IT: Enabler or barrier? I've been lucky

How often has IT stifled rather than enabled innovation and creativity?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I've had the chance to set tech policies, administer a variety of systems, and run a lot of networks, generally in a very autonomous way. In every job I've ever taken (except for six months stocking shelves at night in a grocery store, but I'd rather not talk about that - I still have flashbacks), I've been given serious latitude, either because I knew more than those around me, I was the only guy stupid or hungry enough to take the job, or because I was the boss. It's easy, after all, to give yourself carte blanche when you're running the show.

Whether in research, public education, academia, or corporate settings, I've been lucky. If I wanted to try something new (a new web server, laptops for kids, Linux deployments, a new web-based tool, a new programming approach, or whatever) it's been my prerogative. There hasn't been a lot of red tape to cut through. For many other innovators in other settings, though, IT is a barrier rather than an enabler.

It doesn't take long reading Dilbert to meet Mordac, the Preventer of Information Services. It also doesn't take long talking to peers and colleagues to realize that my experiences aren't typical. If I want to access a website with some useful bit of information that happens to be blocked by a content filter, for several years now I've been able to just unblock the site myself. Want to put a server on the network to test out some new services? Great...Let's go find a server. Want to pilot Ubuntu on a few desktops? Find some willing volunteers. You get the picture. I've been lucky.

It's easy to forget how lucky, though. Last night I received an email from a frustrated teacher:

I won a grant for 30 laptops.  The school would not hook them up to the internet.  They had great reasons - not in the plan, no software licences, out of warranty, (add your own) - I teach 6th grade science - is this the best idea?  It really doesn't mater, I still had to install my own Moodle server...to get the class up and running - off the internet.  Gives a new meaning to 'support'..."

It got me thinking about conversations I'd had with other educators who were shocked that I allowed teachers and students to bring their own laptops into the buildings I administered. In their experience, they were limited to the often meager technology in their classrooms with security concerns most often cited as the reason for excluding outside technology. While security is actually quite a valid concern, there are plenty of utilities to check incoming devices and a simple screening procedure was all it took to supplement our technology needs with student and teacher machines.

Next: So what about the real world? »

As I mused upon teacher frustrations, it didn't take long for thoughts to turn to the corporate world, outside the sometimes provincial walls of public education. Google made headlines by dumping Windows across the enterprise and giving users the choice of Mac or Linux computers. While most of the headlines were focused on the anti-Windows rhetoric, the idea of giving corporate users a choice of computing environments wasn't lost on everyone. As one blog pointed out,

The move created mild discontent among some Google employees, appreciative of the choice in operating systems granted to them - an unusual feature in large companies. But many employees were relieved they could still use Macs and Linux.

A friend of mine recently started a job with a new company that, instead of providing him with a company-issued machine, simply gave him a generous computer allowance with some basic parameters. He was probably more excited about this bit of choice than he was about the new job.

For me, the focus has always been on getting the job done. What do the people I support, supervise, and interact with need to do their jobs well? If I can't provide those things due to budget constraints, why should I stand in the way of them stepping up and making it happen? Standardization and enterprise platforms are all well and good, but creativity and productivity are vastly more important in this century.

How often do we hear a particular IT department or team member referred to as a drone? Or Draconian? How many of you have been thwarted in an attempt to try something new, work in a different way, save money, or create something different by the "IT Nazis?" How many of you have actively prevented someone from installing software that would make their job easier? Not because you're mean, but because it violates policy. How often is the IT department's knee-jerk response to a question "No can do," rather than "Hmmm...tell me what you need and we'll see what we can do"?

Obviously policies and procedures exist for a reason. A rogue DHCP server or a virus-infested laptop can cause no end of trouble. The average user doesn't understand what it takes to keep an entire organization up and running, connected to vital resources and working trouble-free. The information systems team does understand and most have built policies over the years designed to protect the carefully constructed enterprise. However, even Microsoft has created a Labs group that can create and quickly prototype software outside the normal confines of a highly controlled environment to promote serious innovation and unbridled creativity.

Next: Remember your customers »

The IT department in any organization is, first and foremost, responsible to its customers, namely, end users. To that end, while IT must ensure that all of those users have safe, secure access to the organization's computer resources, they must also ensure that the users are enabled to do their jobs. They must ensure that an organization's technology is fully utilized and that it adds value to the organization in terms of efficiency and productivity.

Imagine the following conversation:

Employee: I have a great idea for streamlining our work with the Asian and Middle Eastern offices. If we had Google Apps, we could manage the documents we create together more easily and end a lot of back-and-forth with different versions, especially since the time differences don't often let us all talk together.

IT Drone: We don't support Google Apps.

Employee: I know - that's OK, I just want to test it with a few members of the teams from Shanghai and Jerusalem. We can just pilot it with the Standard Edition - That's free.

IT Drone: You need a domain name for that.

Employee: That's right - that's where you come in. Can you just set up a subdomain for us? Whatever you want - apps.companyx.com or whatever.

IT Drone: We can't add subdomains without CIO approval.

Employee: Why not? We're just using it for a test.

IT Drone: No can do.

Employee: Can't you talk to the CIO?

IT Drone: No. He only meets with senior IT management. You'll need to create a ticket with the help desk and ask that it be escalated.

This conversation could obviously go on for a bit, with the employee at no time ever finding a way to test his idea and present the results to management. Barriers to communication, red tape, and bureaucracy are not the friends of the average corporate citizen, educator, or civil servant who simply wants to leverage new technologies to get his or her job done better and faster.

Next: How do we make this better? »

IT needs to be the connection between user needs, requirements, requests, and suggestions and what is technically feasible in an organization. Here's a better conversation:

Employee: A customer just asked if we could stream video from our sales conference last week on the company's website. She almost has her management convinced to upgrade to our latest products, but really wants them to see the presentations.

IT Drone: We don't have the bandwidth right now to support streaming media. All of our resources are prioritized for our Uber-Cloud 9000 app.

Employee: Shoot. This could mean a big sale.

IT Drone: Well, let's see. Does the stream need to be accessible all of the time?

Employee: Yes, they're in Europe and we're not sure when they might want to access it. Besides, I think this would help with all of our international sales.

IT Drone: Well, does it really have to stream? Why don't we just upload video to YouTube and provide links or embed the videos on our web site? I'd need to get the OK from the CIO to create a YouTube channel so we can hook everything together, but that shouldn't be a problem.  Let me shoot him a quick email and I'll get back to you this afternoon. Can you check with Dave over on the web team to see what this would take on their end? If YouTube won't work for him, I'll see what he recommends to make sure we can get the videos out to folks.

Employee: Thanks!

See how easy that was? There are plenty of information technology departments that seek to be collaborative and supportive, working with users to find technical solutions to their problems. However, there are many more who are so mired in SOPs, policies, biases, and long-standing beliefs in user ignorance that they end up being obstructionist and stifling, contributing to the overall status quo of slow-moving and increasingly uncompetitive organizations.

Users don't need to be able to bring in whatever computer or access device they want or install a copy of Photoshop on their company machine just because they have a disk at home. However, if a user needs to bring resources from home or needs Photoshop to do his or her job, then IT needs to find a way to securely and cost-effectively meet their needs, collaborating with management and end users to find good solutions. IT's real value comes from being able to evaluate requirements in the context of the entire enterprise and then find creative, technological solutions to meet those requirements without jeopardizing a company's security or productivity.

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