The ins and outs of IT support

The advent of the computer on every desk has brought benefits to those who are prepared to rise to the challenge and learn to use IT effectively. When the computer is working things are wonderful, but when it isn't, life is hell, and users need a sympathetic ear, and someone who can make it better.

This makes the IT department into a technology counselling service, with certain key functions. It must provide support, technology management, procurement, liaison with external agencies, strategy, training, and development.

Getting the balance of the right people with the right skills in the IT department will make sure the key items are delivered. Of course, in a small firm this may be one individual who manages the firm's technology. But, should the firm have a problem or a need, they should "know a man who can".

Within large firms, it is likely there will be teams responsible for these functions. They should be managed by a director of IT, who may not be a technical person, but has managerial skills appropriate for the role.

One of the main considerations is to ensure that IT is driven by the business, not the other way around.

Appointing an individual who is capable of communicating with others is also a key requirement – an anorak would not be appropriate.

The rest of the team must consist of individuals who are right for their jobs in that they must have the level of experience for the tasks they are expected to handle.

There have been many items in the press over the last few years publicising the increased use of external contractors for IT functions.

These functions range from the traditional bureau services to the outsourcing of the whole IT department.

Use of external agencies can be effective, whether using consultants, trainers, project managers or installation engineers, but there are several points to bear in mind.

The most significant of these is the contract. There must be a balance between being too specific, and having the flexibility to cope with changes without a complete renegotiation. Choosing the right agency is also critical, and personality is important. The key is to ensure that references of existing clients are sought to find out the good and bad points of shortlisted agencies. If there are no negative points, beware.

External agencies can help to clarify a firm's needs for IT support and can provide access to a wider base of technical skills than would be possible through an in-house team.

Of course there are several negative aspects, including the need to rely on a third party for what is now the most important support department of a firm.

In large firms, there is the question of who the IT Director should report to? The role of IT is now more central to business, so the person responsible for IT will be a key decision-maker. Typically, in large firms the IT director is a part of the management committee.

The communication between the IT department and the rest of the firm is as important as that between individuals within the department. Whether the department is seen as the 'techies' down the corridor or as an integral part of the firm will depend on how much communication there is between the IT department and the fee earners.

We would typically like to see IT user groups for each business group and these groups meeting with a member of the IT team present. This could be developed so that a member of each user group would be a focal point for identifying and prioritising the group's IT needs.

Perhaps a balance of in-house support with the ability to call on others when needed is the best approach.