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Services for Local Providers Pilot Project

Support for Local Providers
Principles and Prospects

A report to the Penn community from the Support for Local Providers pilot team
November 4, 1996


The New Model for Computing Services Across Penn is grounded on the idea that end users are central and that the best mechanism for delivering computing support to them is through local support providers, located as near to them as practical. Nonetheless, the model recognizes that the existence of local support providers does not complete the picture - there is a need for secondary support to assist them:
  • "Secondary services undergird primary support and make the whole greater than the sum of the parts."
  • "All in all, the model clarifies the division of labor under Responsibility Center Management. Schools (and business units) are responsible for their own primary computing support... The center concentrates on secondary services. Standards help tie the structure together. The model encourages confederation for the common good even as it values organizational self-reliance..."
  • "Mechanisms are in place to refer problems that a primary provider alone cannot solve. Sources of second- and third-tier support are clear, and means of access are well defined."

In consultation with the Implementation Steering Group, the Support for Local Providers pilot has been working to investigate and understand the problems, opportunities and consequences which follow from widespread adoption of the New Model for Computing Services Across Penn as it relates to support for local providers.

This report summarizes the results of the preliminary phase of the pilot project. It begins by defining the relevant terms used in the report. The next section enumerates a series of principles for organizing, delivering, and funding support for local providers. This is followed by a description of a high-level framework which, we believe, incorporates the principles for services for local providers as well as the principles from the New Model for Computing Services Across Penn. Finally, we present representative examples of second-tier services in more detail to illustrate the general features of the proposed model. Each of these services will be studied carefully in the next phase of the pilot and presented to the steering committee with specific recommendations.


What is Support for Local Providers?

Support for local providers consists of specific activities, services, or components of services which are directed to, or directly benefit computing support providers situated in schools and units.

Clients and Experts

Clients include front-line support providers, process teams, and other information technology professionals. End users are not generally direct clients.

Services for local providers will be delivered by a network of campus computing experts from ISC and individual units. They are an expert group, not a group which makes up for inadequate primary support.

The people who provide these services will almost always have other operational duties as well. They are experts because of those other responsibilities: standards, architecture, emerging technology, support for services, etc.


Principles for Service Delivery

  • Support local providers

    Support for local providers does not provide primary support. Primary support issues are referred back to local support providers.

  • Communication is critical

    Information and communication about the services available for local providers is crucial to successful delivery.

  • Expertise arises from actions

    Support providers acquire, and maintain, expert knowledge of a technical area because they use it in their everyday jobs.

  • Map what's there

    Clearly document available services and help local providers know where to go for what.

  • Link authority with responsibility.

    The providers of specific services should be responsible for the local provider support required to deliver those services.

  • Avoid referral and escalation

    Support requiring escalation or referral is a loss for the end user. Support for local providers works best for end users when it empowers local support providers to solve problems directly.

  • Keep it simple

    Don't over-engineer the solution. Respond to specific needs with appropriately targeted, and funded, services.

  • Encourage informal support structures where appropriate.

  • Track usage

    Tracking and metering use of support for local providers will help to:

    • improve service,
    • better target the service to a particular audience,
    • determine value; appropriateness of funding or sunset,
    • identify blind spots in primary support.

  • Promote standards

    Local provider support builds on an accepted base of standards and services adopted in consultation with the University community. The availability of good local provider support for standards provides a strong incentive for units to adopt and comply with them.

  • Identify tradeoffs

    Recognize trade-offs and interdependence among the various components required to deliver support.

  • ISC's role

    ISC should focus primarily on services for local providers which:

    • Provides or coordinates expertise only found in a few places,
    • Demonstrates economies of scale,

      The service can be provided more effectively, or at reduced cost, by aggregating local needs into a larger whole.

    • Crosses boundaries and where the big picture needed.

Principles for Funding

Support for local providers is funded through a mix of allocated cost ("taxes") and direct charge. Individual units contribute expertise and staff time through participation in user groups, task forces, and the "facilitated volunteers" local provider support network. Funding decisions can be guided by the following set of general principles:
  • Leverage existing resources,
  • Spend allocated funds for a central group that coordinates, but is not the sole source of support for local providers,
  • Spend allocated funds for local provider services which:
    • ensure the security and integrity of administrative data and systems,
    • encourage adoption of, and compliance with, standards,
    • provide an identifiable public good,
  • Fund and staff support for local providers as part of the base process or service,
  • Set up direct charge services (service bureaus) in cases where:
    • service is targeted to a specific audience,
    • no broad public good derives from delivering the service,
    • custom solutions are required,
    • there are large disparities in demand from one client to another,
  • Mix allocated and direct funding in cases where the principles overlap.

    For example, creation of user guides and source documents for standard services could be covered under allocated costs with the distribution costs covered by individuals and units who could buy the publications or print and reproduce them locally.

Five approaches to support for local providers

This section describes a framework for understanding and discussing services for local providers at Penn. As with any framework designed to describe systems which are complicated and multidimensional, it may oversimplify and not accurately categorize every contingency. However, we believe that it achieves the following goals:
  1. It follows from and respects the principles of the New Model for Computing Services Across Penn,
  2. It is framed in a way which makes funding strategies explicit,
  3. It incorporates examples of existing services in a natural way. This, in turn, allows discussions about the desirability and evolution of these services.

    The reader should note that the most important criterion we used in selecting the examples cited below was: "Is this service primarily directed to or for the benefit of local service providers?" If it was not, or if the service contained elements beyond this criterion, it was not included.

Campus experts help each other

We have dubbed this approach "facilitated confederation." It recognizes Penn's existing informal networks of campus experts. However, it calls for more explicit coordination and management from ISC and more explicit definition of roles and responsibilities for all participants to help assure that these confederations are effective. A fitting analogy might be: "Units provide the buckets, ISC provides and manages the plumbing which allows knowledge to flow from one bucket to another." (You'll forgive us if we don't take the plumbing analogy too far in the discussions which follow).

Who pays?

In this approach, allocated costs pay for ISC's coordination and process management role. Units, including ISC, provide contributions in kind from their campus experts. Specific services, such as the network or central administrative systems, are responsible for local provider support related to the base service.

Example services

  • Escalation of questions beyond the expertise of local providers.
  • Interest and user groups:
    • PCNet
    • MacNet
    • Super Users
    • Campus Lab SIG
    • Digital Media and Publishing

Highlighted principals

  • Encourage the informal structure
  • Expertise arises from actions

Formal campus teams

This approach recognizes the importance of teams constituted to serve and benefit local support providers, especially in areas which cut across organizational boundaries. Nomadic teams with a fixed life span can be particularly effective in dealing with technological issues which, by their very nature, are often short lived. Roll outs of new technology are a particularly good example where this approach can be effective.

Who pays?

As a campus-wide process, funding and resources for these teams can, and should be, multifaceted: contributions in kind, allocated costs, seed money, or direct charges. In any event, the preferred strategy is to allocate resources to the project team itself, preferably through a separate budget.

Example services

  • Fall crush team

    For fall of 1996, ISC coordinated a campus-wide team consisting of dozens of ISC and local providers charged with making the process of getting students connected to PennNet and using their systems more efficient and effective.

Highlighted principles

  • Map what's there
  • Encourage the informal structure

ISC as provider

This approach recognizes that there are certain services for local providers where it makes sense for ISC to perform them and to pay for them out of allocated costs. In deciding which services to select here, it is important to keep in mind the funding principles which apply and to make every effort to keep the services focused, identify the customers as precisely as possible, and to negotiate and manage service levels.

Who pays?

These service are paid for out of allocated costs.

Example services

  • Software distribution services

    Presently, this includes ISC-managed servers which provide single repositories for supported campus software: penn_sw for on-campus Win95 and Macintosh systems, and for universal access on and off campus.

  • Systems for problem tracking and resolution

    One way to leverage the broad expertise available on campus is to provide mechanisms through which problem resolution knowledge can be captured, managed, and shared. Another pilot "Linking Help Desks" is investigating the ways a specific product, Apriori, can be used to do just this. We believe it is important to take steps which allow more effective sharing of problem solutions to "get the support knowledge out of one head and into many." Ultimately, this benefits the University by reducing the number of parallel efforts required to address and solve common problems.

Highlighted Principles

  • Track usage
  • Avoid referral and escalation
  • Allocated funds for the good of the whole

Entrepreneurial units sell services where markets exist

This approach recognizes that there are some services for local providers which do not fit within the guidelines for services paid for out of allocated costs. In these cases, the New Model for Computing Services Across Penn recommends the establishment of service bureaus. Services for local providers are no exception.

Who pays?

The service is paid for by direct charges.

Example services

  • PENNback

    This service is a fee-based system for backing up desktop systems and servers over the network to an ISC-managed repository.

  • Data and Media conversion

    As technology changes, there is a recurring need to move data from one storage medium to another as well as convert data from one format to another to allow processing by specific software packages. ISC currently provides such services on a small scale in both ACS and CRC.

Highlighted Principles

  • Link authority and responsibility
  • Expertise arises from actions

Mixed strategies

This approach recognizes that for some services a combination of funding and delivery methods may be appropriate.

Who pays?

A mix of allocated and direct. For example, ISC performs the base service or coordination out of allocated costs, with direct charges for the product itself.

Example services

  • User guides for standard campus products.

    Here, ISC provides the base documentation. Schools, units, or individuals pay the costs of customization and distribution. The Guide to Elm at Penn and the PennNet Passport fall into this category

  • Bring training to Penn for local support providers

    ISC coordinates and maintains relationships with external training vendors. Local units pay for the training itself.

Highlighted Principles

  • Support local providers
  • Leverage existing resources

Services and activities with significant local provider support components.

Finally, we wish to make the point that the approaches identified were selected to keep the discussion focused on services for local providers. This said, we also realize that there are a number of campus wide efforts which have a significant impact on local support providers but which are considerably broader in scope. Site licensing, for example, falls into this category. In keeping with the 'link accountability and responsibility' principle, we have listed a number of areas which need to maintain strong established links with the community of local support providers. These links need to be clearly identified and made part of the operational fabric of each area.

  • Standard setting teams,
  • System security awareness and management,
  • Site licensing,
  • Vendor relations,
  • Support provider identification and certification,
  • Fall sale package evaluation/selection,
  • Facilities management services

Appendix - Relation to the Restructuring Model

In this section, we list the relevant principles from the Model to Restructure Computing at Penn, and briefly describe how our recommended approaches for support for local providers follow from and reinforce these principles.

  • 1. Put the client first. Locate support and support decisions close to the recipient.

    Our approach clearly identifies the clients as local support providers and focuses attention on services and activities which meet their needs.

  • 4. Focus Penn's energies by organizing and funding a few important activities along process lines.

    Our approach recognizes and recommends the creation, operation, and review of campus wide teams. Nomadic teams with a fixed life time make particular sense in technological areas. These teams would be organized to address specific needs of local support providers and phased out as the need for them diminished.

  • 5. Move toward confederated activities that overcome the traditional Penn dichotomy of "school vs. central."

    Our approach recommends the continuation and strengthening of current confederations of campus experts to help one another and leverage existing expertise.

  • 7. Build on Penn's strengths and best practices. Learn from others.

    Our approaches recognize the effectiveness and desirability of existing support for local providers and seeks to promote more effective information sharing .

  • 8. Make plans and policies that encourage flexibility. Expose organizations, processes, and services to sunset laws that require them to prove their value in changing circumstances.

    Our approaches encourage the definition of processes to guide and prioritize services for local providers. Periodic reviews would identify services to be created, modified, or deleted.

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