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Management by design

Management by design

What do you do when your information systems are struggling to keep up with the exponential growth of your business, but you're still too small for an in-house IT shop? Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design finds a middle ground.

When Mark Worsop took over as business manager at Auckland's Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design two years ago, he walked into an IT nightmare. With no previous experience, he had to assume the IT manager's role, and found himself dealing with a slow, cumbersome administration system that crashed up to three times a week.

The school's growth had been swift - 25 per cent in the past two years, with no signs of slowing down - and IT had not kept pace.

Essentially, the college's Microsoft Small Business Server 2000 at only 28 gigabytes, was not coping with the demands placed upon it by the 70 full-time and part-time staff looking after 450 students.

Running applications such as Microsoft Office, Quark, PhotoShop and Artena as well as a student management system, in addition to dealing with large image files, proved too much for the underpowered server.

Staff members were becoming increasingly frustrated by system outages and Worsop was spending an inordinate amount of time fighting IT fires. "We were always in emergency mode - sending stuff offsite for back-up every day, and I was always hounding everyone to regularly defrag and empty their mailboxes. It was taking up a lot of my time. I had no experience in IT and I just worked through the problems as they arose."

"The situation with deleting emails was getting ridiculous, I knew we had to do something."

The cost to the college was also unsustainable. "We were spending hundreds of dollars every week having someone come in and fix the problems, but we weren't getting any further ahead," says Worsop.

The college lacked a cohesive and progressive IT strategy and had no ability to upgrade or improve applications.

When the server lease was up, Worsop spotted an opportunity to solve a number of problems at once.

Calling upon service provider ATL Systems to act as project manager, he decided to upgrade. The college migrated to Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 and now has 300 gigabytes of processing power at its disposal. The old server has become a dedicated application server while the new box manages network drives and the exchange.

The $25,000 upgrade was completed with minimum disruption to the college. It took 12 hours and was carried out overnight. Down-time has now become a thing of the past, says Worsop. The move has also allowed software standardisation, with only a few of the system's 50 PCs still on Windows 98.

Most importantly, the upgrade provided a catalyst for a new management program that is so far proving very successful for the college and is designed to meet its growing demand for IT in the medium-term.

Worsop says he looked at employing an IT person to look after the student administration system, but rejected the option. "At this stage, we are still not big enough to employ someone full-time. The graphics department employs a part-time Mac technician for its system and it would be very difficult to find someone with both PC and Mac skills.

Instead, the business manager again turned to ATL and has come up with an arrangement that suits the needs and size of the college. He decided to stick with ATL because of the ongoing relationship that already existed between the two parties, but has streamlined the service agreement.

Rather than entering into an ongoing contract, Whitecliffe buys a block of 20 hours worth of service a month. ATL now handles user licences as well as hardware and software upgrades. Whitecliffe has a dedicated ATL account manager and a technician, who carries out regular maintenance each week and is also on call for emergencies.

Worsop says the most obvious benefit of the upgrade and service arrangement is reduced cost. He estimates the college is now saving upwards of $10,000 a year in maintenance fees and that doesn't include the extra time he now has to concentrate on his core job of managing and growing the college itself.

"We pretty much have a dedicated technician and we never have to wait more than an hour for someone to arrive if we call them out. Having someone to rely upon who knows our business is fantastic."

ATL is now in tune with the college's day-to-day IT needs and Worsop also meets with his account manager a couple of times a year to discuss the bigger picture and Whitecliffe's upcoming IT requirements.

Worsop says the only quibble he has had with ATL was the time it took to appoint a dedicated person once he had made the request, but since it was made there has been no looking back.

"Our arrangement means we have access to much more brain power and a bigger skills base than we would if we were restricted to our own employee. For example, when it came to deploying firewalls, we were able to call on an expert at ATL at no extra cost. If we had an in-house IT person, we would have been faced with contracting out a certain amount of work anyway.

"They have a huge amount of experience and can call on consultants in different fields. If you are going to use a service provider it needs to be someone who will provide a wholistic service so that no matter what your IT needs are - they will sort it out."

The arrangement means Worsop ensures the college is treated as a priority customer, despite being a relatively small account. "It's vital to find a company that will treat you as a VIP client irrespective of your size," he says.

Worsop believes in establishing a long-term relationship with a service provider and demonstrating a level of loyalty so that the company can reciprocate. "It's also important to make the most of their experience - at some point you have to trust their knowledge and expertise."

However, Worsop is also keen to ensure ATL doesn't rest on its laurels now that it has won the business. He insists that while the month-to-month arrangement suits the college's relatively small IT needs, it also keeps his service provider honest. "I would never sign a long-term contract with a service provider... Operating a rigorous renewal cycle keeps the quality of service up."

And although ATL handles new IT purchasing, Worsop is a stickler for obtaining alternative quotes. "ATL is not always going to be able to compete on price, I will always get a second quote in terms of what they can provide to the college and they will always have an opportunity to match that."

Worsop is very aware of the college's obligation to provide a top-class IT system to support students who invest up to four years of their life at the school. He believes the college is now well on the way to achieving that. Plans are afoot to provide each student with up to 30 gigabytes of storage space each during their time at the school.

"This will make it easier for students to work across disciplines which include fine art, film, photography and graphics."

CRM next

Other recent projects include implementing CRM software under a Microsoft pilot program that should be operational as this story goes to press. It will allow the school to tap into its customer database and provide present, past and future students will information about courses, graduation event, exhibitions and alumni news.

The college has also implemented anti-plagiarism software at a graduate level with a view to extending this to the undergraduate student base. "This is something the school takes very seriously - it goes directly to our credibility in the marketplace and there is no tolerance of plagiarism."

Worsop says the time will come when the college reaches a mass critical enough to warrant its own IT shop, but for now employing a service provider is the more cost-effective route.

Learn:

How an SMB can manage a service provider to ensure it is treated well.

Why outsourcing IT management is more cost-effective than employing in-house staff in a small IT environment.

What are key strategies for managing a small but fast-growing IT architecture.

Rate your challenges

When interviewing business executives, <i>MIS </i>asks them to rate the most challenging elements of managing a project. Here, Mark Worsop, business manager at Auckland's Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design, rates his challenges in upgrading the school's IT infrastructure.

Most challenging

Managing emergencies

Managing vendors

Selecting vendors

Keeping projects on time and on budget

Getting support of other company stakeholders (including users)

Getting support of board and CEO

Finding and motivating the right staff

Strategy and planning

Least challenging

He shares with MIS his top three pointers for planning for and managing growth:

A shared vision for the organisation is imperative. A vision developed and driven by the board and senior management alone will not be as effective if staff within the organisation do not share or are unaware of that vision. Talk to all staff and have an "open door" policy - everybody has ideas and communicating and providing an environment where they feel comfortable expressing their opinions and ideas will not only help with "buy-in", but also ensure you are getting the technical information required to make informed decisions/proposals.

Developing long-term relationships with vendors to ensure high levels of trust and service is essential. If they believe you are committed to them, they will be committed to you and in turn look at long-term solutions that may not involve high up-front costs. Don't create an environment whereby vendors try to get as much as they can at every opportunity.

Don't think too small. Think outside the square and believe that no competitor is too big and no opportunity is unachievable. It's all about planning and risk management.

Organisation profile:

Who: Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design

Where: Grafton, Auckland<p/>Founded: 1983<p/>

Students: 450 (25 per cent growth in past two years)

Staff: 70 full-time and part-time

Degrees: A foundation certificate, bachelor of fine arts, master of arts in arts administration, master of arts in arts therapy, master of fine arts.

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