundation on which to base fund augmentation requests, staff requests, and show how resources are used. Other district managers will be able to clearly understand what support is allocated to their needs. Should funds or staff cuts be proposed, you will quickly be able to assess the impact on systems, sites, and programs. Additionally, by establishing what is needed and recording what is provided, you will be able to show why a support problem may exist in one area but not another.
Visalia Unified School District