Monday, 4 January 2010

A Managed Service metaphor

I often work with schools in the early stages of BSF and one of the important messages to get across is that the ICT Managed Service does not have to be a top-down imposition but, if schools engage fully in the process, can be shaped to suit their needs through a high quality Output Specification.

To paraphrase PfS' Steve Moss at a recent NAACE event, no matter what you think of ICT Managed Services in BSF, they aren't going away anytime soon, so let's focus on making the approach work really well for schools.

When talking to (understandably) sceptical heads and other school staff, I find it helpful to use an example from my 'real life' to illustrate how the MS can be defined and provide real benefits. This is because I have recently opted to take a Managed approach to my requirements for a car Service, and for the same reasons schools are encouraged to.

Rather than buying a car as a capital investment, I have (like many others these days) entered into what is effectively a Managed Service contract with the supplier, under which they provide the car, service it and fix it and give me a replacement if it breaks down; effectively it belongs to them, as does the all the risk. My responsibilities include not damaging it, keeping under an agreed mileage and paying a fixed, monthly fee, for which I get to drive it places.

Unsurprisingly, as the customer, I had a choice in the spec of the car I would receive rather than being given the same thing that the supplier gives to everyone, and it was the same level of choice that a cash-purchaser would have. Schools have exactly this agency in the BSF process, and the Managed Service needs to be understood as the outcome of the SfC and Output Specification documents, rather than being a generic and monolithic slab of inappropriate IT.

Prior to this experience, I've 'fully' owned cars and for various reasons, not done terribly well out of the deal, having to assume the entire risk for their management and maintenance. I cannot maintain my own car and I neither want to or see why I should have to. My interest in the automobile is limited to its affordances (it gets me places quickly and in relative comfort/ solitude) rather than how it works. My understanding of the internal combustion engine begins and ends with the fact that it makes petrol explode in some cleverly controlled fashion, which spins the spinny bit and makes the wheels move. But that's fine; I don't need to know any more than this, my expertise is directed entirely towards driving the thing without incident.

Such should also be the case with schools' ICT systems. I cannot think of many other medium sized businesses (say an hotel, for example) which are so intricately involved in the technical management of the ICT they use, with all the risk of failure that this carries. A Managed Service provides a system which is contractually guaranteed to work as requested, and should allow school leaders and teachers to focus all of their ICT-thinking on what to do with the technology, not how to get and keep it working.

The perception that a Managed Service ties the user's hands should also be challenged. True, if I decide I want to suddenly upgrade my VW Fox for an Alfa Romeo Spider, there may be a small implication for my monthly revenue cost but BSF Managed Service contracts are evolving to remove restraints and are much more flexible. For instance, it is now common for the contract to be structured in such a way that schools wishing to try something new and innovative (previously a big no-no for MSPs, who would be responsible for making it work) can agree with the ICT provider to effectively 'switch off' parts of the ICT contract while the trial takes place. The upshot of this is that schools aren't restricted to the technology specified at the start of the contract and MSPs aren't penalised for allowing this experimentation.

The elephant in the room of course is that even the most advantageous and appropriate Managed Service cannot itself transform how ICT is actually used by schools. The fact that I chose to drive my Managed Service car only between my house and Tescos is not the fault of the car but of the driver's vision. This issue is well understood by PfS and a greater (funded) emphasis on the (visioning) SfC stage and the (making it happen) Change Management aspect was recently recommended by the recent Beyond Buildings inquiry.

To sum up, Managed ICT Services can work for schools, the secret is to get in and drive the process. Here endeth the tenuous metaphor.

Dominic Norrish
Follow me on Twitter @domnorrish

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