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In Depth: Is Centralized IT Killing Tech Innovation?

The Apps Will Keep Coming
Google is just one of the many companies offering Web tools that appeal to people at work. Microsoft and Yahoo last week added features to their IM systems, like the ability to share files more easily, that will thrill employees yet terrify some IT teams.

Dave Girouard, general manager of Google Enterprise, insists that consumer technology "is really what's driving information technology today." In a keynote speech at the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium last week, Girouard said business software is built for businesses, but "not for humans." New features only add to IT's complexity and make it "less usable over time to most employees." Business apps require too much training and expertise, he said, contrasting a standard user interface to the Apple iPod's simple one. Self-directed workers need access to information, yet they're stymied by IT silos. And this from the Google guy who's trying to court business IT.

Business software's not built for humans, Dave Girouard says

Business software's not built for humans, Dave Girouard says
"Google doesn't come down on the side of letting people use whatever they want," he said. "Businesses are businesses." But companies must provide more options that let innovative employees work in the way they're most productive. Focus on the end user, Girouard implored business and IT managers, "and all else will follow."

One simple example facing IT departments: Should they offer information workers the option of Web-based word processing tools, like Google Writely? The tools offer features that can make working remotely with a colleague or partner on a project easier, but they haven't been battle-tested for security risk or network impact. Still, a few companies are starting to consider them. In a survey by JupiterResearch, 6% of companies with 100 or more employees say they use a Web-based productivity suite, and that will rise to 9% over the next 12 months.

Employees are only going to keep challenging their IT departments. "The days of IT doling out technology as they see fit are numbered," Gartner VP David Smith says. At information services company Thomson, the use of software as a service to manage financial reporting, purchasing, travel claims, and other processes already has diminished the scope of the IT group's influence, says security architect Ron Ogle.

The transition, however, will take years, not months. Short term, consumer technology in the workplace will increase internal IT requirements because data control and integration across Web applications must be dealt with through on-staff expertise, says Nicholas Carr, author of the iconoclastic "Does IT Matter?" But over the next decade, Carr argues, most corporate IT jobs will go away. "As companies shift to the software-as-a-service model, it means that the infrastructure they're going to have to maintain locally is going to shrink," he says. Ozzie dismissed such predictions as "extremist" and said every company will have a mix of hosted and on-site apps, including software very specific to an individual business.

As far as Keith Martin is concerned, the role of the traditional IT organization hasn't changed. Martin, a director of financial and payroll application development at the University of Houston, says he's still caught up in rolling out enterprise application upgrades. The university spends several hundred thousand dollars a year on Microsoft productivity applications, and Martin says that cost--not great features or employee demand--would be the only reason to replace them with online apps. For many IT pros like him, all this is a nice theoretical debate that crashes against day-to-day realities: They spend 80% or more of their budgets maintaining what they have, and there's scant time, money, or management direction to explore new options.

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Practical Choices
Ron Bonig, deputy CIO of George Washington University, thinks businesses already are reshaping their IT for Web-centric end users, though not necessarily by importing consumer apps. "We use a lot of Web front ends to our ERP systems, so that people don't have the old way of getting to them," he says. "So we're delivering services through the Web as opposed to downloading reports or filling out Oracle forms."

Law firm Keesal, Young & Logan doesn't try to prevent users from bringing in Web tools and apps. Instead, it tries to block potential threats. The firm uses McAfee's security suite to scan all activity at the desktop and Websense's bandwidth optimizer to limit streaming video and audio to a maximum of 30% of the firm's total bandwidth. The goal is to meet security and performance standards while giving employees the freedom to experiment with new technologies, says Justin Hectus, director of information. "Control and structure are important," he says, "but sometimes the best tools are introduced organically."

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