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Whose notebook is it anyway?

Essential or luxury

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Workshop For some, the freedom and flexibility of a laptop PC is essential to getting the job done. For others, having the latest piece of mobile kit is perhaps more of a luxury, or even, dare we suggest, just a status symbol. Either way, there is no disputing the shift in emphasis from desktop to portable machines in a business context.

And there is no getting away from the psychological difference between ‘having the use of’ a desktop PC at work and ‘being given’ a laptop as part of your job. People have no difficulty in recognising that the box under their desk belongs to the company they work for, but when they are issued with a business laptop, it somehow becomes ‘theirs’.

This has implications in terms of how the machine is used and what is installed upon it. We shall return to this theme from a support and management perspective in a later article. In the meantime, it is interesting to consider how the personal dimension does or should affect the way in which laptop PCs are selected and procured. The big question here is around user involvement in the decision-making process.

To address this question, we must first review how needs and wants differ between users and the IT department.

Thinking about the user view first, those having to live with their PC on a day to day basis of course want it to be able to do the job, that is, run their applications well. But they are also likely to care about style, brand, size, weight, battery life, media capability, and so on – sometimes for practical reasons, sometimes to project the ‘right’ image, and sometimes because of their lifestyle and personal interests.

This is a challenge, as views of what’s important will vary enormously, not just between different types of user, e.g. sales account managers versus service engineers versus senior managers, but also within individual user constituencies. If you were to ask ten members of the management team for their opinion on key features and attributes, you would probably end up with as many different answers.

This is fuelled by a combination of the diversity that is so evident in the market today through advertising, the media and, not least, in consumer retailing. Visit any major electrical retail store nowadays and you will see everything from functional desktop replacements, through media centric machines, to ultra-portable notebooks. The more recent emergence of the netbook category of device adds another option to covet.

Against this background, if you were to let users take the lead on notebook PC procurement you would end up with a very mixed estate indeed. This brings us on to the needs and wants of the IT department.

As far as IT is concerned, the primary considerations are maintenance, support, security, compliance and, ultimately, cost. Here is the rub, as IT requirements are almost diametrically opposed to user desires. In an ideal world, IT professionals would have as much consistency as possible across the notebook PC estate they manage. This makes everything easier, more predictable and cheaper to deal with – quite the opposite of the natural state of affairs that would result if users are given free rein.

The way this plays out varies immensely between organisations. Where budgets are centralised and IT is able to rule with an iron fist, then perhaps a policy of ‘you get what you are given’ is possible. Even when this approach is the default, you still hear about IT frustration when a politically strong group such as the sales organisation (at least after a couple of quarters of strong performance) demands something different. Then you have those tricky conversations when a senior executive wanders into your office and asks you to order up one of those sexy ultra-portable machines that he saw demonstrated to him up at the golf club last night over a malt whisky.

At the other extreme to the centralised model, some ‘progressive’ organisations are embracing the principle of ‘consumerisation’. This boils down to accepting that you can’t fight the degree to which employees are influenced by their personal computing and communication activities, which raises their expectations of both capability and choice, so you might as well run with it.

In smaller organisations in which laptop procurement tends to be funded out of departmental business budgets, something akin to this model is often the default. But if you do it properly, you have to gear up your policies and procedures to handle the increased complexity from an IT perspective, and accept that things like volume purchase agreements, warranty terms, supplier SLAs, etc, as well as overall costs, are more challenging to manage.

For most organisations, the answer probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. But what are the practicalities? Should IT take user input on board but remain in control, perhaps defining a standard list of machines that provides some choice but ensures that IT requirements met? Is it practical to take choice a step further and define a standard but generic set of specifications against which proposed purchases are qualified for approval? Or perhaps you believe that one of the more extreme approaches is appropriate.

Let us know your thoughts and experiences, and, indeed, any advice you might have for those struggling to manage the way in which user expectations are changing out there.

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