Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Unchain office computers?

Yesterday, I was pointed to an article written by Farhad Manjoo on Slate titled Unchain the Office Computers! Apparently, Mr. Manjoo has never been responsible for maintaining a corporate network. For example, at the beginning of the article, he writes that people are less productive because
...at work they're stymied by the IT department, that class of interoffice Brahmins that decides, ridiculously and capriciously, how people should work.
By this, he seems to mean that IT is "ridiculous" and "capricious" because people some IT departments block people from installing whatever programs they want. This comment, which is itself ridiculous, reveals a large amount of ignorance. For example, on a Windows-based network, doing what Mr. Manjoo suggests requires giving all users Administrator-level control of their computers. Microsoft's official documentation says this is a bad idea and gives the reasons why. I can vouch for this with personal experience: I used to work in a large networked environment back in the Windows NT 4.0 days (1998-2000) where everyone had Administrator access, and the help desk team I worked with spent most of our day fixing user mistakes that would have been prevented if the users didn't have Administrator access. I fail to see how this will somehow increase productivity. I would argue that, in most cases, there will be a net productivity loss, particularly with unskilled users.

Mr. Manjoo's second mistake is in confusing the above issue (blocking program installation) with blocking Internet access. These are two separate issues for an organization, and should be addressed as such. He complains that all IT restrictions are arbitrary, but sometimes there's no nefarious intent by IT to prevent people from doing something--for example, suppose IT installs Internet monitoring software, but the monitoring software's default settings are too restrictive. Yes, this is a mistake IT should rectify, but my point is that not all Internet access blockages are intentional. In addition, sometimes it's simply user error. For example, I have heard complaints that "IT is blocking my web site" when in fact the user was typing an invalid web address.

My advice to Mr. Manjoo is not to write about an IT topic until he is properly informed about it. I wonder if he took the time to interview IT managers to find out the reasons for his complaints? (My guess is that he probably didn't.) Writing an uninformed article that confuses two broad issues (blocking program installation and blocking web sites) doesn't do anyone any favors and has the effect of unfairly casting IT in a bad light.

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