WSJ on why work tech sucks

You’ll have to hurry before Rupert puts it behind a paywall and blocks Google from indexing it, but the WSJ had a good article recently about technology in the workplace.

At the office, you’ve got a sluggish computer running aging software, and the email system routinely badgers you to delete messages after you blow through the storage limits set by your IT department. Searching your company’s internal Web site feels like being teleported back to the pre-Google era of irrelevant search results.

I don’t have a sluggish computer at work (it’s actually newer and better than my personal laptop), but it does run Windows XP still. Email storage limits should be a thing of the past and likely will be in 5-10 years as more businesses take advantage of cloud computing (or are forced to compete with that level of service). And I think we’ve all had bad intranet search experience!

Even more galling, especially to tech-savvy workers, is the nanny-state attitude of employers who block access to Web sites, lock down PCs so users can’t install software and force employees to use clunky programs.

For me, preventing software installation is much more heinous crime than blocking websites. Both treat employees like children, but the former serves to hurt productivity much more so than the latter. Youtube is a bandwidth hog, but explain to me why the default browser is still IE6?

“Virtual machine” software, for example, lets companies install a package of essential work software on a computer and wall it off from the rest of the system. So, employees can install personal programs on the machine with minimal interference with the work software.

This is an interesting idea. Has anyone experienced this method of organizing a work computer? It seems like a good compromise.

When they get fed up with work technologies, employees often become digital rogues, finding sneaky ways to use better tools that aren’t sanctioned by the IT department.

Is this really what the company (or the IT department) wants? Clearly not.

Instant Messaging (IM) is one area where corporations have really dropped the ball. Before I graduated from school I worked remotely part-time for a dotcom and I used MSN to communicate with my manager much more often than email. And it worked superbly. But that type of environment seems like a dream now.

The article talks about the changes Kraft Foods implemented to take better advantage of new technologies and improve worker productivity. They give employees an allowance for a phone and let them choose which one they want (60% chose iPhones). They even let employees choose their own computer, with the rule that they must consult forums for technical support if they choose not to use Windows.

For many of us, our computers and mobile phones are the primary tools we use to do our jobs. Companies that fail to provide their employees with the best tools will not get the best results.

If you enjoy hardware and software freedom at work, tell me about it in the comments!

Twitter for accounting professionals?

Dennis wrote a post a few days ago about Twitter within “a business context” entitled “The pain of disruption“:

I want to DO something with Twitter. The more I think about what Twitter might deliver, the more scary it becomes. Twitter challenges my ingrained notions of how services and value are delivered.

In case you haven’t heard of Twitter, it is basically like group instant messaging. You create your own account and start making small (144 characters is the max) posts about what you’re doing or thinking about. Other Twitterers “follow” you and receive your postings on their home page.

For whatever reason the post really ignited something within me and I found myself commenting right away, although with an idea that sort of just fell out of my brain half-baked:

Off the top of my head, how about Twitter channels for large, distributed groups working together (I’m thinking specifically of audit teams but there are obviously other applications) to aid communication. Group IM seems useful as long as it can be secured for sensitive business.

I continued to ruminate on the issue and hoped some more ideas could be generated.

How about for Twitter for an entire accounting firm office? I could throw out a question to the entire firm, like “Does anyone have a GST reconciliation schedule template handy?” or “Why is the capital gains exemption limited to only qualified small business corporation shares?”

Being able to ask those sorts of questions is helpful since I’m rarely in the office unless it’s busy season (and even then it’s just evenings and weekends). Being able to ask my more senior colleagues technical questions when I’m in the field would be great, but not too different from using email. The difference I guess would be not having to enter all their addresses.

How about using Twitter to communicate with clients? This has some possibilities as well. Being able to communicate with clients about new accounting standards coming into effect, or relevant changes to tax law would improve client service and provide timely updates that blows the current model away.

Any other ideas for using Twitter within a business context or specifically for accountants?

IT departments are not leading innovation in firms

An article in The Economist’s December 23, 2006 holiday double issue caught my attention. It reported on how Arizona State University was converting their email system over to use Google’s free hosted service, under the “Google Apps for your Domain” offering that I blogged about back in August last year. I’m still using the service for my @neilmcintyre.ca email and it works great.

Unlike the university’s old system, which stores emails [sic] on its own server computers, the new accounts reside on Gmail, Google’s free web-based service. [The IT department at ASU] is not forcing anybody to change but has found that the students, many of whom were already using Gmail for their private email, have been voluntarily migrating to the new service at a rate of 300 per hour.

Unfortunately since The Economist protects its online content and I’m not a subscriber, I don’t have access to the online version of the story and cannot link to it in its entirety. Shame.

[The new head of IT at ASU] is ahead of his time because most IT bosses tend to be skeptical of consumer technologies and often ban them outright. Employees, in turn, tend to ignore their IT departments.

That passage really resonated with me. I think accounting firms have the most extreme cases of this happening since so many employees of firms are young like me and have used these technologies since early high school. I know more of my peers at work with banned software on their computers than I know without.

But as long as IT departments are so out of touch with their own area of expertise, it will continue. Just last week our IT department sent out an email with this gem: “Windows XP is extremely stable…”

I can’t figure out whether they were trying to put on a strong face about our critical IT infrastructure, or whether they actually believed the fiction that Microsoft products resemble anything close to stable.

There are myriad free tools available to improve productivity in corporations. Accounting firms should lead the charge given that auditors are most often out of the office at client sites where IT resources are varied and usually inadequate for our needs.

Tools like Basecamp for organizing and collaborating with audit team members, IM using Google Talk or MSN, and web-based email such as Gmail which integrates smart calendaring and the aforementioned IM, would lead to massive productivity gains. Security is the only issue at this point, but with the right approach to mitigating the risks, it can be done, and it can be done now, rather than years from now.