The Tyranny of Corporate Computer Control

Slate has an excellent article on why corporate IT departments should stop imposing so many restrictions on what people can do online and let them browse any way they want.

I think most people have probably experienced the tyranny of corporate computer control:

  • You are are stuck using IE 6 because the IT department regards it as unnecessary (or too complicated) to allow you to upgrade to the latest version (or use Firefox) and finally have tabbed browsing.
  • Or you try to go to Facebook, but are blocked lest you “waste company time” — even though your company is trying to build its brand in a more social way precisely through such tools.
  • Or there is a program that you need to download, but you can’t without getting permission first from the IT department, because 0.5% of people in the company don’t know what they’re doing and might bring a virus in.

I even know one place where my website — this site, on productivity and how to do your job better — is blocked by the corporate filter.

The bottom line is: corporate IT departments tend to be too risk averse, and this is not without consequence. It is killing the productivity of their employees — and, worse, it treats them like children. I was in an environment like this for a short time, and it was utterly suffocating.

The intentions are good, to be sure. We often think it is best to err on the safe side. But “playing it safe” is usually not safe. It often creates a whole host of worse problems that makes people’s lives harder.

Often, the mark of a bad decision that is going to make people’s lives worse is, “let’s take the safe route.” (And, interestingly, the only person in the parable of the talents who was rebuked is the one who played it safe — Matthew 25:24-30).

So it was very refreshing to come across the Slate article that makes these points so clearly. Here are some of the best excerpts:

Millions of workers around the world are in the same straits: They’ve heard about the joys of Firefox, the wonders of Google Docs, or any number of other great programs or Web sites that might improve how they work. Indeed, they use these apps at home all the time, and they love them. But at work they’re stymied by the IT department, that class of interoffice Brahmins that decides, ridiculously and capriciously, how people should work.


The secretary of state didn’t know why Firefox was blocked [when asked this question recently by an employee at the State Department]; an aide stepped in to explain that the free program was too expensive—”it has to be administered, the patches have to be loaded.” Isn’t that how it always is? You ask your IT manager to let you use something that seems pretty safe and run-of-the-mill, and you’re given an outlandish stock answer about administrative costs and unseen dangers lurking on the Web. Like TSA guards at the airport, workplace IT wardens are rarely amenable to rational argument. That’s because, in theory, their mission seems reasonable. Computers, like airplanes, can be dangerous things—they can breed viruses and other malware, they can consume enormous resources meant for other tasks, and they’re portals to great expanses of procrastination. So why not lock down workplace computers?

Here’s why: The restrictions infantilize workers—they foster resentment, reduce morale, lock people into inefficient routines, and, worst of all, they kill our incentives to work productively. In the information age, most companies’ success depends entirely on the creativity and drive of their workers. IT restrictions are corrosive to that creativity—they keep everyone under the thumb of people who have no idea which tools we need to do our jobs but who are charged with deciding anyway.


You might argue that firms need to make sure that people stay on task—if employees were allowed to do whatever they wanted at work, nobody would get anything done. But in many instances, that claim is ridiculous. My fiancée works at a hospital that blocks all instant-messaging programs. Now, she and her co-workers are doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals—they’ve been through years of training in which they’ve proved that they can stay on task even despite the allure of online chat. Can anyone seriously argue that the hospital would suddenly grind to a halt if they were allowed to use IM at work?

Indeed, there’s no empirical evidence that unfettered access to the Internet turns people into slackers at work. The research shows just the opposite. Brent Corker, a professor of marketing at the University of Melbourne, recently tested how two sets of workers—one group that was blocked from using the Web and another that had free access—perform various tasks. Corker found that those who could use the Web were 9 percent more productive than those who couldn’t. Why? Because we aren’t robots; people with Web access took short breaks to look online while doing their work, and the distractions kept them sharper than the folks who had no choice but to keep on task.

Very well said. And here is perhaps the most important point of all:

As one locked-down worker told me, blocking parts of the Web “systematically makes the company stupider” about the innovation now flooding into our lives. Systematic stupidity is rarely a plan for success.

In other words, I’m not simply make the case for treating employees better — although that is critically important all on its own. But in addition to that, the problem is that companies are hurting themselves by locking down employee’s computers.

Companies would be more productive, innovative, and effective by loosing the chains of corporate computer control and trusting — yes, trusting — their employees to use the web how they see fit — both for personal and work uses (porn and anything illegal obviously excepted).

You can read the whole thing for many other great points.

And: What do you think?

(HT: Cali and Jody)

  • RJ

    This is absolutely true. I work in a company that blocks just about everything, their filters have slowed down browsing to a crawl and a crippled the flow of information. I do research, I find information on that internet and communicate it to people within the company. I often times go home get on my personal computer and do a full day’s worth of work in a couple of hours.

    Also I think it’s important to mention that employees would be more willing to stay longer at(and arrive earlier to) work if they were able to perform tasks at their desk that they would otherwise have to drive home to do.

  • LK

    Excellent post as usual, Matt. I share your perspective and I try to let it guide the way I lead our IT service at my organization.

    We’ve run into something surprising, though, as we’ve tried to take steps to “loose the chains of corporate computer control.” Instead of being celebrated by our employees as the Slate article would indicate, we found in many case it has had the opposite effect and almost hindered creativity due to the lack of boundaries.

    There are so many employees who don’t care what web browser they use that when you leave it up to them they look at you like you have two heads. We’ve completely opened up the list of mobile phones that we will connect to our corporate email server and that decision has been met with confusion and requests like, “please just tell me what to buy.”

    I still think it is the right approach, but we’ve found that we cannot build our information policies around one type of employee. We really have to listen (in some cases it feels like we have to listen to each individual separately) and respond with policies that are adaptable and appropriate for a variety of needs.

    Thanks again for all you contribute. We are about to replace our existing corporate email and calendaring solution with Google Apps and are rolling that out this year to 1800 employees in 25 countries. I have been taking this opportunity to send everyone your post on getting your inbox to zero every day.

  • Matt

    LK: Those are great points. I’m glad that you raised them — they are important for filling out the picture.

    Sounds like you are handling it well, and similar to us.

    Having a company standard that serves as the default, but allowing people to choose something different if they know about these things and prefer something else, is a good way to handle that issue. Macs are our standard issue now for computers, for example, but we recently had someone hand in their Mac for a Windows computer. If that’s how they will work best, they won’t receive any objections from me.

    Also, striving to make the company default something that is current and oriented towards what will serve the employees best (rather than make life easier for IT, at least as a first priority) will make sure people are equipped with the tools that make them the most effective. And so it can be useful to be able to say to people: “You are free to use what you want; if you want some guidance, you can know that we recommend using Firefox for your browser, and you can get it here” or “well, we recommend Internet Explorer, and go ahead and keep updating it every time a new version is available–and let us know if you need help.”

  • dude

    let’s face it guys! You just wanna screw around on the internet while at work. You’re not fooling anyone!

  • mattyb

    I disagree with those points completely. I worked for a friendly open web culture startup. Everybody was a local admin, could download whatever they wanted and go anywhere they wanted. Friendliest place in the world to work. Until we got hacked 3 consecutive times and then fought off DDOS. The company spent multi-millions of dollars to fight off the attacks, security and legal cleanup and fees, repair the bad PR, the loss of customers. We are now locked down and recovering.