Technology

The American View: The Little Prints

Most IT leaders are keen to eliminate individual printers across their enterprise. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert suggests that it’s not such a terrible thing to let users print the odd snarky cartoon on company resources.

Most of the IT leaders that I know despise everything having to do with printers and the act of printing. I’ve never held with that philosophy. I mean, I understand why printers can be such an amazing pain in the neck to support, but honestly I’ve never been tempted to join with my sisters and brothers in the majority ‘screw the users and get rid of all printers’ camp. I just don’t see how printers’ potential for harm outweighs their capacity for boosting esprit de corps.

There are exceptions, obviously. Printers are just another form of IT kit, and all technologies can be applied to evil purposes. Take last week’s news story from Istanbul about how a German tourist rigged up a printer in his hotel room to automatically print and toss anti-Erdoğan leaflets into the street onto the heads of passers-by. [1] I can only imagine how irritated the Turkish police must have been with the too-clever fellow from ‘Zentrum für Politische Schönheit’ [2] who thought he’d stir up a little political unrest. Odds are, they also got miffed with the fellow’s hardware, even though the printer itself had no awareness of what it was publishing.

Most of the time, though, heads of IT are less concerned about their kit being used for political activism than they are about excessive cost brought on by wasteful printing. It’s a common problem the world over: printers are supposed to be used for official business only, since every page printed comes with a cost in consumables (paper, toner, and sometimes developer) and infinitesimally reduces the lifespan of the printer used. Hypothetically, every ‘wasted’ page printed in the office is a very time crime committed against the company that owns the equipment and pays for the supplies.

That’s why many companies have shifted away from giving individual users their own printers to forcing everyone in an office (or, sometimes, everyone on the same floor of a building) to share on common high-speed workgroup printer. The official logic used to justify these efforts is that the big machine is far more efficient on a per-page basis than a lower-cost, smaller, personal printer. The unofficial logic is that if everyone has to print their personal garbage to a common, shared printer (where everyone in the office can see your output), then users will be disinclined to print clearly-inappropriate content for fear of embarrassed or punished. It seems, at times, that some of the department heads making these draconian policies have never actually met any real humans before.

I understand the logic, but the harsh approach never works. Ever. Some users have no shame whatsoever and can’t be embarrassed into changing their habits. Other users are clever enough to time their print jobs for those brief windows when no one else is likely to be skulking around the shared printer. Forcing everyone in the office to share doesn’t do much to change so-called ‘inappropriate printing behaviour;’ it just annoys everyone in the office, especially when the only printer on the floor breaks down leaving everyone unable to get their work done. The policies rarely work either, since they insinuate that people are untrustworthy, scheming wretches. That’s nuts.

Most employees don’t want to get any closer to their co-workers than they absolutely have to. The idea that one will nosily sneak up on another to inspect their output is pretty far-fetched outside of office romance fiction. 

Some heads of IT are determined to make the ‘shared printer’ model work, though. Through trickery and deceit if necessary. My mate Eduardo sent me a link to a witty Reddit thread [3] about this over the weekend. The original postings are well over five years old (originating in September 2011), but the opinions and quips are still painfully relevant. Reddit user voice_of_experience’s rant on how to eliminate stand-alone printers from the workplace was an inspired piece of regulatory cruelty; he or she advocated using applied psychology to make the burden of private printing so painful that users would give up trying. One passage in particular sums up the entire argument:

‘…you want to give people psychological reasons to prefer networked, centralized printing over their local device. First, recognize what the local device does for them: it offers the feelings of privacy, control, and convenience. You want to eliminate those rewards by adding artificial pain points, and simultaneously reward use of networked printers. I like to think of this as a combination of carrot and stick - beat local printers’ value points with a stick, and make the networked devices print beautiful, orange carrots.’

This poster’s logic is sound (if a bit harsh). I understand the reasoning and can support the argued business case. I just disagree with the sysadmin on a fundamental level. Once you reject the poster’s essential premise (that users can’t be trusted to use good judgment in what they print), his or her position starts to resemble the Geographer caricature from The Little Prince: a ‘sad, dull, and unimaginative’ man who overlooks what’s most important in the human condition.

There’s at least one deranged CIO out there who suspects that his/her employees are ‘stealing’ printer ink to support their tattoo addiction. Possibly two. If your’s is one of them, please drop me a note at the author contact link, below, so I never buy any of your company’s products again. 

Personally, I’m all in favour of letting users ‘squander’ a little printer life and some cheap copy paper on things that make the office experience a bit less miserable. Case in point: last Monday was a bleak day around my own office. We’d held a ‘going away’ lunch for one of our favourite managers the Friday prior. He’d accepted a better job with a different company out-of-state. Right before his farewell lunch started we received news that two of our team members were also leaving: one was transferring to a higher-level position in another division and the other one was resigning to take a better job at another company. The loss of three people out of a six-person team was a rough blow for those of us left behind. So, coming in to the office on Monday and seeing vacant cubicles was a significant downer. Making everything worse, 4th July is a bank holiday, so about three-quarters of the team had taken Monday the 3rd off. The place was sparse, driving how just how bleak things were going to be in the days ahead without our colleagues-in arms. [4]

So, to try and arrest us survivors’ inevitable decent into melancholy, I selected a humorous fake public awareness poster from the Scarfolk Public Health Council, sent it to the shared printer at the end of the row, and hung the print up in my cubicle. ‘Positive Outlook’ it said. ‘Look Out! Irrational, unjustifiable feelings of self-worth, personal integrity, innocence, security, and even simple contentment could be early warnings signs of a serious mental illness.’

Based on the amount of magenta toner used to print the single US Letter sized joke, I think I spent about $0.00315 of company resources. I left a penny beside the printer to fully reimburse the supply fund – and they’re welcome to keep the change. Was it worth the three seconds that it took to open a JPG, select CTRL+P, click okay, and walk to the end of the row? At my pay rate? I can say with absolute certainty that it was. Throughout the course of the day, three different co-workers saw the printout as they walked by my cube It made them laugh. It inspired one engineer to spend a moment chatting about how we’d cope with the loss of so many valued colleagues. It brought a small amount of joy to the workgroup, which – in turn – improved productivity. I’d like to think that the $0.00315 investment in employee morale led to a 100X improvement in team effectiveness.

I get why IT managers freaked out over waste back in the days when inkjet refills were more expensive (per ounce) than plutonium. Then again, we all stopped using those budget-draining inkjets a long time ago precisely because they were so horribly expensive.

See, here’s the thing: people aren’t automata! They aren’t ever going to be 100% on-task 100% of the time. Real people don’t stop being parents and children and siblings and neighbours and group members and hobbyists and voters and all the other things that define them when they come to work. We ask them to set all those outside concerns aside while they’re in the office, but it’s both irrational and condescending to demand that workers stop being who they are. People are constantly burdened by their outside stressors when they come to work, just as their work stressors follow them home and disturb their domestic tranquillity. People suffer the fluctuating effects of team morale every day. People need encouragement in order to cope with realty. They need reasons to endure their burdens, shrug off their problems, and get on with things.

Being able to take care of small administrative issues helps to lessen workers’ stress so that they can focus on work. That being said, I’ve both seen and heard of managers getting nasty with their employees for using work equipment to print everything from personal tax returns to school forms to grocers’ coupons. Why all the harassment? Is the $0.00315/page economic impact really that ruinous to any company’s bottom line? No. It isn’t. That assertion is not even worth debating.

When you get down to it, it’s not the innocuous little stuff that bothers IT heads. It’s the nasty stuff: pornography, harassment material, off-colour jokes, that sort of thing. Content – in either printed or electronic format. Stuff that requires IT to support evidence gathering as part of an HR and/or Legal action. Distractions from the routine. I understand and agree with the motivation to reduce that sort of drek. I disagree with the position that all non-work-related printing should fall into the category of ‘prohibited actions.’ That’s as daft as making it illegal for all private citizens to drive automobiles because some bank robbers flee their robbery attempts in getaway cars.

Has Central London already calculated a congestion charge for horses? And would horses need number plates if we foolishly outlawed cars

Back when I ran IT for a reasonably large organisation, I went against the industry trend when it came to regulating printers and printing rules. First, I added a clear ‘cut-out’ in the Acceptable Use Policy to allow for some personal use of company information systems. The relevant passages read: ‘[Organisation Name] recognizes that users may require the use of organisation-owned and –operated information systems. Users may use organisational IT assets for limited personal use in cases where the use of such assets does not conflict with official responsibilities or otherwise interfere with business operations. Users may use [organisation]’s assets for personal use when the activity is not illegal, illicit, or otherwise in conflict with laws and regulations.’

The second thing that we did was replace our old (and godawful expensive!) medium-duty workgroup printers with more robust heavy-duty colour models that could take high-capacity toner cartridges – 15,000 pages’ worth of print potential. We turned off all the password restrictions that my predecessor had put in place on who-all was ‘allowed’ to print in colour. The consumables bill notched a tiny bit upwards for the first six months than settled back down to its normal rate.

Then we bought a truckload of inexpensive personal printers and delivered them to every senior supervisor in the company. These weren’t cutting edge; they did single-sided grayscale printing at 300 dpi at about 8 pages-per-minute. Enough for routine needs. What make them valuable was that each new printer cost about £50 … £10 more than a replacement toner cartridge. That made them effectively disposable; why bother fixing a broken one when it was cheaper to replace it outright?

There was a health benefit to this approach, too: users found it hugely cathartic to toss their malfunctioning device onto the IT junk pile. 

The end result of these reforms was counter-intuitive. The consumables budget stayed largely flat. The initial capital cost for the hardware actually went down by about 10%. The printer maintenance costs went down by nearly 50%, since a few super-duty colour laser printers were much more economical to keep running than a bunch of mid-sized models with one-third the rated lifespan. Most importantly, employee morale noticeably improved across the campus after we took the draconian restrictions off of the printer use rules. Yes, there were a few dirty jokes posted to shop bulletin boards that had to be taken down (some with tongs), but that was easily remedied by a little old-fashioned active management.

IT operations management is supposed to be about finding ways to help the business do business at a cost that the company is comfortable paying. IT security is supposed to be about hardening the company’s information systems enough to balance the need for productive operations with the need to thwart adversaries’ abilities to disrupt the business. You’ll notice that the common theme between these expectations is ‘balance.’ The same expectation applies when it comes to procurement and policy: you need to find the right balance between preventing negative effects (like waste and misconduct) while facilitating positive effects (like alleviating employee stress).

That why – I argue – print management just isn’t as big a deal as it’s made out to be within the sector. Yes, costs need to be controlled. Yes, misconduct needs to be discouraged. Those are fine goals, but they shouldn’t be taken to extremes. By all means, bring the hammer down on the clever git who turns his printer into a leaflet-spewing, insurrection-fomenting, propaganda cannon. He’s obviously operating well outside the range of what constitutes ‘acceptable use.’ On the other hand, lighten up on the intern who prints a Dilbert comic to hang in her cubicle wall. She’s well inside ‘acceptable use’ territory, she isn’t costing you anything, and her act of mirthful social commentary just might be all that’s propping up her team’s dangerously-unsteady morale. She’s not hurting anything, and the job you save by applying some sagacious restraint might turn out to be your own.


[1] ‘German man hides machine dropping anti-Erdoğan leaflets from hotel room window,’ 1st July 2017, in the Daily Sabah. Rude and illegal behaviour, yeah, but pretty darned clever.

[2] I think that translates to the ‘Centre for Political Beauty.’

[3] See the archived thread ‘Printers or “The bane of my existence”’ on /r/sysadmin/

[4] Sincere congratulations to all three team members for their good fortune, though. Hope it works out for the best.

Title Allusion: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince (1943 Book).

Photographs under licence from thinkstockphotos.co.uk, copyright: woman next to printer, dnberty,  Two woman colleagues, dnberty, Hipster Man, shironosov, Eight colors printer ink, studiocasper, white horse, alefbet,  Irritated Businesswoman, AndreyPopov


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger.

 

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