Written by Mark Evilsizor
From his column Church Tech
In my previous article, I discussed several approaches to dealing with broken information technology (IT) systems, namely: reboot, search for experiences of others, broken link problem-solving, and tapping into vendor support. Resolving a computer problem is often gratifying and brings the thanks of co-workers, but if you want to free up time to pursue your regular job responsibilities, then some proactive, often unnoticed activities are in order. Let’s look at a few of them.
First, take an inventory. Find out what you are responsible for. Knowing where the moving parts are (PCs, printers, wireless access points, etc.) is helpful when troubleshooting broken links, budgeting for next year’s expenses, or getting help. In addition to the physical pieces, make a list of the software and web services your organization uses. Microsoft Excel is a great tool to track these things, and if you are not familiar with the auto filter features, spend a couple hours to learn them. They make managing lists simple.
Important information to have at the ready: date purchased, location, version, model number, vendor, support number, support expiration date, license number, network identifiers, and serial number. Passwords should also be inventoried, but there are a couple of special requirements that are worth mentioning. First and foremost, don’t store your credentials in an Excel file. It is not secure enough. Use a password keeper, like one of these: LastPass, Dashlane, ManageEngine, and Keeper. Secondly, make sure each password is accessible by the fewest number of people necessary, but by at least two. Otherwise you can expect a phone call when you are on vacation and staff are unable to restore access to a vital system. Lastly, make sure your credentials are available even when the organization’s systems are down. If passwords are stored in a computer file which is not working, you can’t access them. Most password keepers have a smartphone app which is very helpful.
Budgeting is a powerful planning tool for preventing IT crisis and keeping things running smoothly. With inventory in hand, you have the answer to “What do we have?” You can then pursue the answer to “What do we need?” The first response to this question relates to technological debt. As equipment ages it will at some point wear out, cease to meet current needs and expectations, or cease to be supported. Often with technology equipment you can ignore these issues and systems will keep working, until a crisis occurs. For example, Microsoft will no longer provide security patches for Windows 7 after January 2020. You can ignore this, and those PCs will still work. But the technological debt may be called in, fomenting a crisis, perhaps in March 2020, when a new security problem is discovered, and you are vulnerable and fall victim to the latest ransomware. This would be much more costly than planning ahead and upgrading systems. It’s a good idea to review your inventory annually and plan system replacement or upgrades for the upcoming year.
The second answer to the “What do we need?” question is found by talking with staff. Set aside time to meet with each team leader. Ask questions like: What technology is causing frustration? What big projects do you have planned? Will there be an increase in your team size—either paid staff or volunteers? Dream with them and be open to learning about things that aren’t working like they should. With this input, and your own awareness of needed improvements, you will have an idea of the time and money needed in the year ahead to keep things running effectively.
Even in small organizations there are usually too many varied technologies to remember everything, so plan on spending some time creating and updating documentation. Many people who enjoy solving problems and bringing new solutions to life do not enjoy paperwork. It can be boring and tedious as compared to installing and figuring out a new app. But think of document creation as time travel. You are making a note to your future self, so you do not need to repeat the time you spent solving a problem or learning a new system in the past. Certainly, the less frequently a problem arises, the more likely you are to forget the solution if you don’t document. In addition to providing past solutions, documentation also helps ensure consistent handling of routine occurring tasks, like when staff members are employed or depart. Without documentation, you are likely to omit information which could lead to a poor learning experience for new employees, or permit former employees to retain access which they should no longer have.
The last proactive activity is training. Staff training can take many forms depending on your strengths, available tools, and subject matter. When you find yourself answering a similar question multiple times—perhaps how to print double-sided, stapled documents on the copier—you may want to record and share a brief video of how to do this from a staff PC. Over time, you could build a list of helpful videos on your organization’s intranet or video repository.
If a new phishing email is trending, you may want to send an urgent alert message to all staff. And perhaps once a year, you should gather staff and brief everyone on current security issues and how to reduce risk. You might find your staff would benefit from a few vital Excel skills, so perhaps you could host a series of voluntary lunches where you show them how to use autofilter and vlookup. Investing in the technology knowledge of staff will improve your organization’s effectiveness and reduce the need to answer the same questions repeatedly.
Like the parable of the talents, investing a bit of time in inventory, budgeting, documentation, and training will yield a multitude of benefits. Members of the staff will be able to do their jobs more effectively, and you’ll spend less time putting out fires, and more time bringing new dreams and initiatives to life.
Mark Evilsizor has worked in Information Technology for more than 20 years. He currently serves as head of IT for the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Mo. Views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.