IT Management

Take Your IT Off Campus and Thrive

It's been a long time since the various teams making up the IT organization at USC's Marshall School of Business have shared offices. Now that they're coming back under one roof off campus, innovation is at the top of the to-do list.

USC Marshall IT

A view of the new space for the IT organization of USC's Marshall School of Business, shot from the lobby through the conference room and break room behind it (Photo by Brian Morri)

Forget about engaging in person with your institutional clients — students, faculty and staff — where they live and work. That's an old fashioned IT idea. A greater emphasis on innovation and continual improvement will give you much better mileage than mere geographic proximity to the customers you serve. That's the thinking of the information technology departments at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.

Up until recently, the various information services that make up the Marshall IT organization were spread across four different areas on the university's grounds in Los Angeles. But when Vice Dean of Online Programs and former CIO Sandra Chrystal was given the chance to bring all of her staff together under a single roof, she took the opportunity — even though the new space would be about three miles away from the main campus.

What happens when an IT division in a major research institution makes the decision to separate itself physically from the people it serves? It shifts more of its emphasis to higher value activities that will eventually have greater benefit for those same people.

Identify Worthy Reasons for the Move

IT hasn't exactly moved to some nameless strip mall. It will be housed on the fifth floor of the AT&T Center, a downtown high-rise that's already home to several other USC divisions, including Marshall's many centers of excellence. Chrystal calls it "a beautiful facility with state-of-the-art offices for all of the teams." Those teams comprise about 50 people handling customer technology, networking, applications and data services, and the online program, including video production.

Chrystal believes that the move will result in a far more productive operation. As she observed, USC is a sizable campus, so people from her teams were already wasting a lot of time crisscrossing the grounds to be able to meet with others, or trying to interact via e-mail, a process fraught with hazard. When you can hang out for a few minutes in the coffee area and chat about the game, the kids, the vacation, "you probably will have a better relationship with that person because you talked about his family yesterday. We know that's going to happen."

The result, she said: "Our teams are going to be able to work together in a way they have never been able to before, and that that will generate new ideas and collaboration that we just haven't been able to master in the last several years."

Look at the Bigger Picture

Chrystal's organization must position itself to support new areas of growth, especially online programs. In the last 18 months Marshall has introduced three new online degrees, and all of them have doubled in enrollment, she said. Those programs serve students all over the world. Next year, the school of business will be launching an additional new program. Rather than seeking outside help in running those programs, Marshall opts to use in-house expertise for much of the work, which means collaboration will be essential to success.

Also, the school recognizes that 21st-century corporate IT doesn't have a technical team in every location where it has a site. People are more accustomed to figuring out things for themselves, whether that's loading an app to do what they need or finding an FAQ online. Chrystal sees value in emulating that model: By IT removing itself physically from its users, it will more closely resemble the kind of IT operations offered by the companies where Marshall graduates work.

"If we're a business school, we cannot let our students be graduating without knowing how to do team collaboration, answering problems over the computer," she said. "We know that our students will find this very comfortable. The students are going to make this transition without even thinking twice about it — especially the freshmen who never knew any different."

Replace and Improve

Still, confusion is expected among some people at Marshall who are used to visiting a service desk to get help on various technical problems. The transition will take a bit more "re-education" for them. "We're going to have to retrain some of our staff and faculty who have been able to do walk-in business. We're not going to have that now," Chrystal noted.

In-person service will be replaced with corporate-style online help as well as virtual chats. The university is just beginning a transition from a legacy help desk application to software from ServiceNow that will allow users to hold real-time chats via text and video with technicians and give permission for remote control of their systems to fix software problems.

Be Nuanced in Your Planning

The move won't encompass 100 percent of staff. Marshall IT will be keeping its classroom support team on campus for good reasons. These are the people who get faculty through classes without technical delay. First, they need to be there on site in order to check each classroom before class starts each day, explained Chrystal, Second, they need to be available in case something goes wrong with the classroom multimedia gear. "We can't take a chance that there would be [enough] time to get from downtown back to campus."

Also, there will be a "triage team" available on campus, though Chrystal doesn't want to say where they will be located, "because people will think that is where the help desk is." But when somebody can't get resolution for their technical problems by phone or online, a member of the triage team will "go out and help them immediately."

Let Teams Get Used to Working Together

About six months ago, representatives from each Marshall IT team got together to visit different restaurants in the vicinity of the new site and compile recommendations for the best places to eat. Teams also worked together to pick out the kind of furniture and cubicles they wanted in the new space. "So they actually started collaborating in a way they hadn't before," Chrystal said.

A joint committee is working on a set of guidelines for cubicle etiquette — remember to keep your voice down, don't cook smelly things in the kitchen — "things you get to learn when you're working in an area with other people."

Chrystal added that those small activities have been "really important to get people to start talking to each other in a way they hadn't before. It's very casual but fun, to build this esprit de corps that I think can be generated more easily in one location. We just haven't had the chance to do that."

She's excited to see how the move plays out, both for the staff making it and the users adjusting to it. "I know that there are some that might question our sanity, but we really believe in being innovative. We are a business school, so why not do what successful businesses are doing — that is, to have the technology to support your clients wherever they are? We have to be able to do this all virtually."

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