In the first of a series of short, insightful and incisive thought bullets, Dr Graeme Codrington suggests that a significant portion of your IT department should be shut down.  Let your people purchase and manage their own technology, engage more effectively with your younger staff, take advantage of recent advances in IT – and save money at the same time.  It’s just a thought…

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One of corporate life’s little joys is the internal rivalry between different departments and line functions. We each think our area of the business is the most important, and is being hamstrung or misunderstood by all the others.  But some departments seem to receive more than their fair share of derision (HR, Compliance and IT spring to mind).  In some cases it’s undeserved, but I fear that in many companies IT is out of control.

I need to declare my interest in this topic. For much of the 1990s, I was involved in growing an IT startup company that offered solutions development and training. I wrote the exams to qualify as an MCSD (Microsoft Solutions Developer), and freelanced as a web designer and end user solutions developer (in VB, VBA and SQL if you’re interested).  I was also involved in the early stages of developing CAATs (computer assisted auditing techniques) whilst an articled clerk at KPMG.

I do have both understanding and sympathy for IT departments, but I also think it’s time for a shake up.  It’s not the people I am talking about – the issue is with the system itself.  You might want to take a look at Harvard Business Review’s blog on eight things executives hate about IT, to see what I mean.

The first (and most important) change I’d recommend for the IT department relates to end user hardware supply and support.  This is the bane of the IT department’s lives.  The whizzkids in IT (assuming you have some) didn’t join the IT industry so they could hand out laptops and mobile phones, answer support calls on how to get a Blackberry to synch with the company’s mail server, or to handle the admin related to laptop repairs.  We need to simply stop making this IT’s problem.  IT should not have any responsibility for desktops, laptops, end user software, mobile phones or digital accessories.

We don’t supply people with clothes to wear at work – we just expect them to be suitably dressed (and even enforce dress code policies).  We don’t supply our staff with watches, but we do expect them to be on time.  We don’t send taxis to pick them up from home every day – we just expect them to get to and from work on their own.  And if their car breaks down, it’s not our problem – they have to both get it fixed and still get to work on their own (and on time).  So why do we supply people with mobile phones and laptops?

Your people should be given specifications and told to get their own equipment. They should insure it themselves and take out their own repair contracts if they want to.  You might even consider taking the money you save by downsizing IT in this way and simply pay this out to each staff member to cover their costs.  In fact, when we’ve done this as an exercise at clients, it has been obvious that the savings in IT costs are more than enough to give staff a cash payment to do it themselves.  Everybody wins.

And don’t let IT tell you it can’t be done.  Computers are more compatible than they’ve ever been, as is software.  Cloud computing will improve this even more.  This is both possible and desirable.

The second change relates to usage policies.  Many companies restrict access to certain websites (such as social networking sites, YouTube, etc) and block emails being sent to competitors.  Unless there is some genuine technical reason to do this (and the only one I can think of is bandwidth problems), it is ridiculous for IT to impose such draconian one-size-fits-all policies.

And, let’s be honest, in most companies, people get around these blockages anyway.  People use their own Gmail accounts to send emails, requisition for a 3G dongle for their laptop so they can surf the web without going through the company gateway, or simply use one of the numerous mirror sites to get access to Facebook and other sites anyway.  In other words, the policies don’t work at a technical level.  The fact that most of them are ill conceived in the first place is a moot point.

The third issue is just a small bugbear of mine, but I’ll take the opportunity to put it out there: sort out your spam filters and spam procedures.  Most company spam filters are much too stringent and block too many emails.  Worse still, most do not inform the intended recipient that an email has been blocked.  This creates a really bad impression for people struggling to communicate with a client or supplier.

For example, a large banking client of ours allows no emails with image attachments to go through its firewall.  The problem is that outgoing emails from the bank convert the embedded bank logo into an image attachment.  When you reply to the email the bank’s own logo gets attached to your reply and then gets blocked by their own email filter.  How dumb is that?

Finally, I’d like to see the IT department reporting differently.  The CIO can report to the Board and senior management on core IT infrastructure issues.  But IT should also be directly accountable to whoever is responsible for branding, customer service and staff engagement.  The branding and customer facing focus is obvious, as this is often where clients and customers interface with the company (websites, computer systems, call centres, etc).

The staff engagement issue is less obvious.  Increasingly, we’re hearing that young talented people are completely frustrated by the IT policies, hardware and software they have to work with in their organizations.  In some cases, this is becoming a deal breaker for them, and a reason to leave their current jobs.  As the recession ends and talent becomes mobile again, you don’t want outdated and frustrating IT to be the reason your bright stars leave.  Whoever is responsible for this needs to take IT much more seriously than they currently do.

The IT department is integral to most businesses and vital for their success and smooth operation.  But most IT departments have too much power, manage too many things, and do not provide adequate support for the businesses they serve.  It is in their best interests as well as the best interests of the company to sort this out sooner rather than later.  The steps above will not solve everything, but they’re a good start.  This is not a fully worked out IT policy review.  It’s just a thought.

Dr Graeme Codrington is a future trends analyst with TomorrowToday, a strategy consultancy he co-founded.  He is an author, researcher, keynote presenter and expert on the new world of work.  He can be contacted at [email protected]

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