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Forging a desktop strategy for a workforce in transition

The desktop dead and buried? Not according to Tim Herbert of CompTIA. Here is his advice to CIOs on forging a desktop strategy for 2014.

With the recent record drops in PC sales, the rise of mobile devices and talk of a mobile-only enterprise computing environment, devising a desktop strategy certainly has become more complex for CIOs. But despite our embrace of mobile computing for work, the desktop is still where a majority of enterprise work gets done, according to Tim Herbert, vice president of research and market intelligence at Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) Inc. Here's a reality check based on two recent CompTIA studies, "Generational Research on Technology and its Impact in the Workplace" and "Second Annual Trends in Enterprise Mobility." Herbert also gives pointers for CIOs on forging a desktop strategy for a workforce in transition.

CIOs hear a lot of talk about the "new desktop." What's wrong with the old desktop?

Tim Herbert, CompTIATim Herbert, CompTIA

Tim Herbert: I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with the old desktop. If you look at usage data, the desktop is still where the majority of work is accomplished. Certainly, however, the desktop has limitations in terms of collaboration, especially in the realm of real-time collaboration. We also have some blurring of our work lives and personal lives, which is another limitation of the desktop. Again, it doesn't necessarily mean that the old desktop should be completely dismissed, but there are some capabilities workers would like to see improved upon.

Experts sometimes refer to this as an "interim" period between the old desktop and a mobile-only computing environment. Where do you think we are on this spectrum?

Herbert: I would say we're still in the early stages. And I am referring to the desktop only. Software as a Service has certainly taken hold, and a lot of applications that were previously on-premises applications are now in the cloud. That is firmly established. But when it comes to what people think of as the desktop -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint -- that is really the foundation of how we do work in the U.S.

There are a few signs that there is a transition to some of the emerging online applications. Again, a lot of individuals appear to be using these in a complementary fashion to Microsoft Office. We published a study a couple of months back looking at generational issues in the workplace -- the differences between Gen Y, Gen X, the baby boomers. One of the things we wanted to understand is what applications they are using while they are at work.

The 20-somethings and 30-somethings had the highest incidence of using some type of online alternative to Microsoft Office. The leader right now is Google Docs in terms of market share, but they could have been using Zoho or OpenOffice -- there are a number of options out there.

People no longer feel completely tied to using a single platform or single application. And as people become more familiar with these alternatives and the alternatives become better and more feature-rich, at some point they will make a decision about how they work and if they really need a full office suite. Many workers probably only use a tiny percentage of the capabilities of Microsoft Office. You can probably make the assumption that the power users will need the robust capabilities of the desktop. That's still pretty difficult to do online. The unknown question is, to what degree will the online alternatives develop the capabilities and the robustness to meet the needs of the different segments of users?

Can you provide some details on the user data?

We published a study … looking at generational issues in the workplace. The 20-somethings and 30-somethings had the highest incidence of using some type of online alternative to Microsoft Office.

Herbert: We tried to put users into segments based on how intensely they used computing resources. We have four categories: the power user group represented about 32%; these are individuals who may be working on large data sets [or] working in graphics, and they need a large screen to manage the applications they're using.

The second group was the medium users, and they were about 36%. They still really need computing power; they are not just sending emails. So that segment still needs a fairly robust computing platform, and the research also suggests these individuals are using multiple devices complementary to the desktop. They may have a laptop, a tablet and a smartphone and they are using them in different combinations depending on the situation.

The next user is what we call the light user, roughly 20% of the office group. These are individuals that may be working in sales and have a lot of their sales collateral and proposals that can be ported over to a tablet or smartphone. Conceivably, this group -- because the users are very mobile and spend a lot of time on the phone -- perhaps could get away with only using a combination of mobile devices.

And the last segment, at 12%, is the nonusers; these were screened as office workers, so they are working in some environment where there are computing devices. What's interesting with the nonusers is that they may not have had any type of computing device before but now have a smartphone -- their own personal device or company-issued -- to do some type of work.

Are you advising CIOs to categorize their users as a way to get a handle on their desktop strategy?

Herbert: I think it makes a lot of sense. Historically, there has been a one-size-fits-all approach. And maybe certain users would get certain devices, but that was more a function of their job level. If they were a member of the senior staff, maybe they would get preferential equipment. But there really is some merit in thinking about the user base and trying to understand what are their true needs, and what can't they do now that they would like to do and that would improve their productivity or job satisfaction.

What else is required of CIOs to accommodate the desktop in-transition?

Herbert: There is also a training component. Even with the emerging online alternatives -- and they are designed to be very user friendly -- when you think about apps for mobile workers, most users are pretty self-sufficient in terms of being able to identify an app they want and download it. But there's still a lot that needs to happen to ensure the workers are truly using the devices in an effective and efficient manner. That may mean having the right mindset in terms of when to use certain devices or applications, the right mindset in terms of security and data loss prevention. But, also, users need to think about integration; many of these online applications need to communicate with other applications, and users also need to share information with other colleagues or customers.

So whether the training is happening through the IT department or by power users forming user groups, workers need to know how to use the devices and the applications to get the most out of them. Users may get the basics, but six months later fall into bad habits and don't use the devices or applications efficiently, resulting in a drain on productivity. This is something confirmed by our recent research: When workers feel that they are not making progress during the day or constantly dealing with issues that are not core to their jobs, there is a degree of frustration, and that's not good for the bottom line.

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