At the 1996 IDC Directions conference, operational benchmarking specialists Compass Management Consulting presented a paper on IT management best practice. Their findings, which showed the cost to deliver various IT services, drew on the company's extensive global database. The results gave conclusive evidence on the value of maintaining a common environment on the desktop. Non-standard PC configurations were shown to be some two-and-a-half times more expensive to support and encountered nearly twice as many problems in a year than their standard alternatives.
While most CIOs embrace the notion of a common desktop "image", implementing it remains a challenge for many of them. A common operating environment (COE) requires rigorous maintenance and discipline. The desktop has to be locked down to prevent users from tinkering. Many users, especially the more technically proficient, have come to regard the PC as their personal property and resent this intrusion into their workspace. Other users see standardisation compromises quality and panders to the lowest common denominator. But the biggest challenge is the pace of change at the desktop.
IDC's Forecast for Management survey shows that most organisations maintain their desktop standard for at least three years. Yet in the 1999 study the typical PC configuration in local organisations was a Pentium processor with 32MB of memory. Today it would be next to impossible to purchase such a PC. A company hiring new staff faces the dilemma of either implementing non-standard configurations or else providing them with either no systems or second-hand ones at best. Alternatively, they may feel that they have to upgrade the whole fleet.
A similar challenge is faced with the operating system. In 1999 Windows 95 was the prevalent OS on desktops in Australia and New Zealand. If you purchase a PC today you have a choice of Windows 2000 or XP. Yet this year's Forecast for Management highlighted just how few local companies had acquired XP. Microsoft clearly feels that forces promoting the need for a standard desktop environment will eventually drive companies to embrace XP as older operating systems become unavailable. Yet the evidence is that CIOs are starting to resist these arguments. If they lock an organisation in to a never-ending upgrade cycle perhaps it might be more prudent for CIOs to promote diversity. This might prove more cost effective, since there might be less impetus to upgrade regularly. Many also know that it will be much more politically palatable.
In the end it is up to the business to decide whether the merits of standardisation outweigh the costs. Do they boost user productivity and save money or are they just an argument for newer toys. In the end only the business can decide this. This establishes ownership for the COE and ensures that IT is not seen to be railroading its preferences. Moreover, it ensures they came to appreciate the extra costs associated with demands by key user groups for some flexibility in the COE.