Options add to end-user complications

End-users will love you for letting them choose desktop hardware, until something breaks

One thread that runs through every important IT decision is control: How do you balance end-user freedom in the IT environment with the need for sane, predictable IT operations? The issue of end-user freedom versus IT control might just be the perennial IT problem. I’m reminded of playwright George Bernard Shaw’s words, “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” One often overlooked way of shouldering this burden on behalf of end-users is to aggressively standardize end-user hardware.

IT can glean valuable lessons about hardware standardization from an unlikely source: Southwest Airlines, one of the most consistently successful and profitable airlines in an otherwise struggling industry. Unlike some of its troubled competitors, Southwest only buys one kind of plane (the Boeing 737), which means that Southwest’s planes are interchangeable when problems occur. Pilots and mechanics need to be trained for only one kind of “hardware,” and tools and spare parts are transferable across all the planes in the fleet. I bet some of the pilots might prefer to fly an Airbus A320, but the benefits of standardization for Southwest as a company outweigh the personal preferences of individual employees. The same logic applies to standardizing end-user hardware in corporate IT.

I have experienced the perils of a willy-nilly hardware strategy firsthand, and it’s messy, ineffective, and downright expensive. When I first arrived at InfoWorld, employees had a choice of laptops from different vendors, which meant several laptop permutations were supported at any one time. The IT staff was confronted with an array of colorful, consumer-grade laptops that incoming employees had seen at their local consumer electronics stores, as well as a smattering of business-class machines. If I’ve learned anything in my career, it’s that some employees treat company-issued laptops more harshly than rottweilers chew toys, so problems occur no matter what model you chose — but not standardizing leaves IT open to all kinds of problems.

With no hardware standard, IT ends up buying too many spare parts for some models and too little for others, leaving the latter down for the count when supplies run low. It’s a lose/lose proposition. Granting freedom of hardware choice might increase the IT department’s “cool” factor in the short run, but employees will be cursing your name a few months down the road. Any glee at “choose your own” devolves into a yearning for reliable, quickly interchangeable systems that have been vetted by someone with serious IT experience.

Another benefit of enforcing standardized hardware is that IT staffers quickly learn where the bodies are buried in a particular hardware line, so even if you’ve standardized on a problematic machine, you can manage the situation. I once had a troublesome batch of IBM ThinkPads that developed uniform power problems several months after purchase. We puzzled over the issue with IBM support the first couple of failures, but after that, we knew exactly what the problem was — and fixes were prompt. Aggravating, yes, but knowing what was wrong saved time.

To me, standardizing end-user hardware is a black-and-white IT control issue. But other areas come in shades of gray. Next week I’ll probe the murkiest area of IT control: the freedom of end-users to choose software.