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Who Needs An IT Department?

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting opinion piece written by Nick Wingfield, a frustrated "consumer" of big-company IT services. His main question is deceptively simple: "Why can't I use whatever technology I want to get my Wall Street Journal work done?"
The Wall Street Journal had an interesting opinion piece written by Nick Wingfield, a frustrated "consumer" of big-company IT services. His main question is deceptively simple: "Why can't I use whatever technology I want to get my Wall Street Journal work done?"This isn't a new line of inquiry for corporate employees, of course. The original IBM PC crept into corporate environments in the early 1980s due to the same sentiments. People wanted to get their work done; the IT guys feeding the mainframe told them to put it in the queue, go away, and come back in a few months. So, those frustrated workers bought a little PC from Big Blue and did it themselves.

By the time IT caught on to what was happening, it was too late to turn back. Today the average IT department knows how doctors feel when patients besiege them with requests for drugs they've seen promoted on TV. All users see is the purported benefits, and can't understand why the IT department isn't excited about them too. Nick Wingfield's frustrations are typical of those users. But it it fair to blame IT? I'd say no.

Users have their hot-button technology desires, but don't particularly care about the issues that IT is tasked with implementing. For example, many organizations have strict policies about email retention that are dictated by legal requirements. If users start sending company emails to their private web mail accounts, they may totally circumvent those policies. You may remember, for example, that Sarah Palin was using a private Yahoo Mail account to conduct government business.

There's another big problem...how do I put this? Plumbers and mechanics are often responsible for providing and maintaining their own tools. The benefit of this arrangement is that workers are a lot more careful with tools when the cost of fixing or replacing them comes out of their own pockets. So why don't companies use the same approach with their consumers of technology tools? In other words, what's the difference between a plumber and the average corporate employee? My conjecture: the tradesman knows how to choose tools for their work, use them properly, and treat them with care.

Most of today's corporate technology consumers are not like the IBM PC pioneers of the 1980s who built their own programs to run in 640KB and fit on a 1.44MB floppy disk, or learned complex programs without the benefit of multi-day training classes. If all users were technology savvy and self-sufficient, it would be great to have them choose and maintain their own tools just like the IBM PC user, plumber or mechanic. Yet if they choose the wrong tools or make the wrong decisions, who will be asked to clean up the mess? Sounds like a job for the IT department.