While doing a systems audit for a major British company, an IBM salesman discovered the peculiar fact that one of its divisions had managed to acquire 140 oscilliscopes.

Snooping around, he discovered the machines weren't oscilliscopes at all, but personal computers. Renegade managers wanting computing power had devised an elaborate scheme to obtain the machines by setting up an "oscilliscope budget." If you knew who to ask, you could even get an "oscilliscope requisition form."

"That's not untypical any more," explains Peter Keen, chairman of MicroMainframe, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm that advises companies on how best to assimilate personal computers into their organizations.

The rise of the personal computer has created a new kind of warrior on the corporate battlefield: the information guerrilla. His forays are a threat to the data processing director, the person who controls the use of corporate mainframe computers.

Depending on the corporation, the information guerrilla may range from mild-mannered subversive to outright revolutionary.

And business is finally catching on to the fact that the personal computer isn't just an office productivity tool but a technology that can challenge and usurp traditional lines of authority.

"Data processing directors run the gamut from ignoring personal computers to saying there's no blankety-blank way they're going to come through the door," says Curt Roberts, director of systems architecture and information systems support at the Aetna Life & Casualty Co. "They haven't looked to see the funny-looking typewriters sprouting around. And they are around; they're everything from 'plane tickets' to 'typewriter budgets.' "

"People are ordering computers and calling them desks," reports Lee Greenhouse, E. F. Hutton's assistant vice president of videotex and personal computing services. "I've heard there are a lot of expensive desks being ordered these days."

But the guerrilla actions to acquire the machines may pale in comparison to what can happen when they are actually deployed.

"What does it mean to be truly decentralized?" asks Keen, who argues that the reign of the data processing department and its centralized computers may be over. In fact, he maintains, if data processing departments can't reach a truce with the information guerrillas, they will be overrun.

With a personal computer, Keen notes, the enterprising employe can often bypass the company's main computers to calculate profit-and-loss projections or track sales calls. More important, the personal computer can be linked to the main computer to siphon off desired information.

If a corporation isn't careful, says Keen, the proliferation of personal computers will lead to "shadow" data processing departments that perform corporate calculations hidden from top management's view.

Data processing managers are very concerned with the inroads the new machines are making. "We're responsible for maintaining consistency and control throughout the organization," says E. F. Hutton's Greenhouse. "If everybody is running around doing their own thing, how can we assure quality of service? We're not just talking about computing power--we're talking about computing quality."

Yet power is at the crux of the problem, says Keen; the personal computer takes it away from the data processing department and gives it to the individual manager. "How often is there such a fundamental change in the life of the office that things are thrown up for grabs?" he asks.

This shift in the balance of computer power, he maintains, will transform the data processing department from a computing monopoly into a data base resource which personal computer owners will dip into to fill their informational and computational needs.

"We're trying to put ourselves into an enabling position," to help personal computer owners, contends Aetna's Curt Roberts. "Our constraints on employes have to do with product selection. We only allow IBM, Apple and Radio Shack personal computers." Roberts said Aetna has put over 100 personal computers "on-line" in the last two years.

Data processing departments at many other major companies are now looking to expand their services to personal computer users and to bring the personal computer under their jurisdiction. Other companies are doing their best to limit the personal computer insurgence.

"I see the data processing department solving the major problems," Roberts says, "We're still going to have the authority base."

Keen and other observers aren't so sure. "I think it's a question of adapt and survive," says Keen.

E. F. Hutton takes a sharply different tack. "The mistake most organizations make today is to set up a data processing group only for personal computers instead of personal computing through various devices," says Greenhouse. E. F. Hutton is providing its managers with a variety of computing tools, ranging from personal computers to computer terminals, as a means of maintaining control over what kind of personal computing takes place in the company.

In fact, says Greenhouse, "We are continually telling people who use personal computers for modeling and writing reports to issue a disclaimer" if E. F. Hutton's own computers are not involved in the preparation process. "That's a quality control measure," says Greenhouse.

He also points out that personal computer access to corporate information raises serious security questions--who should be allowed access to what data?

The world's largest user of computers, the federal government, is in the process of trying to establish a personal computer policy. "There may be hundreds of thousands of personal computers in the government by the 1990s," says Office of Management and Budget spokesman Edwin L. Dale, "and this would raise some management policy concerns." Dale says OMB will take at least a year to issue a policy circular on the issue.

In the meantime, as personal computer prices drop and their power grows, the machines are gradually toppling the status quo. Personal computers, says Keen, are changing both the demands on and expectations of the data processing department.

"People now want service," says Keen, "and they expect their DP[data processing]departments to provide it."

Those demands are just as likely to come from the top down as well as from the information guerrillas below. "The DP director is going to wake up with a big surprise when he finds his boss owns a personal computer," says Aetna's Roberts.