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Why the cloud won't empty your office just yet

Posted on 18 Mar 2011 at 12:00

Steve Cassidy somehow resists the temptation to heckle the "empty building" brigade at the WorkTech conference

I'm not being mawkish when I pass on these sentiments from my father as he held forth to us, his family, on the occasion of his 90th birthday last December. This was his big chance to spill the beans on all of us, hopefully to the amusement of his grandchildren and bemusement of his great-grandchildren.

When my turn came, the secret he revealed wasn’t so much of a surprise as I’d expected. Apparently, Mr and Mrs Cassidy were once called into my junior school by the headmistress, who left them with this singular conundrum: “I think he’s wonderful,” she gushed. “Brightest chap we’ve seen here in years. The thing is, his teachers hate him” (this will come as no surprise to the PC Pro team, I’m sure). My puzzled parents pressed for an explanation. What was he doing? Chronic lateness? Bad at maths? “Oh no,” said the head. “He won’t let anyone else answer any of the teacher’s questions!”

Nobody suddenly stops dead in the water when they need to copy an email to a friend, so what is it that happens to these home users once they walk through the doors of the workplace?

This is a tendency that returned to tempt me when I was attending the recent WorkTech conference at the British Library. I’ve blogged already about the frankly mind-boggling advice given by this worthy panel, who seemed to honestly believe that the days of wires inside buildings are over, but that isn’t the point I’m thinking of here. The point where Cassidy Senior’s anecdote about Cassidy Junior’s childhood popped into my mind came when Dave Coplin of Microsoft started talking.

His topic was “the self-service computing model”. WorkTech was a very highfalutin day that started off with Edward De Bono casually throwing around concepts such as the EBNE business (“Excellent, but not enough” – a rather chilling concept), moving on to a chap called Charles Leadbeater, who wanted to talk about the way that buildings impose restrictions on the types of work that can be done inside them. I managed to keep my lifelong heckler’s twitch under control throughout all this commentary, since I was well aware that the last thing any of these worthy types had ever had to do was to actually take responsibility for their concepts in the unlikely event they made any difference to a company.

Then Coplin took to the stage. Straight down to earth and no messing, his point was a modern version of that old joke about all the blokes you knew at school who failed Maths CSE but now can’t be dragged out of the betting shop. Coplin’s update is that nobody sits at home complaining they need training whenever Tesco changes the design of its website. Similarly, nobody suddenly stops dead in the water when they need to copy an email to a friend, so what is it that happens to these home users once they walk through the doors of the workplace? Suddenly, according to Coplin, they’re treated like children.

Never before have I managed to hold my tongue in a lecture theatre, with such a large audience, against such a strong compulsion to heckle. Coplin’s observations (and they were real, unlike the largely philosophical predictions of the other speakers) were difficult to ignore. His pithiest example of self-service computing was the group of users who became so annoyed with their IT department that they bought their own wireless access point on the company credit card and set it up themselves. Coplin argued that it’s crazy to ignore the skill levels that are already deeply embedded in the workforce, not from their formal training but by their “digital lives” at home.

The issue that set me thinking was just about the least technical matter I’m likely to be able to cover in this column and still remain within the brief. What if Papa Cassidy’s little story about my need to get to the answer in front of all the other kids in the class was in fact a reflection of the darker nature of user support? Most of the techies I know show very distinct similarities in the way they approach problems, the most obvious being frustration with the way other people (especially their users) respond to the process of diagnosis or information transfer. And I don’t mean copying a file from a server here; I mean understanding what techies are talking about.

Adapt and survive

What Coplin was saying was that the days of well-behaved, deferential and functionally ignorant users are long gone. They’re going to steer a way around you by buying their own laptops, choosing their own email services, assembling ad hoc, project-orientated teams (with co-workers who aren’t even inside your company) via IM. It’s one of those adapt-and-survive changeovers, and this isn’t from the laboratories, the R&D teams or the academics, it’s a grass-roots development.

It’s taken me some time to think through the implications of this one, not helped by dear old Dad’s uncharacteristically timely (but characteristically apt) story from my youth. If you’re the type of person I am, then it’s natural for the self-service model to come as a bit of a challenge.

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User comments

Doesn't work yet on service or price

Try and price up for say a building firm using large attachments for legal docs and drawings and needing a fair amount of storage for same.

And say wants to use exchange with BES.

Must have brilliant service levels as deals when done are big money

The average offering at the moment for mailbox sizes is pathetic and then you start the add ons for this and that...

It works out cheaper and appears more secure to do in house.

Can it imagine it would be the same for solicitors, architects etc. The people who would like this.

By petermalins on 18 Mar 2011

Dangerous...

The users who go out and buy stuff on their own can also be very dangerous to a business.

I've had to deal with such individuals. The old adage "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" certainly comes into play here.

On one occassion, somebody decided, against company policy, to install their own WLAN access point...

They made 2 crucial mistakes, the first was, they didn't use an encrypted link and the second was, they didn't disable the onboard DHCP server.

The first left a gaping security hole in the company network, the second meant that half the office couldn't work, because their terminals couldn't find the boot server and PCs couldn't find the internal DNS server.

By big_D on 22 Mar 2011

Dangerous

Right, let me say this first and foremost - I love the idea of staff working from home and accessing their data and services via their ADSL.
My problems with this start when someone who is an IT zealot (Coplin) spouts out about things which are just not true in the real world.
I went to the CIO brief he did about Azure when Steve Ballmer made an appearance in London.
I was champing at the bit to yell or heckle Coplin when he went into one of his "Hippy-dippy can't-we-all-just-agree-to-get-on" lectures. He said that blocking websites via a proxy was like banning people from bringing a newspaper into the office and "That would be ridiculous - people would leave the business and work elsewhere." The thing is, Mr. Coplin, I can SEE if an employee is wasting time reading The Daily Sport rather than web surfing (for similar content - and it DOES happen, even after all these years and companies employing policies to which staff SHOULD adhere, but don't).
This stuff about "empty buildings" is great. I'd love it - absolutely love to have an office which needed nothing in the way of infrastructure to support our employees. In fact, I've long been an advocate. Pick up 3G or WiMAX, log into the cloud, do the work - why bother to visit the office? Do it from home!
My company would save a considerable amount of money by ripping out WAN infrastructure, not replacing LAN switching when it falls to pieces - it makes so much sense.
Until... Faraday Cage anyone? Patchy 3G coverage... 3G collision domains where everyone wants to log in via a 3G connection in the middle of town... WiFi which becomes congested when a kid wants to download from iTunes or upload a video of a hilarious incident involving a litter bin and a bottle of Thunderbird... No unified WiFi provider...
Additionally - my company works for HMG and as one of my fellow commenters (above) have highlighted - if we pass HMG's information about prisons into a public cloud then we pretty much would end up with an empty building, but not for the reasons that the harranguing Mr. Coplin would haqve us believe.

By MarkXEvans on 23 Mar 2011

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Steve Cassidy

Steve Cassidy

Steve is a networks expert and a contributing editor to PC Pro for more years than he cares to remember. He mixes network technologies, particularly wide-area communications and thin-client computing, with human resources consultancy.

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