As IT departments expand control, new clashes emerge

Should IT departments have absolute power over all business technology?

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LAS VEGAS -- Should IT managers control all aspects of a company's technology, including the choice of cell phones used by employees for businesses, specialized manufacturing systems and the high-performance computers used by researchers?

For sure, the control exerted by IT departments has expanded as enterprisewide initiatives such as data center consolidations, virtualization and data integration have taken technology control away from business units. But conflict continues over the limits of that type of centralized management, according to IT managers and analysts at the Gartner Symposium/ITexpo here.

Colleen Young, a Gartner Inc. analyst, argued for strong centralized control at a forum here. Allowing research and development organizations to make all their own IT decisions, for instance, is just as much a mistake as letting business units go their own way on technology purchases, she said.

"It will become very clear, very, very quickly that they lack managerial expertise," Young said of researchers, warning that they may lock their businesses into poor deals and technologies.

But Kristine Blanz, who manages IT in an engineering research group at a manufacturer she asked not be named, said her company uses a decentralized approach. Currently, her organization isn't part of corporate IT; this approach is under reconsideration, and Blanz said she is worried about the effect of centralization.

"If we get wrapped up into the whole corporate IT [department], the needs of engineering get missed, because what a marketing person needs is not what engineering needs," said Blanz. What could be lost is "the ability of engineers to innovate," she said.

Kristian Steenstrup, a Gartner analyst who took an opposing view in a debate with Young, said centralized control for IT departments is an impossible goal to achieve. He cited examples of technologies that will be outside of IT control, including technologies used by engineers, SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems, consumer technologies that are also used at work and even the concept of cloud computing, which gives users access to services outside the company network.

"There is a lot of technology in your organization ... that will be outside your control," said Steenstrup.

Allen Benson, an IT manager at a retailer he declined to identify, took the middle ground. His company recently moved control of its cell phone and mobile devices back into the IT department.

Benson said his firm had turned over management of these devices to the purchasing department, which allowed employees to "buy everything and anything" when it came handheld devices or cell phones. As a consequence, the IT department was getting requests for e-mail access on mobile platforms it didn't support.

Benson said his general rule on deciding what to control and what not to control is based on whether the technology uses the corporate network. If engineering, for instance, is using an advance technology that requires no internal development and is dependent on the vendor, Benson says they will leave those stand-alone systems to that department. "We really don't want to grab them unless we have to," he said.

Diane Morello, a Gartner analyst, said IT is best off focusing on creating a few standards, particularly for consumer devices, to allow flexibility.

"It's about creating the framework for coordinating freedom without imposing lock-down control," said Morello.

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