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In Depth: Is Centralized IT Killing Tech Innovation?

Internet activist and entrepreneur John Gilmore once declared, "The Net treats censorship as a defect and routes around it." Today, that's how many employees view their IT departments.

Widespread user adoption of familiar, often free consumer-oriented Web tools has left IT professionals scrambling to balance permissiveness and paternalism. Fact is, workers like consumer technologies--whether instant messaging, E-mail from Yahoo or Microsoft with abundant storage, information-sharing sites, or handy Web apps--often better than the tech tools their companies prescribe. At the same time, employees shouldn't be allowed to download the latest Google beta just because they can. System security and management are still critical considerations, often with legal and regulatory teeth behind them.

But if IT pros are seen only as "The Ones Who Say No," they risk surrendering their roles as innovators. Such a posture also has serious economic consequences. Only 6% of U.S. companies say they want to lead in adopting newer technologies, compared with 15% in Europe and 19% in China, according to an Accenture survey of more than 500 companies and government agencies. Seventy-five percent of Chinese companies are committing a major part of their business to Web services, compared with less than half of U.S. and European companies. The risk: Companies in emerging markets will have systems that let them adapt to change faster, while U.S. companies pour their money into fortifying older systems.

Don't fear user-friendly apps, Ray Ozzie advises

Don't fear user-friendly apps, Ray Ozzie advises

Photo by Robert Spencer/AP
Ray Ozzie rang this bell at Microsoft's Tech-Ed 2006 conference, days before he was named the company's chief software architect earlier this month. Ozzie challenged IT pros to redefine their oversight role to reflect the blurring of boundaries between the enterprise and the outside world, between personal and professional computing. "IT's requirements needn't be inconsistent with end users' desires," he said.

Given the consequences of losing control--most worrisome, a security breach--most IT pros aren't eager to stoke this debate inside their companies. But it's raging whether they're involved or not. "Central IT's getting out of control," fumes one software developer at a major public company, citing the difficulty running several computers in his office. "It takes an act of Congress to get them all on the network. To get around the issue we have put hubs in our offices, and whenever we need IT support we hide them."

But rules and controls exist for a reason. In a discussion on the InformationWeek Weblog, a business owner says he found that 60% of his bandwidth was being hogged for personal use, such as streaming music and video. "Then IT and senior management are branded evil because we turn off streaming video and streaming radio and whatnot," he writes. "But there are real, tangible costs involved."

The proper length of leash differs for every company, but IT teams must ask themselves if they're giving employees enough room to maneuver. For example, instead of blocking Web sites using filtering software, they can let people who need wide-ranging information have unfettered access, but with the knowledge that filters will report whether they visit potentially inappropriate sites and will even alert managers. They can accept that instant messaging is here to stay and work with vendors like FaceTime or IMlogic to secure it.

If employees are bringing in Google Desktop to search across E-mail, Web, and desktop files, and the IT organization bans it for security or manageability reasons, the conversation shouldn't end there. There's a lesson in every rogue Web application employees bring in, says Brad Shipp, VP of IT for Cox New England, a unit of broadband services company Cox Communications. "Find out why that Web app is being used, because it's obviously filling some kind of need that IT isn't meeting," Shipp says. "They're all red flags, but they're also opportunities for doing something better."

Veterans will see in this a timeless debate over the role of centralized versus decentralized IT management. Mainframes meant centralization, client-server brought decentralization, which brought enough mayhem to spark "recentralization." Do we need to cook up some new jargon--employee-centric centralization? Whatever it takes, consumer technology's forcing this debate, and IT teams must take it on.

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