by Stephanie Overby

Is It Time For Employee-Provisioned Hardware Programs?

Aug 28, 20087 mins
IT Leadership

Employee provisioning of laptops and PDAs is the next logical step in the consumerization of IT. But figuring out the right parameters can be tricky.

A few years back, when Leslie Fiering began talking to IT executives about the potential benefits of employee-owned notebooks in the enterprise, the idea caused “fear, loathing and extreme distress in the hearts of CIOs,” she recalls.

But over the past two years, Fiering, a research vice president for Gartner, has seen the idea pick up steam as an increased number of IT organizations test out employee-provisioned and owned hardware programs, “sometimes by choice, but often by necessity.”

“Employee-owned notebook programs are gaining popularity and are already run by more than 10 percent of organizations,” says Brian Gammage, Gartner vice president and fellow.

It’s the next logical step in the consumerization of IT, say analysts. When people see the new notebook they really want become affordable—and the company has put off that system refresh yet another year—they’re going to get it and find a way to bring it into work. “We get calls from CIOs all the time saying, Help, one of my executives got a MacBook Air. What am I going to do?'”

A program for employee provisioning is one way to gain some control over these issues. It can lead to greater user satisfaction and reduce total ownership costs anywhere from 9 percent to 44 percent, says Gartner. But figuring out the right parameters for a successful employee-owned laptop program can be tricky.

Testing the Waters

At Sunoco, IT leaders were eager “to evaluate the risks and benefits of consumerization in the laptop computer arena,” says Mark Quarles, manager of infrastructure services for the $36 billion energy company: “Specifically, what are the total cost of ownership and manageability impacts of this potential paradigm shift?” Although the company didn’t expect material savings on the hardware, the hope was that ongoing support costs could be reduced.

The infrastructure services group had always provisioned and supported all hardware for the company’s 14,000 employees. So its IT leaders had real concerns about its impacts or risks on the reliability and security in moving to an employee-owned model. But in May, Sunoco took some baby steps toward examining the pros and cons of putting that purchasing power in the hands of its users.

Sunoco’s proof of concept for an employee-provisioning program involved six workers over three months. The infrastructure group told them they could purchase any laptop they liked with a company stipend of $1,400.

A reasonable stipend is a critical aspect of any employee-provisioning program, says Fiering, because it is the only way to ensure that the user will provide a notebook that meets the enterprise performance and security requirements. And Sunoco had more than a few. It issued minimum workstation guidelines, including requirements for Microsoft Vista Business, OSX or Linux distribution, video and USB ports, 100GB hard drive, 2GB of RAM, and LAN connectivity. The program also required that laptops be configured for antivirus software, Microsoft Office 2007 (excluding the Linux laptops), Citrix ICA Client, Windows Update and VPN.

The Sunoco pilot made it the users’ responsibility to acquire, configure and maintain their laptop without IS staff support. Participants documented the processes they followed to configure their laptop as well as the specific applications and access modes (connected to the corporate network or not) they used to do their work, and the end result of their experience with this test.

Results were mixed. “Some participants—around two-thirds—decided they were spending too much time managing their own desktop,” says Quarles. Some were unable to resolve certain issues, like the lack of a full Microsoft Exchange client for Linux systems. Others were completely satisfied.

The employee-owned laptop model increased complexity for users but didn’t reduce total cost of ownership for Sunoco, Quarles says. Ultimately, the infrastructure services group determined there was not a business case for the employee-ownership model, at least not as Sunoco initially envisioned it.

“It was clear that we would be unable to eliminate the entire desktop-support environment,” Quarles says. “Even if you had a complete transition to this model, staff will, at the end of the day, expect that they can turn to internal resources to resolve their [IT] issues.”

Leaders at Sunoco remain open to employee provisioning in the future. “As technologies change the potential issues change or disappear,” says Quarles. “If, over time, the majority of applications can present themselves through a standard Web browser, then you have eliminated the need to install any software on the end-user platform, which should greatly reduce the need for support.”

A Quiet Revolution

Fiering notes that numerous unsanctioned, employee-owned notebooks and desktop PCs are accessing enterprise networks. Recent published surveys have shown the number is considerably higher than anyone, let alone IT, ever imagined. A Gartner user survey found that 30 percent of workers brought unsanctioned devices to the office. So CIOs should at least explore official bring-your-own laptop programs.

IT leaders are reluctant to publicize these efforts. “A lot of them are unsure about it and unsure of the backlash they may face from auditors and others,” says Fiering. Some of the uncertainty is unfounded; IT organizations have dealt with similar issues in giving nonenterprise devices from contractors or partners secure access to their networks. One IT leader at a Fortune 500 company says he cannot talk openly about his forays into employee-provisioned hardware but notes that “when it comes to buying a commodity item, a motivated consumer will invariably get a better deal than an enterprise.”

“It’s still early days,” says Fiering. Self-provisioning tends to work well in small-company environments.

Kearns & West is a public relations and dispute resolution consulting firm with 35 employees and a principal who also oversees information technology. It started a buy-your-own hardware program five years ago, although leaders admit it took a leap of faith to move away from the company-owned model. “We decide to get rid of our depressing laptop graveyard,” says Sharif Ebrahim, a Kearns & West principal. “The program is a success because it lets everyone pick the packages and bundles that best suit their work. The road warriors go with the light laptops, the graphic designers go with the Macs.”

Instead of one IT director making decisions, “50 percent of which are likely to be wrong,” says Ebrahim, the firm’s employees now have newer hardware and software than they would receive by waiting for the next refresh. Kearns & West maintains a few corporate-owned laptops that employees can check out as necessary.

Ultimately, the trend will continue to pick up steam, says Fiering, but it won’t happen overnight. “There are tools for PC virtualization that will allow companies to reach out to noncompany-owned devices with full security. That market is still maturing,” she says. “And frankly, IT organizations need to do more work on the back end with their own networks, policies and decisions about what kinds of users to involve, what kind of equipment they need to buy.” And that will take time.

The Future of Provisioning

Still, employee provisioning of laptops is not for every company. “It can open up large companies to a whole host of issues that keep CIOs up at night,” says Fiering. “I don’t think it will ever be universal. You’re going to have high-security or military-type situations where it just doesn’t make sense.”

Employee provisioning isn’t likely to go away. In fact, cell phones are already the latest IT-sanctioned bring-your-own program. User-owned smartphones and PDAs are often tolerated because they are small and easier to turn a blind eye to, say Fiering and Gammage. But employees use them to access and store company data, so CIOs should consider putting policies in place around such mobile devices.

Motorola says it has deployed a successful mobile self-provisioning process used globally. Employees have provisioned more than 14,000 smartphones in 33 countries, saving the company an estimated $400,000 in annual support costs and eliminating long wait times for employees eager to sync their new device with corporate e-mail.