Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Adapting to change amid tech enhancements

Some firms are boosting choices for work devices

Henry Ford is quoted as saying: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”

For the longest time, IT departments the world over have used similar reasoning in procurement of computing assets. Now those buyers, like Ford before them, must give ground.

A technology need recognized

If he hadn’t realized this yet, Marty Pincombe had this epiphany during a leadership meeting several years ago as vice-president of information technology for McCarthy Tétrault LLP.

“I looked at the technology they used at the meeting,” he recalls. “Only about 40 per cent of them were using our laptops. The rest of them had brought their own personal laptops and they connected to (the firm network using) Citrix.”

“That told me there was a need that wasn’t being met.”

Venky Srinivasan concurs. “It used to happen years ago when Windows hardware didn’t measure up to the Mac,” says Stikeman Elliott LLP’s chief technology officer.

He particularly recalls the 2008 release of the MacBook Air, the first laptop ever pulled out of an interoffice envelope. “A few people came to work with their MacBook Airs and used the wireless network, connecting via Citrix,” he recalls. “That was fine with us.”

“As soon as Windows hardware started to measure up to the Mac, then it started to make more sense for them to ‘eat at home instead of going to a restaurant’ so to speak.”

Responding to technology demands

Fast forward to today: Pincombe and his team have been offering greater choice in work devices for the past year and finding a new balance between improved user satisfaction and a secure, cost-effective IT setup.

Srinivasan and his team are also moving away from the Henry Ford philosophy, albeit more slowly.

Offering technology choices isn’t a new trend. Technology giant IBM started down this path years ago. Today, thousands of Big Blue staff use Macs, iPads and iPhones and not just descendants of “IBM PC compatible” hardware.

The McCarthy move didn’t happen in a vacuum. In 2014, the firm’s IT leaders engaged with 175 users in 25 focus groups at McCarthy’s locations across the country. Feedback from these groups indicated, among other things, widespread desire for increased choice of devices, confirming what Pincombe saw at the leadership meeting.

This “choice” initiative doesn’t jibe with Pincombe’s background in financial institutions. “Partners are owners in this firm,” he says, which means they own the technology (and expect some say in what they use). They also operate in an era of 24/7 access to lawyers, and they don’t differentiate between firm and personal device use.

Ranges of choice

When it comes to increasing technology choices in a firm, there’s a wide spectrum of approaches according to IT consultant Richard Morochove. At one end: one approved machine. At the other: a wide-open bring- your-own-device policy.

Morochove doesn’t endorse BYOD. “It leaves you open to people who pick inappropriate hardware and software.” Morochove advocates a middle ground.

McCarthy Tétrault staffers now get their choice of six different Windows laptops, all of which can accommodate the standard McCarthy disk image. IT set up demo units for staff to try before they chose the laptop they would work with.

Sven Milelli differentiates models by, among other criteria, size. Lawyers who travel a lot or bring their computers home at night “likely went for the most lightweight option,” says McCarthy’s managing partner for the B.C. region.

Robust wireless infrastructure in its offices means staff can move their laptops around the office easily. “You see younger lawyers, who are used to working in a variety of different settings, enjoying that flexibility,” Milelli explains.

The Microsoft Surface, brand new to McCarthy, is the one firm-issued tablet, though Pincombe notes existing BYOD iPad support connecting to the firm’s Exchange server, as well as access to the firm’s network via Citrix.

This isn’t the first such initiative McCarthy has taken. Several years ago, like many other law firms, McCarthy began to offer iPhones as well as BlackBerrys. Prior to this, the firm was 100 per cent BlackBerry. “At our most recent refresh, that went to 80-20” in favour of iPhones, Pincombe notes.

Choice of software

While McCarthy has loosened the lid on hardware choice, it keeps a tighter lid on software — but IT does crack it open on occasion. Unsurprisingly, the firm locks administrator rights on its computers and blocks software downloads from external sites. Morochove agrees with this stance. “There’s a risk of downloading malicious software that can affect both the computer and, potentially, the firm’s network,” he says.

But users who want software not currently in the firm’s suite can ask the firm to evaluate their request. If the evaluation shows no potential security breaches or conflicts with approved software, IT may approve the app and permit installation.

A tighter lid (for support costs)

In contrast, Stikeman Elliott employees get one choice of laptop. Stikeman’s Srinivasan cites concerns such as management of driver and software updates, hardware rotation, lifecycle management and keeping spare computers available. “I’m not for supporting five different models,” he says. “It’s better to standardize on one or two models.”

The extra costs McCarthy seems to have taken on are justified in Pincombe’s view. He points to a recruiting consideration, mentioning his university age children and calling them “a generation that works with technology differently.”

He adds: “My daughter has never had a desktop in her entire life. They work off laptops, tablets and primarily their phones.”

Considering the switch

Companies need to adjust to how this generation uses technology, says Pincombe.

Pincombe claims the switch wasn’t difficult to enact. Internal IT expressed concern before starting, “just thinking about how we were going to do this,” he recalls. “There’s certainly a degree of complexity, of asset management.”

“We surprised ourselves a little,” Pincombe continues. “There was some complexity to it. We’ll probably run into areas where we have to deal with things that haven’t come up yet.”

Srinivasan isn’t in a hurry to go this route, even though, like McCarthy, Stikeman offers both BlackBerry and iPhones to staff.

The main difference is support and ownership costs. His cost of ownership for phones is in the hundreds of dollars primarily because they don’t require peripherals.

Laptops are a different story. “Lawyers also get a docking station for office use, a docking station for home use and an adapter for travel,” Srinivasan explains. “My total cost of ownership for laptops goes into the thousands.”

“I need to make sure I’m not carrying four different types of docking stations and three different types of power adapters.”

This article originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine. To view the print version, click here.