Why Users Should Manage Their Own PCs

Users should choose and manage their own PCs.

At first blush, that's a radical notion any right-thinking CTO would dismiss out of hand. But not so fast: IT shouldn't dictate what computers and handhelds users get -- and perhaps IT shouldn't manage them, either. That's the conclusion some IT organizations are reaching, or at least investigating.

Search giant Google practices what it calls "choice, not control," a policy under which users select their own hardware and applications based on options presented via an internal Google tool. The U.K. oil giant BP is testing out a similar notion and giving users technology budgets with which they pick and buy their own PCs and handhelds.

In this Web 2.0 self-service approach, IT knights employees with the responsibility for their own PC's life cycle. That's right: Workers select, configure, manage, and ultimately support their own systems, choosing the hardware and software they need to best perform their jobs.

BP and Google are not the only IT shops to see value in this model, either.

"I've felt this was the answer for a long time," says Glenn Angell, a systems team leader with the state of Maine's Office of Information Technology, though he noted the state hasn't ruled one way or the other on the idea. "I really don't care what an employee uses for an office suite or to build charts, graphs, or whatever -- just so long as I get the data in a format I can view it in."

All too often, IT groups write and code policies that restrict users, largely based on a misbegotten belief that workers cannot be trusted to handle corporate data securely, said Richard Resnick, vice president of management reporting at a large, regional bank that he asked not be identified. "It simply doesn't have to be this way," Resnick said. "Corporations could save both time and money by making their [professional] employees responsible for end-user data processing devices."

The benefits of user-managed PCs Today's standard, one-size-fits-almost-every-employee approach ultimately pulls down PC-competent knowledge workers to the same level as the tech-leery. Meanwhile, IT shops are overburdened with supporting PCs, help desk budgets consume significant chunks of corporate resources, and with a slowing economy, many IT shops are under pressure to reduce operational expenses. Not to mention that in the eyes of many IT pros, holding down the help desk is low-level grunt work.

To IT, the glaringly obvious advantages of user-managed PCs are reduced support costs and far fewer pesky help desk calls. Tech departments, quite naturally, would no longer have to train users for PCs either, a process that often leaves both bitter, thanks in large part to common training mistakes.

What's more, many remote employees have become plenty adept at supporting themselves -- by and large because they have to. For problems beyond their abilities, there's not all that much difference from their perspective between calling a hardware or software vendor and ringing the corporate help desk. Many office workers have the basics down as well for getting online, installing applications, and setting up wireless networks and shared printers.

Resnick argued that empowering workers will not only make them more productive but help them contribute to the organization in other ways. "It sends a clear message that management views its knowledge workers as partners, not as adversaries or, at best, necessary evils," he said. "I believe that this would go far in motivating employees to work harder and to align their goals with those of their organizations. I think this would be huge."

Google CIO Douglas Merrill concurred. "Companies should allow workers to choose their own hardware," Merrill said. "Choice-not-control makes employees feel they're part of the solution, part of what needs to happen."

And the ability for users to self-manage their PCs is only getting easier as hardware vendors are working toward essentially standardized PCs, no matter whose label is on the box.

"Bottom line: The technology exists," Resnick said, "[But] IT has no interest in it because their management approach is skewed heavily toward mitigation of perceived risks rather than toward helping their organizations move forward."

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