When Leslie Fiering began talking to IT executives about the potential benefits of employee-owned laptops 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 speed as IT organisations test out employee-provisioned and owned hardware programs, “sometimes by choice, but often by necessity”.

It’s a logical step in the consumerisation of IT, say analysts. When people see the 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?’” says Brian Gammage, Gartner vice president and fellow.

A programme 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 between anywhere from nine per cent to 44 per cent, says Gartner. But figuring out the right parameters for a successful staff-owned laptop programme can be tricky.

At Sunoco, IT leaders were eager “to evaluate the risks and benefits of consumerisation in the laptop computer arena”, says Mark Quarles, manager of infrastructure services for the energy company. “Specifically, what are the total cost of ownership and manageability impacts?” 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 Sunoco’s 14,000 employees, so its IT leaders had real concerns about 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 $1400 (£890).

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 Windows Vista Business, Mac OS X or Linux distribution, video and USB ports, 100GB hard drive, 2GB of RAM, and LAN connectivity. The programme also required that laptops be configured for antivirus software, Microsoft Office 2007 (excluding the Linux laptops), Citrix’s ICA Client, Windows Update and VPN.

The Sunoco pilot made it the users’ responsibility to acquire, configure and maintain their laptop without IT staff support. Participants documented the processes they followed to configure their laptop as well as the specific applications and access modes they used to do their work.

Results were mixed. “Some participants 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.

Overall, the 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 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.”

Unsanctioned access

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

IT leaders are reluctant to publicise 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 organisations have dealt with similar issues in giving non-enterprise devices from contractors or partners secure access to their networks. One IT leader at a Fortune 500 company says that “when it comes to buying a commodity item, a motivated consumer will invariably get a better deal than an enterprise”.

If anything, 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 IT. It started a buy-your-own hardware programme five years ago, although leaders admit it took a leap of faith to move away from the company-owned model.

“We decided to get rid of our depressing laptop graveyard,” says Sharif Ebrahim, a Kearns & West principal. “The programme is a success because it lets everyone pick the packages 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 per cent 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.

The trend will continue to pick up steam, says Fiering, but it won’t happen overnight. “There are tools for PC virtualisation that will allow companies to reach out to non-company-owned devices with full security. That market is still maturing,” she says.

“And frankly, IT organisations 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,” she adds.

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 situations where it just doesn’t make sense.”

Employee provisioning isn’t likely to go away. In fact, mobile 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 global mobile self-provisioning process. Employees have provisioned more than 14,000 smartphones in 33 countries, saving the firm an estimated $400,000 (£253,000) in annual support costs and eliminating long wait times for employees eager to sync their new device with corporate email.

Related articles:

How CIOs can enable power users