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Why Don't IT Departments Give Employees More Freedom?

by Gary Hamel on June 8, 2011


gary-hamel's picture

Why Don't IT Departments Give Employees More Freedom?

Do you feel hamstrung by your company’s IT policies? Are the IT tools you have at home more up-to-date than ones you’re forced to use at work? Do you wish you had more control over your IT environment at work? If so, you’re not alone.

A while back in the Wall Street Journal, Nick Wingfield dared to question the totalitarian policies of the average corporate IT department–and boy-oh-boy does he make some good points.

How is it that employees can be trusted to take care of important customers, safeguard expensive equipment and stay within their budgets, but can’t be trusted to use the Web at work, choose their own IT tools, or download programs onto the workplace PCs? Do IT staffers really believe that conscientious, committed employees turn into crazed, malicious hackers when you give them a bit of freedom over their IT environment? Or are the nerds in IT all secret control freaks—the sort of folks who alphabetize their DVD collections and have separate drawers for different-colored socks and put on protective clothing before pounding a nail? Either way, if they had the budget, they’d probably hire hall monitors.

Some IT folks might argue in their defense that standardization helps to keep IT costs down—but so would having only one item on the menu in the corporate canteen. If leading edge IT tools are, as many claim, essential to unleashing human creativity, why would any company force all of its employees to use the same computers, phones and software programs? This makes no more sense than forcing every painter in the world to use the same 24 by 36-inch canvas and No. 8 paint brush, irrespective of the scale and style of the particular painting. Sadly, though, this sort of logic doesn’t cut much ice with bureaucrats, who will always vote for control over freedom—after all, if you actually trusted people to make wise choices, bureaucrats wouldn’t have much to do. Nevertheless, IT professionals need to spend less time trying to enforce technology standards and more time trying to make sure that every employee has access to the world’s best tools.

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absar's picture
Fully agree with @ Vinesh...there is a big difference between "Consumer IT" and "Corporate IT" which ,unfortunately, the end-users are not willing to understand at the workplace..the solution to this problem is "" which has to start very early in their careers..
vinesh-kurup's picture

Agree with @Bernd Nurnberger, it is usually Sr Mgmt that sets the tone for what kind of IT shows up in the enterprise.  Outside the post dotcom era companies, most C suite is generally made of people who have been part of the mainframe generation and never operated in a consumer technology rich age.  However, the majority of the incoming workforce is very tech savvy.  This has created a digital chasm within the organisation. 

Only with the advent of the iPad (dare I call them post-PC devices), has the C suite suddenly woken up to a world of easy-to-use-computer.  I am starting to lose count of chief execs who happily walk around with an iPad but switch to a Blackberry at work.  

However, the C suite also has to worry about boring things like regulatory compliance, data protection, customer perception of data protection.  Would you prefer banking with a bank that allows staff to carry your details in their iPads? Probably not! 

IT functions are always a step behind the curve, till we get to a stage where data security becomes device independent, I am sorry we will live with a boring beige PC at work while a shiny post pc device plays music in my backpack.

bernd-nurnberger's picture
Let me test the waters with a provocative comment: if it is top management who organize and give the IT department their scope, mandate, and limits, it is top management who can initiate change.
Part of the trouble are the vastly different experience horizons between managers, managers as users, employees as users, and the IT specialists' understanding what each needs and wants. What do we expect with fuzzy distinction between who is in charge of information architecture, access, confidentiality, integrity, versus information technology layers of hardware, connectivity, protocol and software that make the work with information possible? How about calling it an information communication department and entrusting them with standardizing workable solutions for both, while also safeguarding space for innovative users?
vinesh-kurup's picture

I like the theory, but one can argue why we don’t let everyone on the street walk around with a surgeon’s knife.  Sensationalism aside, I do see, we will move to such a BYO IT kit in a few years.  It is already starting to happen. A quick scan of corporate mobile devices penetration indicates this direction of travel.  Years ago, you only got a Nokia device if you were a senior management, then it moved to Blackberry’s, nowadays companies are letting employees choose iPhones, BB, WinMo. 

However, let’s not forget that employees in most organisation consume some form of enterprise applications like ERP, CRM, company email et al.  These dinosaurs are built to sit on a specific platform, and corporate IT team is a gatekeeper of this lowest common denominator.

The lines dividing private and business are starting to blur, and data is increasingly become the platform rather than then output. As more organisations move towards using the cloud and orchestrating processes that span legacy and 2.0 apps, you will see a bit more loosening of IT’s death grip.  

martin-cawthorne-nugent's picture
IT departments seem to sit on a spectrum from reactionary gatekeepers at one end- guarding the enterprise from all kinds of malicious "virtual" threats - through to innovation engines driving growth and new business at the other.   In truth it is probably a multi-dimensional landscape rather than a simple spectrum, you lose perspective when you squash it flat. 

The general problem is that much of IT management is uni-dimensional at any given point in time, traditionally it has been slow to shift  management focus from one dimension to another.   Taking up Barbara's comment on Nick Carr,  I've always argued that the industrialization of information matters.  Taking the technology out of information promises great  things for mainstream business management, the massive challenge is IT departments that only know how to manage technology - with a mantra on cost, security, innovation.  This capability will be unsustainable on current scale in many businesses, there are simply better opportunities to generate return on capital and release cash. 

The bottom line is why do businesses manage information?  What needs to be managed? And how should it be done? Too many IT departments have been excluded from that discussion (for a variety of reasons, many self-inflicted) for too long.   

The growing empowerment of employees shifts the middle ground  of the discussion for me. I think there is a looming battle for "ownership" of information between enterprise-centric traditionalists and the newer generation of job-mobile social networkers.  Now that prospect really is a multi-dimensional landscape to conjure with.

carl-berner's picture
This is a real issue in many companies, especially as the younger generation of proffesionals move in. They are used to finding and using a diversity of (IT) tools to get the job done.
The case is often argued based on the obvious and easily identified cost in the IT-departement. But what is the cost of not keeping the competitive edge in reqruiting, innovating and making employees feeling they have the right tools for the job? What are the costs of emloyees being delayed when they need to eg. acces project sites with documents?
About a decade ago the argument was why to invest in IT at all - no one could really show the profitability...
barbara-bohr's picture

Carl Berner is making a very good point here. There aren't many corporations left that have their own power plants or firemen in today's business world, why not extend it to IT? In that respect, I’m (still) with Nicholas Carr when it comes to assess the value of corporate IT.

Every company should make a very conscious decision of whether they really need an in-house IT department at all. In most cases the IT department is a mere service provider, far away from the heartbeat of the business units and their customers - hence, very likely to fail. From my own experience, many IT departments are also unnecessarily bloated and bureaucratic because they are used as instruments of departmental power politics. So why not let other companies/business partners and the users themselves do this job? The technologies are all available ( not all issues solved, I admit, but worth a start). This will be more effective because faster, more competitive, transparent and enjoyable for all employees involved. So, if you free corporate IT, you may free all employees.

faisal's picture
I will try and keep it short.

There is NO Full Threat Proof Anti Virus & OR Firewall (or whichever computer security software you may be familiar with). Giving more freedom to users will automatically create more freedom for malware which hackers can exploit later should one find their way in.

As for updated software; for enterprise 'stability' is more important than 'to be with the trend', rigorous environmental and different types of failure tests need to completed & report assessesd prior final implementation. Impact of the silliest corruption by a sofware can cause damage as bad as a 'Disk crash' or a 'Network Lockdown' finding the cure to which may take hours if not worse.

In an IT production environment software at different levels are juggling with data & information worth millions of dollars instead of Home PCs which mostly have no commercial value.

greg-mills's picture
Hi Gary, Love your blogs. Understand the frustration of dealing with IT department but they are human beings too and have to deal with limited resources and business policies that are set by their masters. (We the Managers!!)

There is a lot of advantage in standards for euqipment and software - like cost of acquisition and support. What if your computer breaks - who ya gonna call? IT department - if you have a Mac and the business runs Windows then you have to multi skill people to be able to fix all the variations - IT costs go through the roof!

There is a half way -that is issue standard equipment and software (so your IT department can easily replace what they give you) but then give users the freedom to buy their own peripherals or load their own software - as long as they don't load malware or viruses! Oh and it has to be legitimate software so the company doesn't get hit with a lawsuit !

You then apply the principle of UFI2 (UFI squared). You frig it, you fix it.  All the IT departments are responsible for is replacing you with a standard replacement if it breaks - the rest is up to you.

We've tried it and it works.

Keep blogging!