Equal opportunity for personal PDAs?

Used to be, if your company bought you a BlackBerry or a Treo, you were somebody important. You were too valuable to be allowed away from your e-mail even for the duration of a bathroom break. You needed to be able to Manage the Customer Relationships from anywhere. Well, now the iPhone is advertised everywhere, and the BlackBerry Pearl is priced within the reach of those of us without an expense account. The Consumer Smart Phone has finally become a product that manufacturers have decided to start selling, and selling they are. If your company doesn't think you're important enough merit a smart phone, you can go and buy your own.As professionals supporting corporate computing services, we're going to be asked for assistance by those members of our staff who've taken it upon themselves to "get connected." Likely we've been supporting wireless devices and PDAs for a while now, but they've always been purchased-and owned by-the company. But, if a staff member wants to spend their own money to bind themselves even tighter to their work, what kind of support can they expect from their friendly neighborhood help desk? That's what I'll try and help you decide, in a few easy steps.

1) Figure out your stance! Deny or allow? If your help desk doesn't already have a policy governing how staff-owned devices will or will not be supported, it really should. Realistically, if you don't already have a policy denying support, the techs in your company have probably already helped a few staff members start downloading their work e-mail to their handhelds.

If you decide that your help desk isn't going to support any handhelds not owned by the company, you can stop reading here. Dictators always have it the easiest. Or you will, at least until the staff revolts against your draconian mandates. Look for suggestions on treating those annoying torch burns in a future post. On the other hand, if you have decided that an employee who is motivated enough to invest in her own mobile device is an employee you should consider supporting, read on.

2) Consider what's at risk.

Even though I've just made a joke about a "default-deny" personal device policy being unnecessarily strict, it might be the right choice for your company.

We've all been reminded about the troubles that information breaches can lead to, what with all the stolen laptop debacles in recent months. Before you decide to let your help desk support staff-owned devices, consider the information your end user wants to access, and how much trouble it could cause "in the wild." Enterprise handhelds can be configured with much stricter security than the consumer devices offer out of the box. Is your company's client list considered proprietary? Then it probably shouldn't be synched to a low-security device that might get lost.

Before deciding to be an agreeable tech and do someone a favor by setting up their personal handheld, consider the worst-case scenario, and make sure it's something no one will lose their job over. If your enterprise needs to enforce security to the utmost, then supporting staff-owned devices is something you probably shouldn't be doing, and you should craft a clear policy stating such. Saying no "just because" is bad for morale. Saying no because it's risky for the company is something most people will respect if you explain the situation to them.

3) How much of a hand are you willing to lend?

So, you've decided that you can provide some services to personal devices without undue risk. What shape should these services take?

I'd draw the line at connecting a personal device to the services reserved for enterprise devices -- your company's Exchange server, or your Blackberry Enterprise Server-but that's just me. And please, if your company isn't already running any PDA-friendly services like these, don't start doing so just to support staff-owned devices. These integration systems are complicated and difficult to run securely. Take a look at the policies and practices that you already have in place; you might be able to exercise some of these to cover PDAs and PIMs. For example, let's say your company allows staff members to read e-mail on their home computers via IMAP or POP clients. You probably have documentation on hand containing the relevant setup information that you could then provide to a staff member wanting to read company e-mail on a handheld.

Whatever features you decide to support on staff members' personal property, make sure that you have a clear understanding of how far that commitment will obligate you. Entitling a personal PDA to a single initial setup visit from a support tech sets a clear boundary on what kind of help staff members can request. If your policies are clear and fair, your company's employees should be able to respect them.

In some ways, supporting the staff's personal property is like asking "How much rope do you need to hang yourself?" The PIM market is moving fast, with new handhelds and new features being released all the time. Trying to support devices you don't have complete control of can be like trying to hit a moving target. If you can be comfortable giving up a little control, though, you might make your colleagues' work a little easier. That's the primary mission of the help desk, after all: supporting the tools that your company uses to get work done.