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The Art of IT: The Fall of the IT Control Freak

Remember back in the '80s when computers sat on and under desks? Big, hulking CPU boxes with archaic monitors that weighed more than a typical house pet and took up about four square feet of real estate--these were the "workstations" of our workplaces. Back then, technology cost serious money: Each worker sat in front of a $6,000 workstation, connected to $50,000 worth of servers through $15,000 in software. For IT, those days were good, because serious money meant serious control. Workers couldn't be trusted to use all that expensive stuff without strict guidance from IT.

Flash forward to today. I type this column on a lightweight laptop that cost about one-fifth what those workstations cost. It's plugged into a 19-inch, $300 flat-screen LCD I bought myself, just because I wanted it and believed it would improve my work life. Did IT have any say about my setup? Yeah, right.

Dress for Success

The concept of improving one's work life through the purchase of work gear is nothing new. For years now, classy threads have supported upward mobility. More recently, smart technology has done the same. After all, the cool guys have BlackBerrys--or, as contributing editor Dave Molta calls them, Crackberrys--so if you want to be cool and your company doesn't support cool, your only option is to buy it yourself.

Herein lies the problem. Great technology is now priced so almost anyone can afford it. Gamers have much better technology at home than most of us have at work--mostly because work applications don't require it. It used to be that the spiffiest graphics cards were reserved for scientists doing visualization work, or your weather forecaster who wanted to show low-pressure areas moving in from the south. Now, it's the home gamer playing Grand Theft Auto.

So how is this a problem for IT? Simply this: If I use cool applications and hardware that I find useful at home, I'll find a way to use them at work too. In fact, I can tell you authoritatively there are any number of non-IT-certified applications on the laptops of the NWC editors. From a corporate point of view--that is, me being the face of our corporation to NWC staffers--I not only understand the need to stray beyond the corporate standard issue, I encourage it.

So what's your reality? For those in heavily regulated industries, what I've described is heresy. Desktops must be locked down, applications must be limited and the flow of information must be tracked. It's not an option, it's a business imperative.

IT Governs Best When IT Governs Less

What about the rest of us? My suggestion is to graciously admit defeat. Face it: Your users know more than enough about their computers to be dangerous--they aren't likely to be happy with corporate standards, and you're unlikely to be able to enforce them. So rather than fight a losing battle, let your users choose their own systems and offer a very broad array of software. Enforce corporate standards only and exactly where necessary.

Those standards should be surprisingly loose. Emphasize security, backup and data tracking and little else. Even applications like e-mail and browsers should be flexible: It's the data you care about, not the apps. The NWC crew uses e-mail apps from Exchange to Thunderbird to Eudora (of all things), even though the corporate standard is Lotus Notes.

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