IT heresy revisited: Let users manage their own PCs

Large companies such as BP and Google are rethinking the idea of IT controlling users' computers and sharing their lessons from the frontlines

Another technology that helps support the user-managed PC model is desktop virtualization, which lets IT provision a standard OS and application configuration while allowing users to run their own apps in a separate layer, preventing infection and corruption. "In this model, users would have access to nonregulation software, personal e-mail, etc., outside of the virtual environment," Resnick said, which is "a reasonable compromise between security requirements, innovation, and employee convenience."

For companies considering empowering their employees with hardware and software choices, Merrill has some advice. "There are three things to do: automate everything you can automate, push toward automation in the cloud, and put together a highly skilled support staff. My support function spends time on fun things, which means I can hire more talented people, so I can automate even more things."

There are, of course, skeptics

Not all corporate settings are suited for user-managed PCs. The environments that do try them tend to involve white-collar workers who own PCs at home and have some tech experience. By contrast, call-center PCs are not good candidates. Neither is any production area in which work is programmed, such as policy administration in an insurance company, a manufacturing environment, or a hospital.

"Clearly, situations where security, regulatory requirements, and high availability are necessities, self-provisioned tools aren't a fit," says Matt Brown, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

As one might imagine, the concept has detractors who point to additional practical matters.

"In the long run, I suspect it would cost more and cause more problems than it solves. Notably, interoperability issues with network, printers, software, documents, viruses, and corporate intellectual property remaining on personal computers," says John Quillen, CTO of YouChoose.net, a campaign-promotion site.

A creeping force IT can't ignore

Yet Quillen is practicing the user-managed PC scheme himself. "Ironically, I'm in a startup using my own [Apple] MacBook Pro while the rest of management uses Windows." And Forrester's Brown said that he has anecdotally found an increasing number of executives doing the same as Quillen and carrying non-company-standard computers, namely Apple notebooks, and asserting that the only corporate application they consistently use is e-mail.

More often than many people in IT care to admit, small factions of rebel users are supporting their own PCs, sanctioned or not. And the people now entering the workforce and those who will follow in their footsteps are already accustomed to supporting their own PCs, so the argument that users don't know enough to choose and manage their own PCs will be harder to make over time.

"The generation entering the workforce, namely the millennial generation, is much better equipped to evaluate, purchase, and manage the technology they use than previous generations," Brown said. "I am always amazed to see how quickly workers in this generation are able to assess, download, install, and get productive on the tools that are available on the Web."

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