Interview: give staff the keys to IT

Posted by Peter Cochrane on April 10, 2007

Lem Bingley, IT Week, 10 Apr 2007

Perhaps because of a 23-year stretch spent rising through the ranks at BT, Peter Cochrane has little fondness for bureaucratic corporate structures. The opinionated columnist, investor, entrepreneur and consultant calls HR the "human remains" department, for example. "By and large, HR is not relevant to the business," he states. "It will tend to dictate policies appropriate to the Dickensian world."

He also notes that the assignment of corporate resources is often "inversely proportional to need", with directors typically enjoying state-of-the-art laptops while knowledge workers often struggle with slower, outdated PCs.

Such grumbles are not uncommon in business, but some of Cochrane’s other observations are more unexpected, tending to provoke greater surprise and even anger. "The IT department has to go," he asserts. "The vast majority are utterly and irretrievably concerned with the wrong things." He goes on to compare the average IT department to a 1980s typing pool, a resource destined for dissolution. Most are "concerned with upgrading to the next version of Office, when they need to be in knowledge management", he explains.

According to Cochrane, the IT function ought to be a stripped-down provider of centralised data services, rather than continuing to be preoccupied with the details of implementation and support all the way out to the desktop. "Knowledge is not being drawn in to the centre - it’s being allowed to sit on the periphery in PCs and phones. Knowledge management is being neglected because IT departments are not engineering the right systems," he insists, adding that "people in IT tend to be control freaks".

Instead, IT departments should seek to be as useful and adaptable as Google. "How many people love Google? And how many employees love their IT department?" he challenges, recalling how limits on corporate email accounts were made to look absurd when Google’s capacious Gmail service launched in 2004.

Some of Cochrane suggestions may seem like recipes for anarchy. He advises that employees should not be issued with PCs but be given subsidies to buy their own choice of system. Employees should then be able to access the company network from any internet point of presence. "The connection should automatically take care of the machine, in terms of patches, antivirus and data backup," he says. This would clearly be a difficult and time consuming thing to set up, given his suggested no-limits approach to client hardware.

In Cochrane’s view, IT’s current shape is just one symptom of a much wider reluctance to acknowledge disruptive change. He cites the rapid growth of Wi-Fi as an example. "People have a perception that infrastructure improvement is slow - it’s not," he says, adding that "there are 30,000 Wi-Fi networks in London alone, and 20 percent are either open or can be used for a fee". He confesses he cannot comprehend why free Wi-Fi is not even more widespread: "The cost of lighting in a café is greater than the cost of providing Wi-Fi, but nobody makes their customers sit in the dark," he observes.

Cochrane admits that his views tend not to be welcomed too warmly by IT managers - few professionals like to have their livelihood challenged in such a frank manner. But he readily acknowledges that natural selection in the marketplace will weed out firms that don’t do the right thing - whether the right thing resembles his ideas or not.