What's more, many remote employees have become plenty adept at supporting themselves -- by and large because they have to. For problems beyond their abilities, there's not all that much difference from their perspective between calling a hardware or software vendor and ringing the corporate help desk. Many office workers have the basics down as well for getting online, installing applications, and setting up wireless networks and shared printers.
Resnick argued that empowering workers will not only make them more productive but help them contribute to the organization in other ways. "It sends a clear message that management views its knowledge workers as partners, not as adversaries or, at best, necessary evils," he said. "I believe that this would go far in motivating employees to work harder and to align their goals with those of their organizations. I think this would be huge."
Google CIO Douglas Merrill concurred. "Companies should allow workers to choose their own hardware," Merrill said. "Choice-not-control makes employees feel they're part of the solution, part of what needs to happen."
And the ability for users to self-manage their PCs is only getting easier as hardware vendors are working toward essentially standardized PCs, no matter whose label is on the box.
"Bottom line: The technology exists," Resnick said, "[But] IT has no interest in it because their management approach is skewed heavily toward mitigation of perceived risks rather than toward helping their organizations move forward."
DIY IT in the 21st century
Few companies have taken the radical step of letting users buy and manage their own PCs. But that may be changing. As noted, Google is already practicing it on a company-wide basis, and BP is piloting the idea.
At Google, workers can choose from about a dozen PCs available in its internal tool dubbed, appropriately enough, Stuff, which includes options running Windows, Mac OS, and Linux.
While 90 percent of hardware acquisitions are conducted through the tool, workers are not necessarily limited to the systems that Stuff presents. "We also have a mechanism for choosing some pretty strange" hardware and software configurations, Merrill said.
Although Google probably pays more per machine than if it went with, and leaned heavily on, a single supplier, Merrill noted that "there's no business downside, and there's the productivity upside ... we're clearly getting a higher productivity out of employees." Merrill also is "able to run a leaner IT shop."
In BP's case, one of its consultants projected that Digital Allowance, the name of the pilot program under which employees choose their own tools and rely on an external help desk service for provisioning support, could save the company up to $200 million a year in IT support costs, a spokesman said. Still, the Digital Allowance pilot program is skewed to a tech-savvy employee subset. These teams are "at the geekier end" of BP's 100,000-strong workforce, he added.
Analyst firm Gartner predicted in a recent report that "by 2010, end-user preferences will decide as much as half of all software, hardware and services acquisitions made by IT." The research firm cited "the ubiquity of the browser interface" as having made computing approachable enough so that "individuals are now making decisions about technology for personal and business use."