Use of Institutionally-Owned IT Resources for ‘Personal Gain’


You know, some of the things that annoy me more than almost anything else in daily life are rules and policies that are in writing but that don’t scale, or ignore realities, require compliance in counterproductive ways, or simply can’t be complied with.

For example, what d'es your institution say about the use of “IT resources” for personal gain? Some institutions even encourage students to create and operate businesses from residence halls. Others have language like this: “You may not use university IT resources for personal gain.” That’s a pretty big spread in policies there and I expect that the latter one is breached several times a minute.

A long time ago, investigating my employer-university’s-at the-time policy and its implementation I called up the top policy person and asked about the policy (which was quite strict).

I asked her, “What about a student who gets paid $20 to post a local pizzeria’s menu and contact information on their personal (but university-paid-for) website.” The answer was: “That’s a violation.”

I then asked her about a faculty member who accepted a speaking engagement for which she was paid $1,500. That faculty person was approached by university phone and/or email, and the negotiations took place by email, and the documents amounting to a contract went back and forth by an email, and the professor’s vitae which was a reference for the “job” was on her university-owned website. (And all of the work, including the PowerPoint show presented at the engagement, was done on a university computer.) Guess what? That was okay.


So, what is your institution’s policy? How different is it in real life from what it says on the printed (PDF, so it can’t be easily altered, because it’s "official") page? If you helped a friend’s business with a database issue and did some of the work in your office, using the university’s computer, email system, network, and Internet connection, are you in jeopardy because your friend is paying you $100 for the work? How about if you did the work at home, but on a university laptop and using your university connectivity? How about your own machine at home, but using your university email to transmit documents and other files back and forth?

Here’s another issue that is somewhat related: What if you decided that you could be more productive with a faster, more powerful laptop and you went out and bought one yourself and started using it at home (Because you do work at home, don’t you?) and at work–for university work. Are you frozen out of the use of university software? Support? Are you even allowed to bring your computer into the office? (There are policies all over the board on this.)

The problem is that we’ve come a long way, baby, from the 1950s when it was worth your life to sneak a personal phone call home on an office phone. (Those were deadly times in general, though, even attending a management meeting was life-threatening, because those took place in clouds of smoke. Really, they did.) One of the basic parameters for learning space design that I see coming out of various work by the ELI (formerly NLII) and others is that you should be planning to accommodate what the students bring with them to class, including their bewildering variety of technology toys. It’s obvious that’s where we are also going with knowledge workers in the workplace. Of course that runs right up against insufficient IT support resources in most places.

Work and life–work including day job as well as maybe some knowledge work on the side for pay; and life including family and home life as well as maybe lots of community volunteer work–are already more converged, for the knowledge worker, than my Treo is for hardware devices. I can see a not very distant future when most knowledge workers will want to carry a single device that handles all their personal and work data, and that g'es with them wherever they go, including when they leave that employment. (If you think about it a moment, you’ll see that too: You may already be living it. I am.)

Our IT policies should accept this reality and not cause anxiety because "the rules" say that a staffer may not do something that, functionally, they have to do.

Some would say – and these people really do exist–that while at work and even when elsewhere with access to institutional equipment, nothing at all of a personal nature should be done with a university laptop, PDA, cell phone, email address, network, or Internet access in general. That’s the hardcore at one end of the axis.

At the other end is me. :-) I think that our IT policies should accept the blurring of personal and work life in all regards. Abuses of limited resources should be handled on a case by case basis, intelligently, and with an eye towards the mission of the institution. (It’s not hard to tell when someone’s not working hard on the job.) Not with a blanket policy that defines the behaviors of many great workers as ‘illegal,’ and bearing in mind that, yes, IT support resources may be limited, but that those resources should be applied in the most strategic way to accomplish the institution’s goals.

If that means that a professor is allowed to use his laptop to run a presentation at a conference for which he is paid well, then, fine. If that means that one of your creative people in an all-Windows shop wants to use a Macintosh so badly that he g'es out and buys his own well, then, fine. When he needs support, IT should try to help and he should understand that given his choice of different equipment that maybe the help will not be all it should be. But help should be there; not a written sign on the shop doorway that says: “If it ain’t Windows, don’t ask.”

That’s my opinion. What’s yours? I’d love to hear from someone who’d like to present an opposing view in a guest space in this column. C’ya next week!

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