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Technology Triage: Keeping Mission-Critical Technology Running


This article originally appeared on TechSoup.

Here's how technology projects work: plan, implement, support, plan, implement, support. Ad infinitum.

Sure, that's the best practice. And those three words stand for a heck of a lot. They stand for technology asset inventory, needs assessment, and gap analysis. They stand for testing, QA, and bug fixes. They stand for troubleshooting, adding new users, reconfiguring workstations, and updating software. And they stand for doing it all over again.

So what happens when your printer is broken? Or when two users have been having a problem getting onto the Internet since 2002? What happens when you know your technology isn't working as well as it could for your staff, for your mission, for your constituency? Do you always have to start at zero and work your way through a file cabinet full of best practices?

No.

I'm a consultant, I do this for a living, and I'm going to say it again: you don't have to do it all every time.

You can't. Project management, planning, implementation, and support take a lot out of your organization. They take time and money. And then they take more time and money.

It's not that this isn't valuable work. It is. Best practices are important and useful. However, many best practices work well in an ideal world, and that world may not be the world of your organization.

Technology Triage

You may not have the time, resources, assistance, or expertise to start from scratch and plan, implement, and support your technology. You may be—and so many organizations are—struggling to keep your technology going from day to day. The possibility, and resultant futility, of doing an exhaustive and expensive planning process only to find that implementation is years—and many technology changes—away is very real.

One alternative is for organizations to think in terms of technology triage. What is mission-critical for your organization? What technology supports those functions? Those pieces of technology are the ones on which you should concentrate your resources.

  • Technology Assets Inventory
    Any technology decision making starts with two essential questions: where is your organization now, and where would you like to be? There are many good reasons, even if you can't answer the second question, to keep an updated answer to the first.

    Maintaining a current list of your technology inventory, both hardware and software, as well as the technology skills of your staff saves you invaluable time when hiring consultants, looking within your organization for specific areas of expertise, or replacing computer equipment.

    In addition, having a current inventory positions you to begin a technology planning process when you are ready.

    Here are two alternatives to tracking your workstations and the associated software:

    • Staff Inventory Worksheet (Word Format)
    • Computer Workstation Inventory (Word Format)
    You can also use TechSurveyor to complete an inventory and survey your staff to discover technology skills.

    A technology assets inventory should also include a complete list of network hardware, such as routers, switches, or servers; printers; and technology services providers, including consultants, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and e-mail and Web host information. To prevent losing this information in a broken system or computer, be sure that you have printed copies stored in your office.

    ENTECH computer inventory software can also be used to gather information about your systems.

    You can read more about this step in The Planning Process: Assess Resources.

  • Troubleshooting Log
    A troubleshooting log allows you to record problems, resolutions, and associated costs. This can allow you to identify training, hardware, and software issues. It can also be an excellent tool for building up your technology know-how. If the first step in resolving a technology challenge is looking through the troubleshooting log, you may be able to follow the resolution notes and avoid having to call a contractor.

    A Blank Troubleshooting Log (pdf) is available on TechSoup.org.

  • Stabilize
    Once you have a technology inventory, bring together a core group of people to identify the technology systems that are critical to your organization. Does your ability to receive funds depend on accurate case management records? Do you need to be able to send and receive e-mail? Is your Web site a prime mechanism for reaching your constituency and achieving your mission? Do you have field staff who need to be able to access your office network from remote sites?

    If there are existing problems with any of these systems, get them fixed. Emphasize to your tech support team—whether they are volunteers, consultants, or in-house staff—that you are interested in stabilization, and you are not interested in an outlay of cash on new and improved systems. Be sure that you are requesting replacements necessary to your organization's stability, and hold off on things that can wait.

    As a part of this stabilization process, you might find yourself buying new hardware or software. This can be a part of preventative maintenance: supported software (that is, software that is not seven versions old) is often necessary so that you can protect your systems against various worms, hackers, or persistent crashes.

An Ounce of Prevention Is Worth a Pound of Consultant

Once a system is stabilized, it's easy to just let it hum along as an unnoticed utility. However, a few simple steps can help ensure that your systems stay stable.

  • Backups
    Backups are like flossing: everyone agrees that it's a good idea but no one does it until they lose something. Backups are essential to guard against data loss. While finding out that it will take two weeks to fix a computer is bad, realizing that crucial, unique data—think accounting information or grant proposals—is inside that computer is even worse.

    Having an appropriate backup system means that you know:

    • Who is in charge of backups
    • How often your systems are backed up
    • What is backed up
    • How information in backups is restored
    • Who else is trained to perform and restore backups
    • When you last successfully tested it

    For a more thorough discussion of backups, see the TechSoup articles:

    • Backing Up Your Data
    • Using Retrospect to Back Up Effectively

  • Update
    Updating your operating system, office productivity tools, Internet browser, and other frequently used tools helps to ensure that you're protecting against known vulnerabilities, receiving bug fixes, and, in rare cases, receiving feature enhancements.

    Find out more about the importance of updates: Improve Security by Patching Windows

  • Anti-virus Software
    Why is anti-virus software last in this list? News coverage in mainstream outlets makes it unlikely that you don't know that you need it. Like backups, anti-virus software with up-to-date definition files helps to ensure the data housed on your computers is protected.

    Anti-virus software is not enough. It's important that the definition files, essentially a list of viruses to guard against, are up-to-date.

    For more information, please see:

    • Virus FAQ
    • Working with Norton AntiVirus
    • Infection Control

    To get your virus questions answered, visit the Virus Vaccination and Computer Security Forum.

    You may also be eligible for TechSoup Stock.

The Limits of Technology Triage

It's possible to function in triage mode, keeping your system stable through the mechanisms described above (augmented by judicious software and hardware purchases), but there are some technology projects that demand a commitment of organizational resources—time and money.

  • Database Design and Selection
    A database provides your organization with a thoughtful way to track, use, and reflect upon the information that is available to you in the course of doing your work. This may mean donor tracking, case management, or client surveys. It is important that you are willing to devote the time, and potentially the money, to a system that works for your organization.

  • Web Site Design and Development
    It's easy to think of a Web site as a cheap thing: get a volunteer and slap something together. But a Web site is often the first encounter individuals have with your organization. It may be a primary means of engaging donors, volunteers, or even your constituency. If you're investing resources in putting up more than a brochure site—a simple explanation of what your organization does—ensure that you are implementing the tools that will allow the Web site to grow and reflect your organization over the long haul. This may require a content management system. Rob Prideaux's article, Knowing When You Need a CMS, begins a three-part series that can help you explore this issue.

  • Long-term Planning
    There's no way around it. At some point, you need to engage your organization's staff, board, and other partners in a discussion about the vision of your organization. That discussion can lead to another about the role technology has in achieving that vision.
Marnie Webb, Director of Consulting Services, CompuMentor
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Topics: Technology