Contributor:
John E Dunn
September 28th, 2012

Surviving ‘Generation Tech’

Young workers use software differently. This is how it should be.

Out on the front line of security admin, something appears to have gone badly wrong and yet until now barely a voice has been raised in complaint. As business desktops have shifted from Windows XP to Windows 7, it turns out that an unknown number of workers have been quietly running riot on networks using application privileges.

In most cases the symptom is a tiresome rise in User Account Control (UAC) requests that are a feature of Windows 7 security – ‘please let me run this application’ – leaving admins with the chore of working out whether the request is legitimate for the person making it, indeed whether the application should be run at all.

Once granted, where do those admin rights go to die? Admins could be forgiven for suspecting that far from expiring, in many cases they live on as ‘privilege zombies’ armed and ready to cause trouble at a future date. It’s a truism that when left unmanaged, handing out admin rights can be like losing a door key over and over and over without this being seen as strange.

If this wasn’t bad enough, in some cases there appears to be a battle of the generations going on behind the scenes. Admins and their senior managers tend to be forty and fifty-somethings while the bulk of workers doing their jobs with standard user accounts are likely to be much younger.

This is where it turns from a tricky technical problem into a social maelstrom. Avecto calls them ‘Generation Y’ or ‘Generation Tech’ and there is growing evidence that they can be a management handful.

A recent Avecto survey of US and UK admins found that 80 percent of admins pointed to employees between the age of 20 and 35 as being the ones most likely to demand elevated rights. This might not be entirely surprising; organizations are full of young workers after all. But culture, experience and expectation play a part too and for younger workers in the era of ‘bring your own device’ this could amount to the view that ideas of ‘standard’ and ‘admin’ user accounts are so much software mumbo jumbo.

“Generation Y – often referred to as the ‘Millennials’ –  is the fastest growing segment of today’s workforce, so employers cannot ignore their needs, characteristics and attitudes.  This generation is proficient with technology, having grown up with the internet at their fingertips,” says Avecto’s  COO, Paul Kenyon.

“They are completely comfortable with new technology, and rely on it to keep them plugged in and communicating 24-7-365.  They enter the workplace with the same expectation of accessibility and freedom as they have in their personal lives and see this as more of a ‘right’ than a privilege.”

Younger workers are more likely to be early adopters of new software, to use it in innovative but risky ways and to see this as not only normal but desirable. Whatever their age, admins take a very different view.

I suspect that the reason some admins don’t complain about this too loudly is because they don’t see an easy alternative. A sizable subset of standard users need application rights to do very basic things like connect to printers, update everyday programs and plug-ins, and run important legacy software. Handing out admin rights in some form to software-savvy workers is just seen as necessary.

It would be a mistake to get too hung up on the age gap between admins and workers. Organizations have grappled with differences in age and culture since the beginning of time. The young always do things slightly differently and organizational conflicts are often about hierarchy more than age.

More to the point, how people choose to use software is not a problem as long as the right tools are put in place and the rationale explained. Workers who function with standard user accounts do sometimes need the ability to run in admin mode and this can be accommodated quite easily using privilege management. There is no need to leave the back door standing wide open.

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