Fragile support and Web 2.0

By Scott Wilson, November 16, 2007 9:32 am

A small non-profit I have been consulting for lately has been having quite a lot of problems with support issues revolving around their primarily remotely located users and their constantly malfunctioning laptops, so the points raised in this recent ComputerWorld article on the difficulties presented by laptops in the enterprise, and the ensuing whinefest on Slashdot, really struck home.

As ComputerWorld points out, laptop distribution in the enterprise is exploding, up 20% a quarter, while desktop sales are slumping off accordingly. This is introducing all the various issues that the article goes on to point out and with which most of you are probably well familiar… the breakage, loss, and constant stream of connectivity complaints. If you consider not only the upward tick in laptop deployment, but also the growing trend toward adopting even smaller and harder to support devices such as PDAs and Blackberries for business use, you can understand that most corporate IT departments have a real challenge coming on.

But why, is my question? We keep hearing how today's users are more independent and technically savvy than ever and how IT is going to become more broadly distributed and less specialized, but that's entirely at odds with this trend, and there doesn't seem to be a clear path toward that future, only an increasing support burden on the IT department.

There isn't any consensus yet on how to address this. Many of the Slashdot posters contend that it's simply IT's job to deal with it-ours is a support role, they say, and if this is what the business uses, it's what we have to support. While laudable in attitude, that blind approach discounts the costs incurred in IT by supporting such devices and doesn't weigh it against the benefits of such use, which is surely a judgement within the purview of the CIO. In many organizations, the outcome of a cold look at the cost/benefit of laptop support is questionable. Their use is personal as much as professional, and they aren't rugged or reliable enough to make the difference immaterial… it's not worth the support dollars to accomodate personal use. Moreover, many are provided to users whose business need for them is sketchy in the first place… they are seen still as a perk, and people agitate for them who will never remove them from their desks. Yet many of the problems remain.

The ComputerWorld article discusses outsourcing support for laptops, but that's just shifting the cost center slightly and hiding the core problems. And that option isn't even really there yet for other mobile devices.

Something we have been discussing with this client (which has entirely legitimate reasons to be using laptops in the first place, with very mobile staff and high information tracking and communication requirements) is taking the procurement and support for these devices out of the organization entirely. Rather than purchase, provision, and support a standardized device (which half of all users will hate, as ComputerWorld also notes… there is no one-size-fits-all laptop or mobile device yet, and the personal nature of them exacerbates this far more than with desktops), we're talking about arriving at some nominal dollar figure per unit, and simply compensating staff directly and allowing them to go pick what they want… and to take care of it themselves.

I'm slightly surprised that I haven't seen more of this sort of discussion in the wild around these issues; considering the muffled revolt against IT and the proponents of a big, wide, Web 2.0 freedom in the enterprise (a la Chris "Who Needs a CIO" Anderson) it's strange that both sides of the dispute aren't clamoring for this approach. For the CIO, it removes a huge support nightmare; for the empowered user, it provides the freedom to pick exactly what they want and use it how they want to. All this alleged end-user technical experience that is coming along with the Web 2.0 generation should be reducing, not increasing, reliance on IT to support these issues. At the same time, the advent of virtualization and solid web-based applications should reduce the CIOs need to care what mechanism in particular the user is using to access corporate resources.

This has all sorts of benefits, from allowing users to pick devices that they will be happy with (and either exhibit some responsibility for or be on the hook themselves for breakage), to allowing the enterprise to set a specific dollar figure on the value of device support and to be able to hold to it predictably, instead of being at the mercy of breakage rates and whiners. It's an economic solution on both sides… the company can balance the books, the users who want something newer or better than the company requires can cough up a little extra money on their own to make up the difference, and those who are comfortable getting by with the bare minimums and who take care of problems themselves probably pocket a little extra cash in the end.

It's no more a one size fits all solution than any of today's laptops are, but I would at least like to hear people talk about it a little more.

One Response to “Fragile support and Web 2.0”

  1. Bummer Han says:

    maybe an exchange network that joins IT savvy people with free time (not necessary Bangalore hic)
    especially with all the inexplicable MicroSloth messages, and have people attend real time


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