The ROI on Flexibility

This post originally appeared on the Idealware Blog in April of 2009.

Non Profit social media maven Beth Kanter blogged recently about starting up a residency at a large foundation, and finding herself in a stark transition from a consultant’s home office to a corporate network. This sounds like a great opportunity for corporate culture shock. When your job is to download many of the latest tools and try new things on the web that might inform your strategy or make a good topic for your blog, encountering locked-down desktops and web filtering can be, well, annoying is probably way to soft a word. Beth reports that the IT Team was ready for her, guessing that they’d be installing at least 72 things for her during her nine month stay. My question to Beth was, “That’s great – but are they just as accommodating to their full-time staff, or is flexibility reserved for visiting nptech dignitaries?”

The typical corporate desktop computer is restricted by group policies and filtering software. Management, along with the techs, justify these restrictions in all sorts of ways:

  • Standardized systems are easier, more cost-effective to manage.
  • Restricted systems are more secure.
  • Web filtering maximizes available bandwidth.

This is all correct. In fact, without standardization, automation, group policies that control what can and can’t be done on a PC, and some protection from malicious web sites, any company with 15 to 20 desktops or more is really unmanageable. The question is, why do so many companies take this ability to manage by controlling functionality to extremes?

Because, in many/most cases, the restrictions put in place are far broader than is necessary to keep things manageable. Web filtering not only blocks pornography and spyware, but continues on to sports, entertainment, politics, and social networking. Group policies restrict users from changing their desktop colors or setting the system time. And the end result of using the standardization tools to intensively control computer usage results, most often, in IT working just as hard or harder to manage the exceptions to the rules (like Beth’s 72, above) than they would dealing with the tasks that the automation simplifies in the first place.

Restricting computer/internet use is driven by a management and/or IT assumption that the diverse, dynamic nature of computing is either a distraction or a problem. The opportunity to try something new is an opportunity to waste time or resources. By locking down the web; eliminating a user’s ability to install applications or even access settings, PC’s can be engineered back down to the limited functionality of the office equipment that they replaced, such as typewriters, calculators and mimeograph machines.

In this environment, technology is much more of a controlled, predictable tool. But what’s the cost of this predictability?

  • Technology is not fully appreciated, and computer literacy is limited in an environment where users can’t experiment.
  • Strategic opportunities that arise on the web are not noticed and factored into planning.
  • IT is placed in the role of organizational nanny, responsible for curtailing computer use, as opposed to enabling it.

Cash and resource-strapped, mission-focused organizations only need look around to see the strategic opportunities inherent in the web. There are an astounding number of free, innovative tools for activism and research. Opportunities to monitor discussion of your organization and issues, and meaningfully engage your constituents are huge. And all of this is fairly useless if your staff are locked out of the web and discouraged from exploring it. Pioneers like Beth Kanter understand this. They seek out the new things and ask, how can this tool, this web site, this online community serve our sector’s goals to ease suffering and promote justice? More specifically, can you end hunger in a community with a widget? Or bring water to a parched village via Twitter? If our computing environment is geared to stifle innovation at the cost of security, are we truly supporting technology?

As the lead technologist at my organization, I want to be an enabler. I want to see our attorneys use the power of the web to balance the scales when we go to court against far better resourced corporate and government counsel. In this era of internet Davids taking down Goliaths from the RIAA the the mainstream media, I don’t want my co-workers to miss out on any opportunities to be effective. So I need the flexibility and perspective to understand that security is not something that you maintain with a really big mallet, lest you stamp out innovation and strategy along with the latest malware. And, frankly, cleaning a case of the conflickr¬†worm off of the desktop of an attorney that just took down a set of high-paid corporate attorneys with data grabbed from some innovative mapping application¬†that our web-filtering software would have mistakenly identified as a gaming site is well worth the effort.

Flexibility has it’s own Return on Investment (ROI), particularly at nonprofits, where we generally have a lot more innovative thinking and opportunistic attitude than available budget. IT has to be an enabler, and every nonprofit CIO or IT Director has to understand that security comes at a cost, and that cost could be the mission-effectiveness of our organizations.

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One thought on “The ROI on Flexibility

  1. Judith

    Great post, Peter. You are right on. Our PC’s software and internet access was almost completely locked down until we allowed certain sites like Facebook or blogs to be accessible to employees just a few months ago. While there was a valid concern about bandwidth, we basically locked down almost all sites for our employees… but not for our group, IT (I know how Beth feels!) This lack of innovative thinking and opportunities that you mention was painfully obvious to us when we hired our first CIO, who basically could not get at anything. He would be in my office every 10 minutes asking me if I could get to an article, and of course I could, but none of the “staff” could. He lived with that policy as long as he could without strangling us, but that wasn’t long! A few months later, we also hired a web project manager and had to remove all his group policy restrictions on day two because he would not have been able to do most of his job otherwise! Yet we impose those restrictions on almost everyone else. We’ve since opened up the gates a bit more, but the problem still exists. I think that until our own management and corporate staff understand how to use the web more effectively, they won’t know what everyone is missing. We need to address that by having short training session about basic web2.0 awareness that includes information on HOW to make effective use of the web, using RSS readers, etc. not just “have access” to the web. As an IT department, I feel that’s been missing from our services for a while, and it’s entirely too clear now that we are trying to implement more advanced concepts of social media, without a good general grasp of communication and collaboration tools. If we don’t provide staff with the knowledge they need to make more effective use of the internet, we will not be able to deliver our services as well, or to as many people, as we need to.

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