Buyer's guide to IT consumerisation: Rewriting the rulebook

Desktop computing is no longer about IT providing a set of tools for employees. Consumer technology has advanced, and staff are more tech-savvy.

There is a growing realisation that desktop computing is no longer about IT providing a set of tools for employees. Consumer technology is more advanced than desktop IT, and staff are generally more tech-savvy than previous generations. So why continue with the centralised approach to desktop computing? 

The command and control philosophy that has driven corporate IT for over a decade is being put to the test. It may have brought user IT spending under control, but it is now a noose around the neck of business creativity.

IT consumerisation is more than just a fad. It is a trend which began over 30 years ago with machines such as the Apple II and IBM PC. Arguably, the revolution probably started back in 1982 when Mitch Kapor invented the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet program – the first killer application for the new IBM PC. This gave users the ability to do number-crunching that was previously the preserve of data processing managers. A decade later, in the 1990s, relational databases and their reporting tools gave users the freedom to analyse business information.

Until the mid-1990s, it was business people who drove IT consumerisation. But Tim Berners-Lee's vision for sharing information, which later became the worldwide web, was the final piece of the jigsaw in the consumerisation of communications that began in the early 1960s when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) started building ArpaNet, the forerunner to the internet.


Business/IT alignment

So why the preamble into the golden era of computer history? Users have always pushed forward the boundaries of what IT can do, to help them do their jobs better. If one of the tenets of IT is to support the business, then surely it must support those people in the business who want to push the boundaries of what is possible?

Ted Schadler, a vice-president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, thinks so. In the Forrester paper, How consumerisation drives innovation, he notes: “Allowing employees to use devices, applications and sites that aren’t sanctioned by the company is a key driver of their ability to solve new customer and business problems.”

He recommends that CIOs and IT directors focus on two areas. First is what he describes as the climate – the environment a company’s executives create. “Climate is an easier thing to change," notes Schadler in the report. "A climate of permission to make positive change requires only that your boss agrees. Any boss can do that, within limits.”

The second concerns providing staff with the technology, the tools and permission to collaborate and innovate by offering a complete technology tool kit. This should include devices that allow employees to be connected and productive on the go and collaboration tools such as web conferencing, instant messaging and social technology. “Any IT organisation can deliver those tools. It starts a virtual cycle: great tools that employees love leads them to look for other great tools to harness," says Schadler.

The IT-savvy user

An online survey carried out by analyst house Freeform Dynamics reported that over 60% of the 1,600 IT and business professionals who participated said IT staff were keen to use their own equipment at work.

“Users are becoming ever more tech-savvy, and the devices and services they use in their private lives are at times superior to those provided by their employers, and it is these personal technologies against which they judge work IT systems,” says Martha Bennett, vice-president, head of strategy at Freeform Dynamics, who led the research.

Thanks to plug-and-play technologies for home users, people are comfortable connecting their internet-capable TVs to the web to access BBC iPlayer, streaming music and video around their homes using DNLA, and sharing multimedia, documents and printers via a home file server. They are tech-savvy and see the benefits of connecting smartphones, tablets and other devices to their sophisticated home networks. If their home networks are so rich, why is the local area at work so clinical?

Other users are turning away from traditional business software. Why spend hundreds of pounds on Microsoft Office Professional just to edit word processor documents or spreadsheets? OpenOffice is a free, open source alternative that, while not as rich in functionality as MS Office, provides the basics.

People will happily use Google Docs because it simplifies document sharing over the internet, without the need for IT to set up a sophisticated SharePoint collaboration server.

And it is not just the Microsoft desktop that is being torn apart by IT consumerisation. Android and iOS devices can easily connect to Microsoft Exchange, providing e-mail, calendar and contacts' synchronisation without the need for IT to deploy a Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES).

BES, SharePoint and MS Office are products built for a different era of computing – one of client-server computing. Thanks to open interfaces, open data and mash-ups, users can now build surprisingly sophisticated applications themselves. This era of user empowerment is rather like the first age of computer power users, who came from the accounts department.

Given the austerity measures businesses are now facing, can they really justify spending on business IT, especially when consumer technology is offering very compelling alternatives and users are happy to fund their own technology purchases and spend their own time putting IT together to make their working lives easier?

An IT strategy for consumerisation

Jeanne Harris, executive research fellow and senior executive at the Accenture Institute for High Performance in Chicago, says while IT executives are aware of IT consumerisation, most executives do not have a strategy.

According to Accenture research, IT executives are looking at IT consumerisation in a piecemeal fashion. They are looking at individual products, such as allowing people to use Gmail or an iPad. “About a quarter of IT executives are starting to formulate a cohesive strategy,” she adds.

Harris regards the level of user computing maturity as adolescent. “End-user computing has grown up. We used to teach people how to crawl and walk. They have reached the teenage stage, and feel they can be more productive if they can manage their own IT.”

In this era of consumer-led computing, rather than specifying exactly which systems to use, IT can provide an approved list of devices, operating systems and applications that meet the criteria required by the business in terms of security, compatibility, reliability and support. This is the beauty of open systems. 

IT consumerisation, where the user has the power to choose, is most effective when the supporting technology is open. A so-called end-to-end solution, no matter how secure and seamlessly integrated it claims to be, will limit the ability for users to plug their own devices into corporate systems, inevitably leading to an increase in support costs.

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