IT control vs user freedom

End-user autonomy debated at Expo

Should IT managers control all aspects of a company's technology, including the choice of cellphones used by employees for businesses, specialised manufacturing systems and the high-performance computers used by researchers?

For sure, the control exerted by IT departments has expanded as enterprise-wide initiatives such as datacentre consolidations, virtualisation and data integration have taken technology control away from business units. But conflict continues over the limits of that type of centralised management, according to IT managers and analysts at recent Gartner ITexpo in Las Vegas.

Colleen Young, a Gartner analyst, argued for strong centralised control at a forum here. Allowing research and development divisions to make all their own IT decisions, for instance, is just as much a mistake as letting business units go their own way on technology purchases, she said.

"It will become very clear, very, very quickly that they lack managerial expertise," said Young, of researchers, warning they may lock their businesses into poor deals and technologies.

But Kristine Blanz, who manages IT in an engineering research group at a manufacturing company, said her company uses a decentralised approach. Currently her organisation isn't part of corporate IT; this approach is under reconsideration, and she is worried about the impact of centralisation.

"If we get wrapped up into the whole corporate IT [department], the needs of engineering get missed, because what a marketing person needs is not what engineering needs," said Blanz. What could be lost is "the ability of engineers to innovate", she said.

Kristian Steenstrup, a Gartner analyst who took an opposing view in a debate with Young, said centralised control for IT departments is an impossible goal to achieve. He cited examples of technologies that will be outside of IT control, including technologies used by engineers, SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) systems, consumer technology that is also used at work, and even the concept of cloud computing, which gives users access to services outside the company network.

"There is a lot of technology in your organisation ... that will be outside your control," said Steenstrup.

Allen Benson, an IT manager at a retailer, takes the middle ground. His company, which he asked not be identified, recently moved control of its cellphone and mobile devices back into the IT department.

Benson said his firm had turned over management of these devices to the purchasing department, which allowed employees to "buy everything and anything" when it came PDAs and cellphones. As a consequence, the IT department was getting requests for email access on mobile platforms it didn't support.

Benson says his general rule on deciding what to control and what not to control is based on whether the technology uses the corporate network. If engineering, for instance, is using an advanced technology that requires no internal development and is dependent on the vendor, Benson says they will leave those standalone systems to that department. "We really don't want to grab them unless we have to," he said.

Diane Morello, a Gartner analyst, said IT is best off focusing on creating a few standards, particularly for consumer devices, to allow flexibility.

"It's about creating the framework for coordinating freedom without imposing lockdown control," said Morello.

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