Stewardship, not ownership: It's time for IT to give up on control

The world has changed since the 1960s' data-processing model, but many IT shops haven't changed with it. A new approach to application, device, and user management is needed

"Improvisation is too good to leave to chance," said singer Paul Simon. It's a lesson that IT needs to learn and, more important, act on.

We're surrounded. Here in the land of information technology, we're inundated by threats and not just from the bad guys, although there are plenty of those to worry about. Never mind them -- protecting the enterprise from its own workers is a much bigger challenge for IT because of employee desires:

[ Rethinking IT's control: Let users install their own apps. Let users pick their own PCs. Let users bring their own smartphones. Learn to let go. | Get the career advice you need for today's IT from Bob Lewis' Advice Line newsletter. ]

Off the Record submissions
  • Using their own PC when they work from home -- and sometimes even at the office.
  • Visiting Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and other sites that have both business and personal uses without any IT-imposed restrictions.
  • Installing apps, such as iTunes, Picasa, InfoSelect, or the Google desktop, they'll find useful based solely on their own judgment.
  • Working with iPhones, iPads, or Androids -- usually their own, not the company's.
  • Accessing some amazing cloud-based service that lets them do right now what isn't even scheduled to launch until 2013 in the IT project master schedule.

All of the above either turns IT in Dr. No or puts the corporate crown jewels at too much risk, right?

Wrong.

As someone once said, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the seventh grade. To keep us all out of middle school, consider the chart below, which superimposes a brief economic history of the United States (based on the unemployment rate as provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) and IT's overall level of control over corporate information technology:

17FE-it-control-end.jpg

The chart tells the story: When IT lost control of information technology as PCs empowered individual users, the U.S. economy expanded; when we regained control, the economy contracted. The same thing happened when someone who almost always wasn't in IT put just about every company in the country on the Web, along with lots of new companies that kept their Web development teams carefully separate from IT -- and when IT regained control of Web development.

Correlation doesn't, of course, prove causation, but the lack of linkage between IT keeping tight control and economic success isn't the best news for those in our profession who spend most of their time locking down plans and details.

Control is about playing it safe -- preventing the unexpected, continuing to do only what we know, avoiding risk instead of managing it, coloring inside the lines instead of asking for a blank sheet of paper. The problem is, many of the risks you avoid are also opportunities you fail to pursue. You also end up becoming a member of the Value Prevention Society.

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