Keeping your IS staff afloat

Keeping your IS staff afloat

When Mel Lively started implementing local area networks at his new job, he quickly developed his own technological version of Murphy's law - very rarely will anything you buy work reliably. Tongue-in-cheek theories aside, this IS director had to work long, gruelling hours, often returning from dinner to work until 3am because unstable equipment needed a lot of support.

Lively realised that this schedule could not go on ad infinitum. Four years ago, he started streamlining procedures so that everyone in IS would have a saner life. Today, he says his efforts have made a difference.

"I won't say we don't have burnout," Lively says, "but that's because we have to work very hard - not because of support calls."

Many large organisations have reached this sort of "comfort zone" in support functions. This does not mean that IS staff members don't have to work hard, but it does mean they don't have to work at all hours of the day and night.

However, smaller companies, including US-based McAfee Associates, are still struggling to work their way out of the morass of support calls. McAfee is expanding at the rate of 100 per cent per year, which translates into an increasing base of users worldwide. The company never sleeps - somewhere in the world, somebody is working at any given hour. Too much unrelenting pressure will lead to burnout, according to Gerri Martin-Flickinger, CIO at McAfee.

"One of the biggest problems is not setting priorities," Martin-Flickinger says, adding that too many top priorities makes it hard for IS staff to stay focused. In a small company it's easy for users to enter the office of an IS staff member and demand that something be done that very day. In larger companies, this is a lot harder to do; consequently, resources are often handled more efficiently.

Martin-Flickinger is trying to focus on more efficient use of resources. She has set up a staffing model whereby IS tracks every request for support in terms of the amount of staff time required. If the requests exceed the available staff time, IS can show actual numbers to the company executives and ask for items to be taken off the priority list. This helps the department maintain both focus and sanity. Sanity may be an ever-receding goal in a business that has an unrelenting, 24-hour nature. But larger companies have achieved some semblance of balance by trying to prevent the calls, rather than taking them. This means reducing network downtime.

Lively has added redundancy to WAN circuits at the hospital, so there is more than one way of connecting to a remote city. If one connection goes down, somebody doesn't have to rush out to fix it. Furthermore, Lively has implemented written standard operating procedures so that anyone in IS can fix a particular problem. This prevents one person from getting all the calls related to a specific part of the network.

And when IS staff members are called to troubleshoot, it helps if they can work from home, says Steve Rose, manager of networking at EXI.

"An ISDN line and remote access are essential to keep burnout to a minimum," Rose says.

Sharing after-hours responsibility with staff also helps, says Jesse Morris, director of information management systems at Centocor. At Centocor, everyone, including managers, takes turns being the primary contact.

At both Centocor and McAfee, staff members are not compensated financially for coming in after hours - it's part of the job.

But Doug Cavit, director of IS at McAfee, says stock options at the fast-growing company should make them feel compensated. As for staying motivated, he says, "The best way to do it is to reflect on how far you've come."

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