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Office IT: One size doesn't fit all?

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Workshop “We are all individuals” – Brian

“I’m not” – computer user

'One size fits all' might be preferable for IT departments, but from an end-user perspective, everybody thinks they have different needs. But choice can be a two-edged sword. I remember way back when, having been put in charge of IT, I was surprised that desktop computers (at the time, Sun SLC and ELC workstations) were arranged in neat rows in what was the equivalent of an old-style computer room, away from the offices and desks of their users. How obvious it was to me that users would be happier to have the workstations on their desks… and how shocked I was to find that the user base pushed back strongly against having those big, noisy, smelly machines on their desks.

Similarly, despite the fact that some users may prefer to install what they like on what they feel is “their” computer, others feel better off when they are working with a fixed, locked-down configuration – there is at least less that can go wrong. But how to decide what approach fits with which type of user?

The answer lies in profiling users. We know from Reg reader studies such as this one (pdf) that users fall into certain categories, and while these may be different for every business they’re not going to be that different. For example, you may have a mix of developers, ops staff and IT architects, general professional users and transaction workers, power users and creative types, and mobile professionals, in varying proportions. If you can map out a standard build for each group, or at least for the majority, then you can treat any exceptions by, ahem, exception.

So far so (theoretically) good, but as we all know, the nature of the universe is that everything will ultimately descend into chaos, including best-laid plans for computer allocation. A number of factors come into play: desktop refresh cycles overlap with changing roles, specific requirements (which can seem all too innocuous) - “I need to be able to watch the sales video” – can scupper the best-laid plans of just a few months before.

Indeed, there may be a point at which the categories themselves need to change. Perhaps your organisation started from the perspective that most staffers needed a laptop and access to a broader range of applications, but in hindsight a more locked-down, desktop-based approach would be more appropriate for office-based staff and management. New technologies, such as the plethora of options offered under the “virtual desktop” umbrella, can open up opportunities to set policies, open some things up and lock others down.

Then, of course, you get the sudden changes in organisational structure, site reorganisations, company mergers and so on which can be the equivalent of ripping up the desktop IT strategy and starting again. How much fun it must be to define a set of capabilities for a certain user group, only to find it is outsourced in its entirety the moment after you press the “buy now” button with two hundred new machines in the shopping basket or the PO lands on the salesman’s desk.

Desktop IT strategy has to strike a balance between getting things right for the IT department, and getting things right from the end-user perspective. Or at least from the end user’s perception of “need”, which may be something completely different. If the traditional rooms full of computer terminals lie firmly at one end of the spectrum, the trend to allow individuals to bring their own PC to work is right at the other. In both cases, some fundamentals need to be observed, which it may be best to enshrine in a short, sweet, enforceable and accepted policy – covering areas such as where data lives, how backups are done, what level of security protection is necessary as a minimum and so on.

Given that things are only going to get more complicated and users more demanding (you can choose your own culprit for that between Apple and Facebook), it’s difficult to see a rosy future for desktop management without being pretty stringent about policy – which needs to be based on user profiles such as those we talk about earlier. It is obvious that such policies must have senior business management buy-in, and very public buy-in at that. You may disagree – indeed, you may feel you’ve got this stuff taped. In which case both we, and the rest of the Reg readership no doubt, would love to know more. ®

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