“Those analysts who have not applied these techniques to real data are extremely optimistic about the results.” – KJR Club member John Blair quotes a past client who exhibited a rare eloquence.

When is a computer not a computer?

Answer: When it’s a portal to an entire universe, as I pointed out last week with perhaps-excessive lyricism. Lyrical or not, quite a few correspondents agreed with the column’s core arguments:

  • When using their home computers, end-users experience a vast array of possibilities, but at the office they operate in a very constrained space; and
  • Increasingly, “work/life balance” is giving way to “live your life wherever you are.”

Many, misreading last week’s column as advocacy of a free-for-all in business computing, were horrified.

My point was something different: This, like it or not, is the situation. IT needs to figure out how to adapt, instead of establishing policies and procedures predicated on a world that no longer exists.

Look, for example, at an increasingly common class of employee — the traveler. Few among us still entertain the notion that this is a cushy, glamorous existence. Travel delays, increasingly cramped airline seating, the need to schlep one’s office and wardrobe along, and the rigors of threat levels eternally Orange combine to make business travel an annoying lifestyle at best.

Add to this the typical corporate no-personal-use computing policy. In practical terms it means no ability to answer personal e-mail for days at a time; no right to use the Internet for non-business purposes, even after business hours; no right to download music and add it to an MP3 player to help pass the time during the next cross-country flight.

In many companies, it appears corporate IT expects travelers to bring two laptops along — one personal, the other corporate. Very nice.

Here’s one more, related point: Many IT end-user support organizations are trapped in the “Whiteout-on-a-screen” mentality while many of the alleged Whiteout users routinely participate in (for example) on-line gaming environments with sophisticated interfaces they nonchalantly figure out on their own, without thinking much of it.

This is the challenge. The question is what to do about it.

Correspondent Richard Resnick provided the most extreme suggestion: No corporate-owned PCs at all. Let employees buy their own — whatever they think they need to do their jobs. It’s Nicholas Carr’s vision in reverse: Only central IT remains. Employees take over ownership of the periphery, including responsibility for their own PC support.

It’s an intriguing alternative, and one not easily envisioned. Certainly, the nature of the protections IT would institute would be very different given the change in boundary. I leave the specifics as an exercise for the reader.

Another correspondent, Will Pearce, provided a less radical alternative: Virtualize. Give end-users two virtual machines.

IT has valid concerns about having to support systems on which end-users have installed unapproved software, so one virtual machine would be buttoned-down, corporate, protected, fully supported, and strongly connected.

End-users and business managers, on the other hand, frequently discover useful software tools that are not on IT’s list of supported applications. Enter the Sandbox — a place end-users can install and use business-focused applications IT doesn’t and doesn’t need to support. If they work without creating conflicts with other applications, more power to everyone, and IT might even add them to the supported list.

If they don’t … it’s the Sandbox. All the user has to do is switch over to the corporate virtual machine to continue working. All IT has to do is to restore the standard Sandbox virtual machine.

I’d add a third virtual machine as well. It would be open, personal, still reasonably protected … but unsupported beyond restoring the virtual machine, and kept outside the corporate firewall. Travelers and other employees in the growing population of those who donate personal time to their employers would be able to use their personal virtual machine to take care of personal business without impinging on corporate IT.

Even if you ignore the issues discussed this week and last, virtualization would appear to provide an easier-to-administer alternative to maintaining standard images for restoring hashed-up systems. It certainly seems like a workable technological core for handling the challenges discussed last week and here.

End-user ownership of the periphery is a fascinating long-shot. Virtualization is a promising but unproven possibility. Entirely different alternatives might prove superior for supporting the 21st century workforce.

Underneath the specific solutions is the contrast between two corporate attitudes. One considers employees a necessary evil — unavoidable, but suspect; untrustworthy entities from which the corporation must be protected. The other recognizes employees as the source of all success.

IT’s response to the 21st century workforce depends on which sort of employee companies think they have.

So, as it happens, does every company’s long-term financial success.