ManagementSpeak: I think we’re saying the same thing.
Translation: We’re 180 degrees apart on this, you’re wrong, and I have authority. Stop arguing.
Don’t argue with this week’s anonymous contributor.

I had a plan.

Last week’s column listed three factors to take into account in deciding how far you should open up or lock down desktop PCs: The company’s size, how heavily it is regulated, and the role of the individual employee. Bigger, more heavily regulated companies tend to need more tightly controlled PCs. The same is true of employee roles that are more regimented and less flexible.

I’d planned to continue this week with three more factors. One was going to be company strategy. Specifically, companies that sell strongly commoditized products — products whose only differentiation is price — have to focus heavily on cost control, meaning lockdown makes sense.

So much for planning: On reflection, I don’t buy it.

I don’t care if your company manufactures cinder blocks, or buys and sells lentils. It doesn’t matter if the product itself is a commodity. Any company that wants to enjoy continued success needs to be on a constant lookout for new and better ways of getting things done.

There are two ways to go about finding these improvements. One is top-down planning. The other is bottom-up initiative. Since the business case for opening up PCs is built on the importance of bottom-up initiative, this is a subject we need to explore in depth.

Top-down planning has the advantage over bottom-up initiative when it comes to engineering elegance. Since the only way to optimize the whole is to sub-optimize the parts, business leaders should engineer the corporation from the top down, according to a carefully rendered program of progressive decomposition — from core process to sub-processes to sub-sub-processes to activities to tasks to procedures, all carefully orchestrated and controlled.

It’s the organization as machine. The gears mesh, the shafts turn, the subassemblies integrate, and everything hums. IT locks down the desktops because any variation from the grand design can only optimize a part at the expense of the whole.

Now imagine you’re an employee who performs actual, for example, work. You know how the work gets done because you do it every day. You see an opportunity — a way to do it better.

Which is too bad, because better people than you have already designed the whole company. There’s no room for bottom-up initiative. How could there be? Change anywhere could unbalance the whole machine.

Sure sounds convincing, doesn’t it? Well, no, it doesn’t. Company processes aren’t as carefully engineered as all that. They aren’t perfectly optimized from a global, top-down perspective.

The situation is messier than that.

In a typical company, core processes … the processes that form the heart of the business … are well-engineered and well supported by the company’s enterprise systems. It’s hard to escape this conclusion because by definition, a company’s core processes are what give it a competitive advantage. That being the case, they will have received the most attention, brainpower, and investment.

Move away from the core processes and you typically find solutions that are more ad hoc in nature. That makes sense. Company leaders should invest more time and attention in competitive differentiators than in business responsibilities that support business responsibilities that support business responsibilities that support competitive differentiators.

So we’d expect to find more opportunities for bottom-up innovation in non-core areas of responsibility than in core processes. This logic dictates a policy that locks down most rigidly the PCs of employees who play primary roles in core and near-core business functions and processes. The PCs of employees whose responsibilities are farther away from the core would be more open.

This makes for a neat, tidy little business paradigm, not too different from Geoffrey Moore’s “Keep the core and outsource the rest.”

Don’t trust tidy little business paradigms. Too often they are on the wrong side of the line that separates the simple from the simplistic.

Here’s one of the nasty little conundrums (conundra?) that get in the way. Imagine your company’s core and supporting processes really are carefully engineered and perfectly balanced. If that’s the case, then in addition to perfect optimization, the company will have achieved perfect stagnation and stasis.

Look at any large organization that’s optimized from the top down and you’ll find it almost has to discourage front-line innovation. How do you innovate in a world where, when Manufacturing sneezes, Marketing has to say “gesundheit”?

The price to be paid for tight integration is rigidity, and a powerful resistance to change. Today’s efficiency almost guarantees tomorrow’s obsolescence.

On the other hand, advocating inefficiency and poor business integration just doesn’t sit very well.

Do you still think desktop policy is a simple matter?

Think again.