IT Restrictions at Work

A couple of weeks ago Scott Arbeitman wrote about the technology gap between the street and the enterprise. Carl Joseph replied to that with one of the most painful technology-related quotes I’ve heard (painful because of how true it is):
“Every day you get to use new technology and are exposed to new, exciting things…then you go to work.”

I’m not sure who actually said that, but if you work for a large corporation, then you’ll know what this feels like.

How do I Deal with Such Restrictions?

At my workplace, in order to keep up with the rest of the Internet world, I not only bring my own personal laptop to work I also bring with me my own personal wireless broadband Internet connection. And, despite the fact that my laptop is ancient and the broadband connection is painfully slow (relative to my workplace’s connection), I still get a better Internet experience on it than I do on my work computer.

Why? Because even though my laptop has half a gigabyte of RAM, a slow 30GB hard drive, no built-in wireless adapter (yes, it’s that old), and Windows XP, I get to run on it the latest versions of Flash, AIR, Silverlight, IE, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Seesmic Desktop (along with numerous other applications) and I get to access whatever I want to on the Internet.

On my work computer, meanwhile, I am stuck with no AIR or Silverlight, IE6 as my only browser (I do have a version of Firefox on it but that doesn’t run Flash so it might as well not exist), and restrictions on which websites I can access. What makes this harder to live with is that my computer’s hardware is pretty good (it’s a docked laptop with a dual monitor setup) and my Internet connection speed is excellent.

It’s Not All Bad

I have to admit, though, that I am being somewhat unfair to my workplace. Aside from making us run IE6 and blocking parts of the web (including sites like Slideshare because it’s “personal storage”), they do let us access webmail, all the social networking sites (indeed, according to our IT department, Facebook is one of the five most popular sites at work), and most online media sites (like Flickr and YouTube). Compared to other large organizations – particularly government departments – in Australia, that’s pretty awesome.

In fact, they’ve gone a step further and have provided us (the Web Team) with a special media desktop (for converting and editing video) and a special Internet laptop (with all the latest software and applications installed on it). Bits of the Internet are still blocked on these PCs because you’re still going through their proxies, but that’s not such big a deal.

So What’s an Employee to Do?

One way for tech-savvy employees to get around these restrictions is to do what I’m doing: circumvent the IT department entirely by creating a parallel setup for yourself. With recent technology improvements like cheap netbooks, powerful smart phones, and readily available mobile broadband, this is easy and relatively inexpensive to do. I suspect a lot of Gen-Y will take this route.

The other option – the much harder one – is to get your IT department to get rid of these restrictions and, dare I say, modernize itself. Unfortunately, that’s not easy to do. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo makes a good case for it, though, in his recent article, ‘Unchain the Office Computers!’:
…workplace IT wardens are rarely amenable to rational argument. That's because, in theory, their mission seems reasonable. Computers…can be dangerous things—they can breed viruses and other malware, they can consume enormous resources meant for other tasks, and they're portals to great expanses of procrastination. So why not lock down workplace computers?

Here's why: The restrictions infantilize workers—they foster resentment, reduce morale, lock people into inefficient routines, and, worst of all, they kill our incentives to work productively. In the information age, most companies' success depends entirely on the creativity and drive of their workers. IT restrictions are corrosive to that creativity—they keep everyone under the thumb of people who have no idea which tools we need to do our jobs but who are charged with deciding anyway.

The Role of the IT Department

One of the most important parts of Manjoo’s argument, however, is this:
What's worse, because they aren't tasked with understanding how people in different parts of a company do their jobs, IT managers often can't appreciate how profoundly certain tools can improve how we work.

This is often the root cause of the problem because most IT departments are divided into roughly three parts:

  • IT Operations: the people who keep the systems running

  • The Project Management Office (PMO): the people who oversee updates, upgrades, and all the organization’s IT projects

  • IT Planning: the people who plan for the future

What is often missing is the fourth part:

  • In-house IT Consulting: the people who liaise directly with different parts of the business and use the latest technologies to improve the way those people work

Without that fourth part, IT departments have a hard time keeping up with what people in the organization believe are the most effective and efficient ways of doing their work. They also don’t keep up with the latest technological solutions for various business problems.

Modernizing the IT Department

So, if employees want to take the route of modernizing the way the IT department looks at new tools and technologies, they need to start by modernizing the IT department itself. And, to do that, they have to look at IT as two different groups:

  • IT as a service delivery department: the people who provide us with our computers and networks

  • IT as a partner in business: the people who proactively help us do our job better

And if they’re lucky enough to get a CIO who thinks that way as well, things should start to change.