Government agencies: who needs them? Well in this case schools. In 2003, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) embarked on an ambitious project to introduce 26,000 schools to best practice IT service management.
The use of ICT in schools had grown rapidly with money having been made available for the purchase of personal computers, laptops, interactive whiteboards and a growing number of software applications designed to enhance the learning and teaching experience.
As is so often the case, though, little thought was given to maintenance and invariably the budget was spent on the hardware and software. Often computers and whiteboards were consigned to the broom cupboard the moment an incident stalled their use. This would lead to dwindling enthusiasm as ICT became unreliable.
It was clear that something had to be done to help schools realize the benefits of their investment and Becta helped achieve this through seminars and educational materials designed to convey to headteachers, ICT coordinators and ICT support staff the concept of total cost of ownership.
As those responsible for ICT became aware of the support required to make their technology dependable, they also realized that they needed new skills. Becta was there again to help them develop in its role as the Government's lead partner in the strategic development and delivery of its e-strategy for the schools and the learning and skills sectors.
Following on from the success of the 'total cost of ownership' programme, Becta launched its new project - the framework for ICT technical support in schools, or Framework for ICT Technical Support (FITS). Taking its inspiration and foundation from ITIL®, FITS aimed to provide the tools to help every school in the country achieve professional quality ICT services.
Some healthy scepticism was encountered during early consultation with voluntary representatives from schools and local authorities.
Education is a very different world from business and there were issues such as limited funding, few schools with ICT support staff and the pressure of trying to manage ICT as well as teach it (back then there were no regulations protecting teachers from having to take on non-teaching roles).
Some ICT support staff insisted that they had no time to implement processes because they were too busy fire-fighting technical problems. However, Becta felt sure that with its own intimate understanding of the education sector, and a mix of skills and experience from external consultants, the right help could be provided, tailored to the needs of schools.
The same but different
The introduction of ICT in schools had happened very much from the bottom up. Schools had their own budget to spend on ICT and in many cases did so independently.
In other cases, local authorities provided some, or all, technical support services or outsourcing to third party suppliers was the norm. This resulted in there being no single model for technical support used by all schools; indeed there were potentially as many models as there were schools.
This presented a challenge for FITS: at the outset it might have been reasonable to suppose that the production of a set of processes for managing ICT services would be straightforward and based on a common approach to using and supporting ICT in schools. Not so.
The challenge was to design a set of processes that were generic enough to publish as the framework to use, but flexible enough to fit the local arrangements in place in every school in the country.
It would be unacceptable to expect any school to undo the work it had done already in this area and it had to be taken into account that smaller schools simply may not have the resources to adopt the same approach as others.
The solution was to take an average model of one or two in-school technicians, for the purpose of scale, and develop a set of generic roles and responsibilities that could be applied in any situation.
Details of the characteristics of each role and the skills required were provided, together with cautions where conflicts of interest should be avoided. This would enable the person responsible for ICT in a school to develop their own model, using any appropriate mix of full- or part-time technical staff, third parties, other school staff or students.
To demonstrate the responsibilities of each role, and to guide participants, a set of typical steps was created for each IT service management process.
These were supported by simple templates for forms and other tools (such as request for change, incident and problem tickets, Configuration Management Database (CMDB), service catalogue, service desk charter and service report), along with examples to help convey what was required in each case.
Finally, methods for review and improvement were included, along with suggestions for ways to improve efficiency and develop the processes over time.
A step at a time
The thrust of FITS was to enable schools to introduce best practice processes for ICT service management in bite size chunks without having to invest a huge amount of time or money up front.
Schools were then encouraged to evolve their processes as they began to realise the benefits, by taking a step-by-step, continuous improvement approach that would result in a complete lifestyle change.
The Internet was the preferred method to reach 26,000 schools simultaneously and FITS was published on the Becta website in September 2003.
The templates and examples were made available as downloads in a variety of formats and each process guide was made available as a .pdf file. Access to the materials and reproduction of the templates was unrestricted, encouraging unlimited adaptation of the core processes.
Through evangelical promotion by the FITS project manager, Paul Stonier, FITS is reaching, and converting, many technical staff and school leaders in schools all over the country.
Since its launch in September 2003, almost 1,000 schools and other organizations outside education have registered for FITS updates . Many of the other organisations come from the public and private sector in the UK, US, Canada, South America, Australia and Europe.
In the spirit of continuous improvement, FITS itself has continued to develop over the last three years, with new material being added, including workshops run by Becta accredited ICT service suppliers and local authorities.
Case studies about the experiences and successes of some schools are now available on the website. So too is an independent evaluation of the adoption of FITS in schools, published this year, which supports the faith in the product that those involved had from the start.
The slow burn of FITS since its launch three years ago has ensured its longevity, both as a product and as a way of life for schools' ICT. The low-tech approach to tools means that new tasks are assimilated at a pace slow enough to be learned thoroughly and create a solid foundation for automation.
And with limited resources there is no temptation to throw money at the problem and expect software alone to solve it. FITS instills a culture of setting small, achievable targets and cautions against trying to do everything at once or expect overnight change.
Through my consultations with Becta over the last four years, one thing in particular has become apparent to me - despite the early assertions that 'education is different', in fact schools have the same issues and concerns as many organizations: how do we turn around reactive fire-fighting to become a proactive best practice service provider, with no extra money and no extra staff?
The answer to anyone with that question in mind is 'slowly - but surely. And have a look at FITS - it is more generic than you might think'.
Tracey Torble is an IT service management consultant and director of T2 Consulting: www.t2consulting.co.uk