Managing laptops - what every IT department should know

"IT directors manage by size - they're hypocrites."

"IT directors manage by size - they're hypocrites."

Who gets a laptop at your company? Who chooses its spec? How do you feel about enterprise-connected desktops, laptops, PDAs and phones? Kate Hanaghan on what IT bosses, analysts and individual users have to teach us... Are laptops ever really troublesome, or is it just the people who use them? Whichever way you look at it, the devices and the users must be served by IT directors. Yet these are the same IT bosses who, according to analysts at Gartner, have policies that could well "blow up in their faces". Ken Dulaney is VP of mobile computing at Gartner Group and he argues IT directors are unnecessarily dishing out laptops, porting devices, printers - and more besides - across the whole spectrum of employees. "It's a bad strategy and it's going to fail. The decision [just to let people have whatever they want] is made for the sanity of IT directors but they are compromising the productivity of the user," he told silicon.com. This policy, he claims, also means budgets will spiral out of control - doubling or even tripling. He argues the only way to cut costs is to use a 'cafeteria plan'. This is when employees choose their own benefits package. It's a tactic frequently used for company cars in the UK, allowing employees to take cash for a car of their choice rather than the regular fleet car. But Dulaney hasn't exactly won himself any friends with these suggestions. Frank Coyle, IT director at John Menzies Distribution, is horrified at the idea of losing control of purchasing to specific departments or individuals. Coyle looks after about 300 laptops and explains that "under no circumstances" will users be moving to the cafeteria model. "We have tight control over our laptops and PCs," he insists. "And we don't want employees buying equipment based on favourite colours and designs." At Menzies Distribution, purchase control is the key to avoiding ballooning budgets, Coyle reckons. Colin Darch, IT director at building group Balfour Beatty, speaks for a number of bosses when he says there is only one reason his laptop budget is rising - his company is buying more of them to keep up with demand. Recognising the 'personal domain' Gartner's next criticism concerns IT directors who fail to acknowledge the emergence of 'the personal domain'. Analysts refer to the side-by-side use of the PDA, mobile phone and laptop in the workplace and it means employees need to be treated as individuals to maximise productivity. Dulaney told silicon.com: "IT directors manage by size - they're hypocrites. They manage the heck out of desktops and laptops and view other devices as consumer annoyances. Their policy is one of 'wishful ignorance'." It is true PDAs have increasingly come to be seen as potential security threats and a drain on desktop support resources. Just consider the BBC's approach http://www.silicon.com/a50809 . The laptop as status symbol While some IT directors are putting their foot down when it comes to employee-owned Psions, Palms and iPaqs they also find themselves caught in another very difficult situation. Should they say no to the boss who wants a fantastically equipped machine but doesn't actually need it? The answer has to be yes. Why have a policy if there are random exceptions? Coyle explains the situation at Menzies Distribution: "Some people require laptops - others feel their position warrants it. While most of the board have laptops the problem is middle managers who want the latest model to impress their friends down the pub." The result is a procedure based around users building a strong business case for a laptop, But at other organisations, it's not so difficult to get one. Does an employee at the Ordnance Survey need a watertight case? "Not especially," said Dave Lipsey, IS services and infrastructure manager for the government agency, who has 30 to 40 laptops in his charge. Lipsey is happy to promote as much as possible the use of mobile computing "if someone's reasonably mobile and does a certain amount of work at home". Lipsey argues the productivity gains make the extra investment in the hardware worthwhile. At the other end of the size spectrum, Barkers office supplies is also happy to encourage more people to use them. IT director William 'Chalky' White looks after just five company-owned laptops - one of which is six years old. He told silicon.com: "I'd like to see more laptops in use and more people working from home. However, our company's policy is if you live close enough to the offices you should come in to work - which I find a bit worrying." Good things to say Despite the pushy middle managers who want mega-fast machines and employees who want to sync their hand-helds with their PC and expect to be fully supported, IT directors polled by silicon.com generally had good things to say about end users. For example: - "People are reasonably sensible - not many laptops come back in pieces."
Dave Lipsey, Ordnance Survey
- "In two years, only three laptops out of about 300 have been stolen."
Colin Darch, IT director, Balfour Beatty
- "Apart from the director who managed to break a screen after dropping his laptop, accidents and theft are pretty far and few between."
William 'Chalky' White, IT director, Barkers.
- "People only tend to become disrespectful of laptops when it is their department that is put in charge of purchasing."
Frank Coyle, IT director, John Menzies Distribution Standardisation? Against Gartner's advice of choosing the specification of a laptop to suit the individual, Ordnance Survey is increasingly looking to standardise - not an uncommon policy. From now on Lipsey is only buying laptops that are Bluetooth- and wireless LAN-enabled. He reckons the extra £100 it costs to include this capability in a laptop is money well spent. He said: "We're not trying to be bleeding edge. We're just trying to be practical." It means even light users benefit from some of the newest and most useful technology. Coyle talks of the "false economy" of purchasing a large number of machines differing greatly on specification. It seems employees who want the freedom to choose the laptops they want don't have much of an argument to back up their desires - even if they do seem to take good care of their beloved machines. At the same time, IT departments are slowly realising the future is one of multiple devices and that's their problem as well as an employee's.