Why the CIO hates Christmas

Ian Gotts

There are many reasons to dislike Christmas: the endless advertisements that start running almost as soon as summer's out, the shops that play non-stop Christmas carols (or "I wish it was Christmas" by Slade), and the company Christmas Party, which British TV personality Jeremy Clarkson once described as "the damp log in the fire, the mould on the smoked salmon, the advertisement in the Queen’s speech".

But, for Chief Information Officers everywhere there's a threat that is far, far worse.

The sales and marketing departments of consumer electronics companies around the world have gone into overdrive working up consumer anticipation to fever pitch for their latest technical wizardry. They promise that their gadget will change the world, save more time than ever, make you more attractive to the opposite sex... all with unparalleled battery life.

So what is the issue? These are consumer devices targeting consumers.

Sadly, the line between consumer and business was finally swept away by Apple. Apple has managed to penetrate business by providing devices that are the electronic equivalent to jewellery. Customers buy them with their own money and then taken them into work. Once inside the building, these consumers cleverly turn into business people and demand that the IT department make their Apple iThingy connect to the corporate network.

Now, please don’t think that I am an Apple bigot. I own multiple Apple devices, love their engineering (hardware and software) and applaud their marketing flair. But the IT Departments of most corporations in the Western world have designed their desktop strategy around Windows and developed support desk skills sets to support PCs, not Apple Mac, iPad and iPhone.

Now if it were just a Windows/ Apple duopoly it would be manageable. But it is not. There are a slew of new smartphones being launched running at least 4 different operating systems, each with their own proprietary approach for connectivity for email and browsing. Then a "bottle" (if that is the collective term) of tablets are being launched with differing screen sizes (7", 8.9", 10" and 11.9") again running a mix of operating systems. And finally there are new laptops, netbooks and Macbooks. Sorry, I forgot the Kindle and book readers that will read PDFs.

These devices will be arriving in pockets and briefcases on Wednesday 29th December. They would have arrived earlier but Monday and Tuesday are public holidays (at least in Britain). Everyone of them is WiFi enabled, has a browser and some email software. And each is a potential support nightmare and security breach waiting to happen.

The hardware manufacturers are desperate to differentiate so they are looking to their software UI to provide that killer edge. You thought Facebook was a "time-suck" for your support guys. That will be nothing compared with trying to figure out how to make each device authenticate on the network, sync emails or hit the web. Each will inevitably be different. Not different by operating system. Not different by manufacturer. But every device will be different.

So what is your response as CIO?

The simple answer is "No. I gave you a perfectly serviceable PC running Windows XP or Win7, and a smart phone. Use it."

Most IT departments have a pretty rocky relationship with their business colleagues. This approach is likely to drive the rift even deeper at a time when a closer relationship is going to be even more critical to address a far large challenge to the business – the Stealth Cloud.

But a blanket "Yes" is likely to open the floodgates and with it the corporate IT strategy will be flushed away forever.

The good news is that this is a disaster that you know is going to happen. You even know when it is going to happen, and where. So you can plan. You have time. Whether you have the resources is not the question. Every hour spent now could save you ten after 29 December.

So here are a set of actions:

Firstly, what is your policy on mobile devices and the cloud? It is written down anywhere? Can you take a copy of another company and modify it rather than start for scratch? My suggestion it needs to cover at a minimum which devices are supported, who pays for the device and associated data packages, use of the device, data security, how and what applications can be loaded, what support is available (eg only sync, email, browser but no other apps). What are the commercial and technical risks as these will determine the policies. But beware of being too draconian. Make sure that the policy can be defended as reasonable and will you have support from line of business and HR execs.

Next, what is the process that someone has to follow to get their device validated and connected? How much of this can be made self servicing to reduce your support load, with links to FAQ, policy and good 3rd party support websites. Hint: map this process out with ALL the stakeholders before you start building websites or applications. Hey – maybe this is a chance to show how responsive you are and a chance to try out some cloud based approach. Building the site/app could be the perfect Xmas project for a bright graduate or an intern. Perhaps, you could record some short YouTube-style help videos to augment the site.

How are you going to get up to speed on the technical side? What skills do you need? The first step (Policy) and the second (Process) will determine skills required and what is available.

Finally, can you estimate the demand now both in terms of resourcing but also on the infrastructure? With a slew of new wifi enabled devices connected what will this do to your network. Does this change the policies or approach you advocate user follow? You can only guess.

Perhaps having the team attend the company Christmas Party might be a good idea. At least you can start to find out what people are expecting to get for Christmas and with a glass of fizz in their hand they are more likely to tell you.

Just don’t start the conversation with "I’m from IT and I’m here to help". They are more likely to believe that Father Christmas exists than that.