ManagementSpeak: Use common sense.
Translation: Figure out how I would handle the situation and do it.
This week’s anonymous donor had the good sense to figure out what “common sense” means.

What is it about vitamins?

When I was a kid they were chewable. Then I grew up and they were small, coated, and easily swallowed.

Now they make me feel like Mr. Ed: They’re the size of horse pills, and if (when) they get stuck on the way down I taste alfalfa, or maybe straw.

Speaking of things that are hard to swallow, correspondent Mark Sowash made me aware that, since at least last October, Gartner has been predicting increased employee ownership of PCs (“Ready or not, here comes user PC choice,Computerworld, 10/15/2007).

There is, of course, a difference between prediction and advocacy. Still, fair’s fair — Gartner got there first (ouch!) and I agree (the horror!).

The Computerworld article describes a 250-employee consulting company that’s giving employee PC ownership a try.

It isn’t going to be a free-for-all. The company is establishing standards for all PCs that connect to the corporate network, especially for security. It will scan devices for compliance before they connect. It’s moving its enterprise applications to web-based access to keep enterprise data in the data center.

Sounds well-thought-out and workable to me.

Following last week’s column on this subject (“Getting to 21st century IT,Keep the Joint Running, 3/3/2008) I added two posts on Advice Line, the question-and-answer blog I do for InfoWorld (“Can virtualization resolve the IT/end-user disconnect?” 2/29/2008 and “Getting to 21st century IT – User-owned PCs?” 3/4/2008), asking for comments. The response was enthusiastic, perceptive, argumentative at times, and in all respects worthwhile.

I was struck by something: The positions taken were generally rooted in a hidden assumption about the nature of the workplace and employee. Those advocating employee ownership, for example, tended to be travelers or knowledge workers who are expected to creatively solve problems for their employers. Many of those who rejected the idea (and the idea of significantly loosened controls) support production workers with well-defined responsibilities that are entirely supported by the company’s enterprise applications.

The more I think about the subject the more I’m convinced the right answer isn’t yes or no. It’s “it depends.” This is, in retrospect, obvious. It’s also woefully incomplete, because the moment you say the words, you have to then explain what “it” depends on.

We’ll start the ball rolling this week with three factors: size, role, and regulation.

Size: Small companies tend to succeed through individual initiative, employing generalists who understand a broad swath of what the company does. Most “business process” happens inside one employee’s head.

As companies grow they gain economies of scale. To get them, they have to standardize what was idiosyncratic, whether the subject is business process, HR policy or PC configurations. Employee roles specialize, and what used to happen in one person’s head now happens through defined workflows.

It’s a sad trade-off: With success comes increasing bureaucracy, because the alternative is having costs increase as fast as revenue, or even faster.

Role: Some jobs are defined by their lack of clear definition. While the desired outcome might be clear, the means for achieving it is not. The list might include sales, marketing, consulting, IT developer (yes, IT developer) and varying kinds of analyst.

If you can’t predict what someone will have to do to get the job done it seems futile to lock down a specific toolkit and say, “that’s all you need.”

Other jobs are rigidly defined and narrowly focused. Call center agents come to mind. While they might, and often are called on to be flexible in how they converse with callers, when the time comes to pull data out of the company’s systems and put new data in, you want every agent to use the exact same tools in the exact same way.

Regulation: Some businesses are more highly regulated than others. This is neither bad nor good (I remember the pre-environmental-regulation United States and like what we have now much better). It’s a fact.

Another fact: Regulators care about compliance and only compliance. If compliance means a reduced ability to innovate, too bad. HIPAA regulators care about protecting patient data. The impact on creativity elsewhere in the company isn’t their concern.

The Big Finish: The smaller the company, the broader and fuzzier the role, and the less regulated the industry, the more likely it is you can open things up.

The really tough challenge is figuring out what you can do, if you’re big and highly regulated, to provide as much empowerment as possible. After all, the people who run big companies rarely want to preside over bureaucracies.

They just need an alternative.