IT Support for Researchers: Get Started by Building a Portal

min read

Many higher education leaders are beginning to discern the need to improve IT support for research across the college or university. The creation of a personalized portal for researchers is one way to do so.

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Credit: Graphic farm / © 2023

Traditionally, central IT departments in higher education have focused primarily on the administrative side of the institution—procuring, implementing, maintaining, and supporting the enterprise systems that run the business of the college or university—as well as on the IT needs of all employees. Other than facilitating the use of these enterprise systems and campus-wide utilities such as email and networking infrastructure, central IT departments have not often provided direct support to faculty members and researchers. The latter has typically been the domain of local, decentralized IT departments and academic support units (e.g., the office of research, the library, procurement, finance, the secretariat, privacy and risk assessment).

Moreover, the way in which researchers engage these stakeholders is often based on staff they already know or staff they have worked with before. More regularly than not, these groups are brought into the research process well after the initial planning and grant applications have been submitted and awarded, commitments and deadlines have been made, and expectations have been set. Each group is called in at the last minute to play its part, possibly with very little communication among all groups involved. This type of disjointed service coordination does not enable the institution to provide an optimal customer support experience for its researchers. Surely there is a better way to work together to collectively enable researchers to focus on their research and not on navigating the complex organizational structure of the college or university.

How can the central IT department provide better support for researchers? One way is to copy a tactic used for students: create a portal. Previously, colleges and universities faced the same issue with students: how to surface, out of a cluttered and often confusing interconnected website structure, those services that are available to individual students. The student portal has become a time-tested and verified, user-friendly approach to providing students with a tailored experience. The portal allows them to sift through the noise of the institutional website and choose to see a personalized version that is customized to who they are as a student, what courses they are enrolled in, what degree path they are following, what clubs they are a member of, and what interests they have.

Employees and faculty, on the other hand, have the intranet, an authenticated-access institutional website view that is restricted to those who have permission to view the information or to whom it is relevant. Yes, internet search engines have made finding what you're looking for on the public internet immensely easier. However, based on user feedback and complaints coming through the  issue tracking systems of the central IT department at the University of Waterloo—along with comments provided by email, through social media, in person at meetings, and other formats—we clearly see a need to assist our clientele in more easily locating what they're looking for. Researchers, in particular, are busy juggling teaching loads, service responsibilities, and the rigors of academic publishing. Compound that with new requirements from research granting bodies for research data management plans, research data storage, and research security, and there is a greater need than ever to assist campus researchers. Let them be experts in their chosen fields rather than forcing them to be experts in everything.

By creating a portal tailored for researchers, IT service providers can collectively make researchers' traverse of the research lifecycle a smoother one. The first step is to consult with all the organizational units that provide services and support to researchers; then that information can be gathered into a directory of services. Highly skilled specialists for every aspect of the research lifecycle, as well as service offerings for many researchers' needs, likely already exist somewhere on campus. A gentle approach to engaging this dialogue with colleagues across campus can help make their services more easily findable by the researchers who need those services. This also cuts through any sense of territoriality that may arise, because this process is simply helping service providers be more useful to their clients, as opposed to centralizing resources or taking anything away from the distributed service providers across campus. The focus is solely on enabling researchers in their pursuit of pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. The researcher portal will in turn drive more requests to campus service providers by making their services more prevalent and desirable to their niche clientele. The portal is a benefit to both the researchers and the employees who cater to researchers. Who can argue with that?

This process of creating a campus-wide directory of services that are specific to researchers and that already exist in campus academic support units and faculties will inevitably highlight gaps, which can be acted on later in the creation of new services. Enterprise software licensing for researchers, storage solutions for various types of data and specific use cases (i.e., data at rest vs. data in motion), and professional services like project management are some examples of services that may need to be enhanced. Some services, such as project management through the central IT department's project management office, may exist but may not yet have been specifically marketed and offered to researchers.

Other services may be duplicated across multiple groups at the institution: a service that is supported both centrally and by decentralized units; multiple software applications or storage infrastructure solutions that serve the same purpose without a strong rationale for having multiples; or even alternative solutions offered by different groups for the unexpressed but obvious purpose of competing with one another. When this happens, the following questions should be asked: Is this the most efficient use of campus resources, especially if the institution is publicly funded and using taxpayers' resources? Is this the optimal customer experience for researchers? In institutional units that are providing the same service, is this the most efficient way for the employees to work? Using this process of humble inquiry and raising these same questions to those in IT governance bodies and executive leadership forums can result in positive adjustments that will benefit researchers. Acting in the spirit of what's best for the institution, and not necessarily what's best for the individual unit, can create a stronger, more efficient, more user-friendly, and more intelligible suite of service offerings.

The next step is to formulate an agreed-upon method of requesting research support services through the portal. The goal here is to make this process as simple as possible for researchers. They should not have to wonder, or know ahead of time, which unit can help them; the portal will provide that information based on their needs. Through the integration of the portal with an IT service management (ITSM) system that has automated intake forms, each group that has a role to play in every research project will be notified early and will be triaged at the appropriate time. An intake form will enable researchers to simply request support through the portal, and then, based on their academic discipline and the nature of their research project, they will be directed to the correct service provider to initiate the process and will be handed off later to the next group at the appropriate stage in the research lifecycle. Maintaining the unique value proposition of local faculty IT support departments in this process is critical, as those departments have the relationships with the researchers in their areas and have specialized IT skills for their specific discipline. In most cases, the local faculty IT support department should be the service provider to shepherd the research computing needs of the researcher throughout this journey, staying engaged during the entirety of the research lifecycle as other research service providers swoop in and out to play their part.

Beyond teaching and learning, supporting research is integral to any college or university, and more than ever, information technology is a critical component of the research process. Yet many centralized IT departments in higher education are not supporting research with the same intention and purpose as they display for educational technology. Often, research computing is the domain of local faculty IT support departments, and although these departments are critically important in providing the bespoke IT support that researchers need in their specific disciplines, more coordination and collaboration is required at an institutional level.

Creating a portal specifically for researchers can achieve this goal. With all of the services that are available to researchers pulled together in a "one-stop shop," or directory, researchers can more easily find what they are looking for, instead of scouring the complex and distributed web presence and organizational structure of the institution. This portal also ensures that every campus group providing support to researchers does so in an efficient and synchronized fashion, simplifying and increasing collaboration among stakeholders and guaranteeing that researchers receive the best-possible customer service experience. The result will be a more comprehensive and efficiently resourced suite of services for researchers—who will be more satisfied with their IT support—and ultimately, a significant and beneficial impact on institutional research.

Andrew McAlorum is Director, Client Services, Information Systems & Technology, at the University of Waterloo.

© 2023 Andrew McAlorum