What Makes a Successful Biocomputing Service

Thu Mar 25 12:33:00 EST 1993

What Makes a Successful Biocomputing Service.

Hi Netters,
The best use of computer-aided techniques by biologists naturally depends
on the quality of centralized biocomputing facilities.  Previous discussions
have looked specifically at optimizing front-line user-support [1, 2].
Here we look in more general terms at what underlies good service from a
computing facility, and the implications of this for a global biocomputing

Duncan Rouch (University of Birmingham, UK: D.A.Rouch at Bham.ac.uk)
Tim Littlejohn (Universite de Montreal, Canada: Little at ere.umontreal.ca)


1  Introduction: What Success Means in a Biocomputing Service.

2  What Makes Success in a Biocomputing Facility?
     2.1 Training of Service Staff to Deal With New Technology and Software.
     2.2 Training Staff in Care of User Scientists (Customer Care).
     2.3 Training Customer Scientists to use the Services Offered.
     2.4 Obtaining and Acting on Feedback From Customers.
        2.4.1 Working With Customers in Designing a New Aspect of the Service.
        2.4.2 Socializing With Customers.
     2.5 Planning for Future Needs.

3  Making and Maintaining Successful Biocomputing Services.
     3.1 Promoting Success in a Biocomputing Facility.
        3.1.1 Staff Morale.
     3.2 Implications for a Global Computing Strategy.
        3.2.1 Success for Different Types of Facilities.
        3.2.2 Site-wide and National Facilities Complement Each Other.
        3.2.3 Site-wide and Specialized Facilities.

4 Conclusion: Keeping the Best Arrangement of Computing Facilities.

5  Acknowledgements.

6  References.

1  Introduction: What Success Means in a Biocomputing Service.

Biocomputing services collectively support four classes of computer-aided
methods for biologists; (i) functional- and (ii) evolutionary-sequence
analysis, (iii) molecular modelling and (iv) analysis of related information
databases, such as literature.

The more successful a service that a biocomputing facility gives the
better it helps biologists to effectively use the four classes of computer-
aided methods in their work: but what makes a good service?  Previous 
discussions have looked specifically at optimizing front-line user-support 
[1, 2].  Here we discuss factors that lay the foundation of a successful 
biocomputing service, and what this means for a global biocomputing strategy.

To give a more practical definition, success in a biocomputing service
means helping biologists make the most of the available resources.  
If adequate resources are not present then an elaboration of what 
underlies a successful service is needed to argue for these resources.
We look at the implications of this definition for the future of academic
services here and in a followup discussion [3].

An edited version of this discussion will appear in the UK journal BINARY 
(1993, 5: 51-2). 

2  What Makes Success in a Biocomputing Facility?

Naturally the quality of a computing service is partly dependent on such
factors as available hardware and software, but other factors, including
communication with the clients, are at least as important.  We can group
the things a biocomputing service does to be successful and, importantly,
to stay successful into 5 categories.  This list is based on analysis of
successful services in both the academic and commercial arenas that offer
high-technology assistance to end users.

In summary, the activities that a successful service includes:
     (1) training staff to deal with new technology and software;
     (2) training staff in care of the user scientist (customer care);
     (3) training customers to use the services offered;
     (4) obtaining and acting on the feedback from customers;
     (5) planning for future needs.

It is essential for optimum performance in the 5 categories that a computing
service has a mission statement that details its objectives. The mission
statement acts as a set of guiding principals that will shape the service's
activities.  No good enterprise would be without one.

Furthermore, details of specific services offered by a computing facility
can be documented in "Service Definition Statements".  These enhance
efficiency through describing each service in a way that both lets staff
know exactly what they need to do to support each service, and also
lets customer users know what to expect from a service.  It helps to
communicate the information in these statements if they are rendered
in jargon-free plain language, that non-experts, such as user 
scientists, can easily understand.

Now we look at the 5 categories of things a successful service does in
more detail to explain their function.  To illustrate these explanations 
we have choosen a notional site-wide type service that supplies computing
facilities across a complete institution.  This is because only a site-wide
service can reasonably be expected to perform in all the required
categories, since it is most able to perform the various tasks that
require face-to-face contact with user scientists.  Lab-, department-based
and national services fail to meet service specifications in one or more
areas.  However, all types of service have a place in a cooperative global

2.1  Training of Service Staff to Deal With New Technology and Software.

All successful service facilities should be continually improved as more
efficient or better ways to perform it's functions evolve.  For this reason 
staff should be trained to deal with the new facilities in an organized 
way, not an unplanned (trial and error) way which would normally be 
inefficient.  People gifted with "the knack" to learn quickly can efficiently 
teach themselves to deal with complex technology, but most people are not 
like this.  To guarantee that all staff learn what they need to know they 
should go through training courses.  These can be run in-house or by experts 
brought in from outside.  New staff can be trained by apprenticeship.

2.2  Training Staff in Care of User Scientists (Customer Care).

A facility should have at least an advice/information desk for drop-in
help, a telephone advice line and help via e-mail for front-line user-
support.  These avenues for contact should encourage the use of what may be
seen as intimidating new technology, so support staff have to be
particularly sensitive to the needs of present and potential users.

Obviously then, staff should be trained to deal with customers in the most
productive manner.  This mostly amounts to having a friendly attitude
combined with a good approach to problem solving.  In a successful service
front-line support people need to know both how to help a client if the
problem is simple, and also where get help from if the client's problem is
complex.  An in-house expert may be called in to help solve a complex
problem, so they should be the one to talk to the client.  Thus many
service staff, not just front-line user-support staff, need to be able to
deal with customer users.

It is useful to rosta the in-house experts of a facility at the advice
desk, to keep them in touch with user scientists.  Bringing in in-house 
experts to solve user problems face-to-face is valuable in three respects:

	(1) it is the most error-free method (compared to leaving the front
	    desk to pass on messages second hand);

	(2) unrelated but useful information can be passed on at the same time;

	(3) it helps clients to see the larger picture, how much is there to
	    help them, which helps the image of the service.

2.3  Training Customers to use the Services Offered.

The serv

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