Gadgets in the gears

There was a time when computers had their place, and the name of the company that dominated the computer business through for its first few decades neatly summed up what that place was. The initials IBM mean International Business Machines, and that’s just what computers were – business machines.

No more. Now computers are in homes, schools, coat pockets – joined by an assortment of other electronic devices. The office isn’t the sole preserve of information technology any more – and in the 21st. century, it is no longer even the place where the latest technology innovations show up first.

Today, interesting new technology often debuts in the consumer market, and only later – if at all – in the office. Consumers pick up machines loaded with the latest hardware and software, download music and video, send instant messages and carry on videoconferences with distant relatives.

All this can put the corporate information technology manager in an uncomfortable position.

Now that memory and disk storage are cheap and plentiful and home PCs come fully loaded with the latest software, employees are starting to ask tough questions like, “Mr. IT manager at work, what are we running Windows 98 for?” says Craig Sands, executive partner in charge of the system integration and technology practice at international consulting firm Accenture in Toronto.

According to Sands, younger employees – especially those who can afford to be picky because their skills are in demand – look at technology tools when they choose among prospective employers.

“That’s one of the things people do ask in interviews,” Sands says. In fact, he says it’s one of the top five criteria in choosing a job.

And what if those expectations raise administrative issues or security concerns? Instant messaging, for instance, is a popular consumer service, but security experts warn that it has to be handled carefully in business.

Tom Slodichak, chief security officer at Burlington, Ont., security firm WhiteHat Inc., says public instant messaging services make it easy for confidential information to leave the company and create a channel for viruses and other malware to get in. He recommends sticking to in-house systems where possible.

But younger people who have grown up with instant messaging are increasingly likely to expect it in the workplace. What’s an IT manager to do?

At the City of Brampton, Ont., more than 10 per cent of the work force use instant messaging regularly. “We can manage it within our environment,” says Chris Moore, the city’s chief information officer, “so why not let them use it? How can you regulate productivity?”

Still, Moore admits, “these types of applications and services keep our security and network group on the move. There is always a new situation to investigate. So far, it is manageable.”

At the Calgary operations of Seitel Inc., a Houston-based company that provides seismic data to oil and gas companies, instant messaging is allowed. Ben Huber, information technology manager for Seitel Calgary, isn’t convinced it provides a lot of business benefit to the company, but “we’ve got a mandate from the president of the company not to be network nazis.”

Technology that’s popular outside the office can be abused, Sands notes. Access to instant messaging or just to the Web at work may lead to people using those tools for personal activities on company time. Accenture tries to discourage this with a message that pops up on office PCs regularly, reminding employees that the tools belong to their employer and are meant for business use.

Employees’ growing familiarity with technology is mostly a boon, says Akhil Bhandari, vice-president of information technology and chief information officer at CCL Industries Inc., a Toronto packaging company. It makes them more receptive to new office technology and to training. However, Bhandari says, that familiarity makes some employees more inclined to tinker with PCs at work.

“You can do all kinds of things with the PC at home,” he says. “At work it may have impact on your key systems.” So employers need policies to make clear to employees what they can and can’t do with office technology.

Huber says the technology employees have at home – such as large flat-screen monitors that have become increasingly affordable in the past few years – have a noticeable influence on what they want at work. However, he says, such expectations are less of a factor in Seitel’s technology purchase decisions than practical business benefits.

“I believe younger employees are expecting that we understand who they are and how they work, no different than our older employees,” Moore says.

And this may be only the beginning. “I believe a time will come when employees arrive at work with their own technology and we will have to secure something we do not control,” Moore says. “Get your head around that, CIOs.”

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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