A CIO's take on the home PC support dilemma

This is a guest post by TechRepublic's Scott Lowe, CIO of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. You can find more posts like this in TechRepublic's IT Leadership blog.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

This is a guest post by TechRepublic's Scott Lowe, CIO of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. You can find more posts like this in TechRepublic's IT Leadership blog.

This week, Bill Detwiler posed the following question in a poll: Should corporate help desks support home PCs? The responses to this question were all across the board with some people indicating that corporate IT should support employee PCs as if the company owned them while others basically said, “Over my dead body.” This is an issue that I’ve wrestled with at two organizations and I thought I’d share my thoughts on the topic from the CIO perspective .

Let’s go back a couple of years. At this time, I was working for a different college as the IT Director and we helped people with personal computers … to a point. In order to help make sure that people got the computer that best suited them, IT staff often helped people configure new personal machines and, very occasionally, we handled the ordering logistics for the employee with the clear understanding that, once the computer arrived and was at the employee’s home, the employee would need to obtain support from the computer vendor. After all, that’s why the vendors have support centers.

This plan was OK until this happened:  We had helped a college employee purchase a computer, complete with arranging the order and making sure it got to her house. As usual, we made sure she understood that we could not support the computer. After the computer got to her house, she had nothing but problems with it and simply refused to call Dell, the vendor from whom the machine was purchased. Instead, on multiple occasions, I walked into our office suite to find her computer sitting on a tech’s desk; we actually did look at and help her with the machine in a couple of instances. Finally, I told the employee that she really needed to call Dell for further support. Her response: “You ordered the machine for me so you’re going to fix it.” That was the day that I informed my boss - the CFO - that we would no longer be able to support employee personal computers in any capacity. He supported the decision.

Prior to this, senior management didn’t want to make a decision one way or the other on the support, so it fell to me to figure out what to do.

In my current position, the same issue has raised its head. More than a few times, I walked to the help desk area to find employee personal machines in various states of disarray while other priority tasks went unfinished. This was relatively early on in my tenure and required a number of corrective actions. Working with the rest of the executive team, I outlined my reasons for feeling that it was inappropriate to support employee-owned PCs and worked out a discount arrangement with a local repair shop. Employees can now take their PCs to the local shop and have their computers repaired at a discount.

Now, you may think I sound harsh in not wanting to perform this level of support, but I do have some good reasons:

  • Liability. Eventually, we’re going to get bitten. Maybe we’ll void someone’s warranty, drop a machine, wipe a hard drive during a virus cleansing, whatever.
  • Time. My staff is stretched very thin just dealing with college priorities. Adding the burden of supporting staff and faculty personal computers is not feasible with the current staff.
  • Why? TechRepublic reader Palmetto put it best in his response to Bill Detwiler’s poll:

Let’s replace ‘computer’ with other work-from-home needs.

What about maintenance / facilities staff and personnel? Should I expect them to come to my house and rebuild my plumbing? If I’m working from home, I need to drink and use the toilet, don’t I? If I lose power, can I call them to replace the fuse?

Say I travel for the company. Instead of taking a company car, I opt to use my own. Should I expect the guys who maintain the company vehicle fleet (say, school buses or delivery trucks) to work on my personal vehicle?

I work for a catering company. If I chose to prepare food for a customer from home instead of using the company kitchen, is my employer obligated to repair my kitchen appliances?

I couldn’t have put it better myself. What, really, is the difference between a computer and other tools that are necessary to get a job done?

Another story: I once worked for a guy who had similar feelings. People constantly came to the group and asked us to, after work, go to their houses and fix their computers as if the time imposition was just part of the job. After a while, he came up with what I thought was a great response to one of the guys that was working on a roofing project at the time: “Sure, no problem! When I’m done, you can come over to my house and help me replace my roof for free.” The asking person was not offended. Instead, he actually apologized and said, “Wow… you’re right.” Now, not everyone would be that nice, but there does come a point at which a support level is simply unsustainable and the requests begin to border on rude.

Obviously, there will be special circumstances that must be considered. Nothing is black and white. If, for example, an employee simply has to work from home - maybe for medical reasons - and use his or her own computer, we’ll absolutely do what we can to help, although I would prefer for us to supply that person with a loaner machine instead. Further, if the executive management team someday decides that we need to go down this road, we’ll need to adjust our policies - and our staffing - to accommodate.

The timing of Bill’s poll was great; my staff and I had a half-day retreat to go over some operational changes and personal computer support was one of the topics that came up. My response to my staff was that what they do on their own time is their own business, but that I do not want to see employee machines at the help desk. If the employee wants to assist someone - either for free or for pay - it’s up to them as long as it doesn’t happen on work time. Believe me - we have more than enough to keep us busy!

What do you think? Am I being realistic or even fair in my view of personal computer support? Is my view that a computer is no different than a car or other tools way off base?

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