Attorneys with fewer than two years of experience at New York-based Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, one of the nation's largest law firms, are given an annual allowance of $3,000 to pick and choose devices they need to service clients and keep track of all those precious billable hours.
While the firm does provide a list of discounted devices—the BlackBerry is still the PDA of choice—attorneys are given a certain degree of latitude to buy and expense the devices they like best. Attorneys with more than two years' service are provided with additional allowances for technology equipment.
Multinational corporations such as pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and U.K. energy giant BP—as well as small and midsize companies tired of taxing their IT departments with irritations like repairing cell phones or supporting the software needed to sync PDAs to the network e-mail system—are warming up to the idea of letting employees select and support their own technology devices.
"Like all major transformation projects, it's important to avoid attempting to boil the entire ocean at once," says Craig Samuel, vice president of business innovation at Unisys. "An obvious place to start is cell phones. The employee owns the device and can change as often or as infrequently as they wish to suit their preferences."
For IT departments, allowance programs reduce the time and energy wasted bringing users up to speed on functionality and compatibility issues because employees are charged with figuring out those issues on their own. In exchange, employees get to pick and choose the devices that have the features and applications they most want or need, without being forced to use whatever tool is provided by the company.
The recent debut of Apple's iPhone provides a great example of how employees enamored by fancy applications and interfaces might opt to spend more out of their own pockets for a device that better meets their work and personal needs. Companies might establish an annual cell phone allowance of $200 per employee, well below the roughly $600 retail price of the iPhone.
But if the employee really wants all the bells and whistles found on the iPhone and doesn't mind going out of pocket to cover the difference, both sides are happy and the employee can take his or her device to the next job or the next business unit.
"The more complicated topic is how to handle call plans and advanced services," Samuel says. "This will matter because typically new devices in the consumer space, like the iPhone, are linked at introduction to a single carrier."
As more workers use laptop computers as their primary computing device, personal choice becomes more complicated for both the employee and the IT staff. Do you restrict employees to either Apple or Wintel devices? Can you afford to be dependent on any one technology platform?
"You might have slightly different rules for the sales force versus the engineering functions given their computing requirements," Samuel points out. "The new digital ecosystem being created allows for all of this. The bottom line is adopting a phased approach that makes sense for the organization."
Samuel says IT departments can trim their annual budgets by as much as 30% with a phased approach to tech-allowance programs. And while these programs are relatively new, Gartner predicts that by the end of 2008, more than 10% of all companies will require workers to provide their own laptops.
"This is just part of the consumerization of the IT enterprise," says Massimo Pezzini, an analyst at Gartner. "It's a balancing act between fashion and function. The challenge for CIOs is to manage these tools and, at the same time, provide an adequate enterprise environment for all these different tools."