Opinion: Natural Resources’s BlackBerry blues

In the business world, the level of control over wireless devices seems to vary widely, swinging back and forth between two extremes.

At the one end of the pendulum is a policy in which very few (if any) workers are authorized to use wireless devices, and the approval process is stringent and centrally controlled. At the other end of the spectrum is a laissez-faire free for all, in which anyone can just simply a wireless device, sign up for service with a carrier and get reimbursed without much, if any, scrutiny.

Natural Resources Canada seems to have swung to the latter extreme recently.

According to a recently published report, which used data obtained as a result of a request under the Access to Information Act, department managers at Natural Resources Canada were unable to give auditors an inventory of wireless devices loaned to employees.

A Canadian Press wire service story recently said the government has since determined the department’s employees have a total of 900 BlackBerries and 720 cell phones.

There were more than 1,600 devices, but these were not part of a package deal given to the department as a result of a request for proposal (RFP). Workers were using a total of 1,600 devices under 1,600 separate plans – assuming the final tally was actually accurate and there weren’t other employees, unbeknownst to auditors, with devices paid for by the taxpayer but accounted for separately.

As a result, the department paid at least $1.7 million in 2005-06 for BlackBerry service plans, costing in some case $76 per month.

The predicament of the Natural Resources department could have been caused by gross mismanagement, where nobody thought it was important to track wireless service costs, knowing that their revenue comes not from paying customers but by taxpayers who are forced to contribute.

Another possible cause is a delegation of responsibility from some sort of a central technical or support service to individual managers. If the department had a policy whereby no one gets a BlackBerry without approval from such a centralized department, it is possible people who really needed wireless devices to perform their duties while away from the office would have been unable to do their jobs efficiently because the approval process was mired in red tape.

The solution to the problem is not simple. Companies need to strike a balance between rigid approval processes, in which only a privileged few get the tools they need, and loosey-goosey (or non-existent) controls such as those at Natural Resources Canada.

One way of solving the problem, in cases where workers need wireless e-mail, is for the manager to make a case to his or her supervisor. Senior managers consolidate the requests from the departments reporting to them and someone compiles a total. Then the person in charge of purchasing or contracting shops around for the best deal.

This requires managers to pay attention to the finer details of the resources under their control, which means they must actually manage. It also requires a central department that is responsive to the needs of front-line workers. This could help prevent organizations from swinging back and forth between two extremes of either having no control, or not getting workers the tools they need.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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