Christmas is coming. OK, you know that already. Anybody who walked through a mall or watched all the ads spill out of the Sunday paper this weekend knows that. Yes, it means that for the next month, any IT shop that’s supporting a web store will be on call 24 hours a day. But it also means something a little more subtle for all corporate IT shops: This is when users get gadgets.
Some will receive them as holiday gifts. Some will treat themselves because of holiday sale prices or because year-end bonuses are burning holes in their pockets.
Either way, over the next month or so, a new wave of wireless handhelds, email-enabled cell phones, high-speed cable modems and fruit-coloured home computers will start showing up in the pockets, briefcases and home offices of your users.
Some of those users will want help connecting to your company’s data, applications and mail systems. Some will just want help getting the new gizmos working. And chances are, in the past, you’ve dodged those requests at every turn — and, if cornered, insisted that, no, IT absolutely can’t help them with their new toys.
Maybe this year it’s time to start saying yes.
Does that sound crazy? Think about it: These users are going to connect to your systems one way or another. They’ll be using those cable modems to telecommute and those handhelds to read their mail. They won’t stop just because you won’t help.
But what they will do is get the connection made in the sloppiest, least-secure, most problem-prone way. Joe in accounting’s brother-in-law won’t worry about whether that new cable-modem-equipped PC has virus protection or a personal firewall. Sally in sales will have her neighbourhood nerd set up her handheld’s email, but he’ll end up knowing her password, too.
Then, down the line, something will go wrong. A virus, maybe, or a hacker’s attack, or a configuration problem that ties up your servers, or an email glitch that sends hundreds of copies of some hapless user’s email raining down on everyone in your company. Then you won’t have a choice; you’ll spend hours or days scrambling to repair the damage.
So maybe your choice isn’t really between helping those gadget users or not — it’s between helping now or mopping up a huge mess later.
Besides, there are some big advantages to offering gadget help — within limits, on a time-available basis — to your users.
For one, you’ll find out exactly what they’re doing with the darned things. You’ll have an early chance to scotch really bad ideas. You’ll get an early window into what might turn out to be good ideas — the kind all your telecommuters or salespeople might want to adopt eventually.
You’ll also get some experience with hot new hardware at your users’ expense — figuring out whether Palms or Handsprings or Cassiopeias or Jornadas give you the least headaches. And you’ll make your first round of mistakes setting up cable-modem telecommuters, handheld e-mail access and wireless web browsing — but you’ll have some control over configuration and security.
Maybe most important, you’ll get a little leverage with those users. These gadgets represent what they want, not what IT wants. You’re doing them a favour. That might come in handy down the line — say, when you need user cooperation defining specifications or on a pilot project.
Even if you can’t call in that favour, you’ll still have better relations with users, along with fewer security problems and more in-house knowledge of how to deal with users’ gadgets. And that could make gadget help a gift that keeps on giving all year long.
Hayes, Computerworld US' senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Send email to Frank Hayes.