Why Don’t IT Departments Give Employees More Freedom?

Posted by Gary Hamel on November 16, 2009

Do you feel hamstrung by your company’s IT policies? Are the IT tools you have at home more up-to-date than ones you’re forced to use at work? Do you wish you had more control over your IT environment at work? If so, you’re not alone.

In his recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, Nick Wingfield dared to question the totalitarian policies of the average corporate IT department–and boy-oh-boy does he make some good points.

How is it that employees can be trusted to take care of important customers, safeguard expensive equipment and stay within their budgets, but can’t be trusted to use the Web at work, choose their own IT tools, or download programs onto the workplace PCs? Do IT staffers really believe that conscientious, committed employees turn into crazed, malicious hackers when you give them a bit of freedom over their IT environment? Or are the nerds in IT all secret control freaks—the sort of folks who alphabetize their DVD collections and have separate drawers for different-colored socks and put on protective clothing before pounding a nail? Either way, if they had the budget, they’d probably hire hall monitors.

Some IT folks might argue in their defense that standardization helps to keep IT costs down—but so would having only one item on the menu in the corporate canteen. If leading edge IT tools are, as many claim, essential to unleashing human creativity, why would any company force all of its employees to use the same computers, phones and software programs? This makes no more sense than forcing every painter in the world to use the same 24 by 36-inch canvas and No. 8 paint brush, irrespective of the scale and style of the particular painting. Sadly, though, this sort of logic doesn’t cut much ice with bureaucrats, who will always vote for control over freedom—after all, if you actually trusted people to make wise choices, bureaucrats wouldn’t have much to do. Nevertheless, IT professionals need to spend less time trying to enforce technology standards and more time trying to make sure that every employee has access to the world’s best tools.


Part of the answer is in your blog

You ask "If leading edge IT tools are, as many claim, essential to unleashing human creativity...". To which I need to ask "would that be the vendors of the software making those claims?" There are good tools out there and there's a lot of fly-by-night junk. Just how many word processors does a company need to unleash human creativity? And if you had more than one, the chances that files would not be sharable between them would be pretty high. So now everyone needs to have a copy of every tool. And know how to use them. And be able to call the help desk and get answers for all of them. And all of that costs a lot of money. Then the CFO says IT must lower costs, so IT negotiates with a handful of companies to get the minimum set of software to meet most peoples' needs. Yes there are some really good tools out there. And many companies will arrange to acquire software that is truly needed and does make a difference to the bottom line.

Regarding viruses and malware, there's a lot of bad stuff out there just waiting to be downloaded and run inside companies. And there's more every day. A lot of it comes from innocent-looking web sites. Visit (the SANS Internet Storm Center) to read up on the latest bad news. (It's safe, trust me). Anti-virus tools are only as good as the vigilance of the maker and the speed with which your company can update every desktop. It's a tough job to keep companies safe. A friend of mine was on CNN for a story on hacking. His company does testing of company defenses and he was asked if they've ever not been successful breaking in. His answer: we always win. All companies need to weigh worker freedoms against the risk of hacker attack. Successful attacks can severely damage a company's operation, possibly kill it. The worst attack is the one you don't even know is happening. Do you know which software you downloaded has something bad in it? Are you sure?

A few months ago I read about a game developer who had written and released a free game to the Internet. It had been downloaded over 100,000 times. He was approached by someone over the Internet who offered him 40 cents per download if he'd insert some special code into his game. He said "no". I hope every other game developer has also said "no".

There's only so much IT can do to protect the company's infrastructure. Letting every employee buy, download and install whatever software they feel like is a disaster waiting to happen.

I agree with your Management 2.0 concepts though. Great stuff!

- dave


I definitely had a different view of your perspectives until I read this. I am cautious when I am asking this: Do you understand that in most organiztions, IT is a service / cost center i.e. is executing to the strategies (related to cost; SG&A spending as a % revenue etc.) set by the same management that you are trying to transform ..... but for some reason, I get this feeling that you sound like a users' hands are tied by the IT. Maybe you had a 'rotten apple' experience and are trying to generalize :)

Also, you might want to review (independent, 3rd party)security experts' findings on vulnerabilities caused by "insiders" rather than hackers. On a lighter note, maybe you will take my word for it.

I am still an avid follower of your 'messages'.

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