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Strategic Local Support

Exercise Instructions

In 1996, when a group of Penn patriots banded together to come up with a new model for computing support across the University, one problem they worried about solving was frontline support as close as possible to the people who use it. Today most schools and many other units have put in place operational, discipline-specific frontline support. These frontline providers are the ones you call on, for example, to upgrade your software or to solve a network connection problem.

Now Penn has the luxury of worrying about a different kind of problem. Not all schools and units have "strategic" local support—the capacity to look to the future and prioritize IT investment decisions for the school or unit. A school needs this strategic capacity as it considers, for example, how a database it develops will integrate with other sources at Penn or how to decide whether to build a new application, buy it from elsewhere, or wait until the time is right.

How best, then, to strengthen and extend Penn’s strategic IT capacity—given the need to invest scarce IT dollars and deploy hard-to-attract IT talent in the wisest way? As a group, answer the following questions. Summarize highlights of your work on a flip chart—legibly enough for other groups to read.

1. Impact—What effect does the unevenness of strategic local support have on your own unit and on Penn as a whole? Be specific and vivid: How important is this problem?

2. Emerging Issues—Looking one to three years into the future at ways in which your customers (students, parents, granting agencies, employers, etc.) will be pulling you, identify three or four pressing issues for strategic support at the local level. These will be urgent, emerging issues with which any model for strategic local support must deal.

3. Barriers—What stands in the way of strengthening strategic local support at Penn?

4. Ideas Worth Stealing—Looking inside and outside Penn, identify creative solutions in regard to strategic local support. Units, for example, may be collaborating in useful ways or finding talent in unexpected places.

5. Handoff—Today’s retreat won’t identify all the questions, much less figure out all the answers. Is there a natural "home" for the issue of strategic local support: a group or role whose responsibility is to explore the issue and begin working on possible solutions. If not, identify the kinds of people who need to be involved.

6. Advice—All in all, what two or three pieces of early advice would you give the people to whom you would hand this issue?

Exercise Results: Strategic Local Support


  • The word "strategic" is used to differentiate it from operational (keep the desktops running) support. Original model assumed local support encompassed both; now we’re dealing with unintentional consequence where local support is not strategic. Both are needed to have effective local support. Without strategic thinking, money is wasted and opportunities are lost. Strategic thinker sets priorities, keeps agenda on target, links to faculty.

  • Can either have separate people with ability to look over horizon, or people who have reasonable amount of time in daily job to put down screwdriver, come up for air, and think about these things. Benefit to having separate person whose role is to step back and define problems.
  • When don’t have strategic local, unaware of progress in one location that could be applied elsewhere. Need mechanisms to link strategic planners within & across units so they share ideas and become more effective; form alliances; have ISC SWAT teams to help bring strategic thinking links to local.

Outstanding Issues:

  • Cannot have strategic without people getting their work done. If there remains a problem with unevenness of operational local support, this may be more important to fix than creating strategic local support. Inconsistent local support creates problems for those who feel they aren't getting the full support they need.

  • Where to draw line between routine operational and the strategic?
  • Creating strategic local may not be just a matter of time -- may require different training, different people. These days, too much to expect person to provide day-to-day quality support as well as high level strategic planning.

  • Strategic thinker may cost you a lot more but could save the organization money in the long run. How to get decision-makers to understand? Operational support is a squeaky wheel; strategic support may be invisible but may be even more crucial (impact of not having strategic might not hit until further out, but it could potentially be a big hit).

  • If you want help to get day-to-day problems fixed, do you want local person who’s very expensive as strategic thinker or do you want networks/alliances, where people become aware of needs of School and are supported more centrally.

  • Communication gap between ISC and Schools within Penn. Do we need to formalize informal networks? New strategic IT folks in local units don't know who to talk with or where to begin -- it's very difficult.

Next Steps:

  • Answer the questions: Who really worries about this? How can we push this agenda forward to get right strategic people into local settings?

  • Step one is recognizing need for this and in terms of operational vs. strategic, both needed at some level, but strategic must come first because it's context driven and can’t be outsourced. Leverages whatever’s critical to environment.

  • Who does it begin with? A place needs to be defined where everything comes together. In non-Penn world, ISC would be responsible for strategic thinking.

  • One model is to make alliances. Another is SWAT teams where ISC plus others do strategic thinking, live locally and bring ideas & connections – Support on site at high level. CERN model: Very central computing group that lives in decentralized fashion but goes local and moves around. They’re on loan for period of a year.

  • SAS and Engineering computing share same boss now. No reason that sharing like that won’t work in centers in various parts. Need process to get alliances going; establish trust.


  • IT Steering Committee with Small Schools Task Force

Please note: This material is no longer current and appears online for archival purposes only.
Use the search and navigation tools above to locate more up-to-date materials, if they exist.


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