Using Discourse for IT

Nov 25, 2016
Joe Buhlig
~3 mins

I’m a fan of Discourse. That should come without surprise at this point. As a fan, it’s natural for me to see the potential for Discourse to solve communication problems and create selective visibility within an organization. So it was easy for me to gravitate toward it for the IT communication structure at my church.

To the best of my knowledge, there are four areas that need to be clearly conveyed and accessible to those I support: technology needs, how tos, structural upgrades, and technical documentation. In my case, I have two groups of people to work with: staff members and tech volunteers. The staff needs to share their support requests and have access to the knowledgebase, while the tech team handles the infrastructure and documentation.

In Discourse, this translates quite well. I can create four topic categories (Support, How To, Infrastructure, and Documentation), and two user groups (staff_members and tech_team). Distinguishing by user groups, I can restrict access as needed in each category.

In my case, there are some end users that will likely struggle if I require them to use Discourse directly. I don’t say this to be mean but to acknowledge that their strengths are outside of computer systems. Understanding this, I take advantage of the email-in feature of Discourse as well as reply-via-email.

My users can send an email to the system and have it handled automatically. Whether it’s a new ticket or a reply to a support update, they can interact solely from their email. Outside of setting up their accounts, they never have to access the system directly. They can stick to what they know: email.

Here’s a breakdown of how each category is used:

Support

This is used primarily for issues and support tickets. Both the staff and tech team can access it and users can send an email into this category. When one of these is completed, I simply close the topic.

How To

These topics are checklists or videos explaining how to accomplish a specific task within our building and structures. These can range from website updates to installing printer drivers. Again, this is viewable by both staff and the tech team, but currently I have it restricted so only I can create new topics. I want to vet these before they’re posted.

Infrastructure

Only the tech team can use this one. It’s designed to capture and discuss system upgrades and migrations as well as the little things we need in order to improve the reliability and functionality of our hardware and software. I think of it as a technical version of the support category.

Documentation

Again, this is tech team only. And most of these topics are wiki-fied so that team members can update them as changes are made. These can be descriptions of VLANs or they may list the base computers we use when a replacement is needed. Anything that helps describe the infrastructure so that others can step in should go here.

I’m aware that there are a lot of software options available that are specifically designed for these purposes. And the number of communication methods is endless. But after having worked with and for multiple companies, I’ve seen the pros and cons of using many of them. In most cases the IT team ends up hacking them together to do what they want. Or worse, they lose track of a request in the stream of posts.

What I love about Discourse is its flexibility and configurability. I can dial up or down individual pieces and even allow end-users to avoid it entirely. Telling my staff members that they simply need to send email is tremendously more effective than training how to navigate a new piece of software.