It’s the elephant in the room. Everyone sees it — information technology staff, schools, district administrators and even superintendents — but few want to talk about it. Although sometimes mentioned in quiet undertones, the message was discussed in the open at two recent national conferences: The lack of responsiveness of district IT operations can adversely affect the core mission of school — teaching and learning.
First, let’s define what is meant by responsiveness. At the simplest level, responsiveness in IT refers to how long it takes to get a task done — that is, mean time for repair, or the time it takes to resolve a help desk ticket. Those issues are important, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Rather, this article focuses on a higher view of responsiveness: the role of IT in listening, valuing, searching for common-ground solutions and responding to concerns. The question is, How can we make our IT operations more responsive to the needs of our customers? Here are seven strategies that will help move your IT organization in the right direction.
Make It Your Mission
A laserlike focus on responsiveness is essential. Perhaps the most obvious starting point is to incorporate it in your IT mission or philosophy statement.
Build Better Relationships
Creating a responsive IT culture begins and ends with building great relationships within your school district. Keith Anderson, the director of technology for the Duluth (Minn.) Public Schools, began to work on relationships the day he was hired. “On my first day, I met with the curriculum department. Previously, IT and the curriculum department were not working together. Now, I go to curriculum meetings regularly.”
“It definitely takes a relationship [to create a responsive culture],” says Lloyd Brown, the director of technology for the Henrico County (Va.) Public Schools. “I have a good relationship even down to the assistant principal level.”
Watch Your Language
Ensuring clarity in language is another strategy. “In the past, our staff would sometimes tell school folks that a certain technology was ‘not supported’ or ‘untrusted.’ To the customer this was translated as, ‘We won’t touch it, we won’t help you, and we don’t care about you,’ ” says Dan Maas, the chief information officer of the Littleton (Colo.) Public Schools. “If we could not image it, if it was not the standard machine, that did not mean we would not lay hands on it,” he adds. He encouraged his staff to send out a newer, more precise message to customers: “I’ll help out a little bit if I can squeeze it in later, but first I have these other computers that are the school’s highest priority to keep running.”
Obtaining input before, during or after major initiatives is another strategy in demonstrating responsiveness. Ad hoc committees, advisory groups or focus groups are all excellent models. “It is a great sounding board. It’s an opportunity both for schools to be heard and for the community to hear the needs of schools,” says Maas.
Manage the Middle
Creating a responsive culture also requires that IT leaders be adept at finding the middle ground in challenging situations. This is difficult, Anderson says, because, “We work in a world of absolutes, while educators work in a world of grays.”
When dealing with the always pesky software selection process, Anderson modeled this tactic. “We agreed that software would be adopted like [a] curriculum — with deadlines and a process. And I created an outlet valve with our curriculum department. If a piece of software comes along that is priority red, we agree on it together, and we’ll do it. But we have to have wiggle room.”
So how do you know if these new methods are effective? Simple, measure them. In order to measure responsiveness, Maas recently conducted a satisfaction survey. In order to differentiate between technical systems and staff responsiveness, he asked each question in two ways: how users felt about service supported by systems and how they felt about services delivered by people. Although many IT staffers thought the results would be negative, Maas’ plan showed the opposite: 75 percent were satisfied or impressed with IT responsiveness. Written comments such as “I hate the [student information system], but don’t get me wrong — your people are great” were echoed often.
Maas also uses a growth plan methodology to motivate responsiveness in his staff. Each IT employee develops three goals in the areas of customer service, technical expertise and teamwork. The employees themselves must develop the necessary ‘look-for’ indicators. Maas simply authenticates their indicators.
Remember Who We Serve
The last strategy for shaping a responsive IT department is fundamental — remembering who we serve. Anderson is grounded in the notion that “IT serves other departments” and schools, and is not the end game itself. Perhaps Lloyd Brown understands it best: “Teaching is what we are here for … to teach kids. What we do in IT supports instruction.”