How to Embrace the Consumerization of IT

The consumerization of IT has been occurring for a number of years now, and it is one of the most disruptive tends the CIO faces; yet it offers amazing business benefits. Will the consumerization trend continue? The answer is yes! Consumerization is a hard trend that will not only continue, but it will accelerate.

So what is consumerization? It’s when your employees find the latest technology in their homes before they find it in their businesses and, subtly or not-so-subtly, sway how technology is used in your company. Think “BYOD” or the bring-your-own-device phenomenon that is getting so much press these days.

In short, consumerization is driven by the end user who is taking technology innovation into their own hands, outside of the influence of the IT organization, and buying their own devices, procuring their own service subscriptions, installing their own applications, and finding creative ways to connect to the corporate network — all without your approval or knowledge.

How did this all come about? In ever increasing numbers over the past few years, employees would go home and use cloud computing for a number of personal tasks, such as photo and document storage or accessing their social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, to name a few. When they attempt to use similar technologies at work, they’re told that’s not allowed. Yet they keep bringing the technological tools they use at home into the workplace.

Or they have the smartphone they want to use (perhaps an iPhone or an Android), but the company wants them to use a Blackberry. On their personal phone, they download the apps they want for both personal and business use without thinking about IT guidelines. Why? Most companies don’t have IT guidelines for this. Now they have to carry two phones: The one they really want and the one they feel is forced upon them. Which do you think they use more, for both personal and business?

The tools your employees want to use tend to come from the world of the consumer, hence BYOD. That’s because there’s so much innovation going to the consumer. As such, the technological transformations are happening at the personal level before they reach the world of IT.

The challenge for IT is that you don’t want your employees using unapproved technologies, software, hardware, or tools at work. That’s too much of a security risk. But here’s the truth: No matter how many policies you create or firewalls you put up, your employees will use those “unapproved” things anyway. I see it all the time when I’m travelling. A business traveler will be carrying a big heavy laptop that their company provided, yet they’re doing their work in the airport on their tablet that they purchased for personal use.

What’s a CIO to do? The situation reminds me of an example from my youth. When I was a boy, I would travel to Texas to work on my grandfather’s farm. He lived in a little town called Telephone, Texas. I like to say that the town was so small that the Entering and Leaving signs were on the same post. One day, my grandpa shared some wisdom with me. He said, “It’s easier to ride a horse in the direction that it’s going.”

In this case, the technological horses are going in a certain direction, and it’s always easier to ride them in the direction that they’re going. But every now and then those horses change direction. And when they do, you’re going to find it hard to get those horses to go where they don’t want to go. Therefore, you need to realize that all of your employees are consumers. And once they leave the office, they want to go in a different direction than the one you’re imposing. The more you try to keep them from going in that direction, the less productive they get and the more you hobble yourself and your company.

Opportunities in disguise

So, instead of fighting the consumerization of IT, smart companies are realizing they can actually save money, increase business agility, have faster problem solving and innovation, increase collaboration and communication, and improve employee productivity and satisfaction by embracing it.

Instead of issuing employees a smart phone or tablet, many companies today are letting people use their own phones and tablets; the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) phenomenon . The IT department then partitions that phone or tablet so there’s a secure part; a VPN where the employee logs in and can conduct business in a safe part of their phone or tablet. These companies are essentially saying, “Instead of us buying the device, let’s use your device, the device you want, and we’ll set it up with our software and parameters.” That saves a lot of money.

Additionally, now that many CIOs have taken a look at the new devices, such as iPads and tablets and iPhones and Androids, they’re realizing that these are actually very powerful business tools. So instead of trying to fight this battle of consumerization, savvy CIOs are attempting to embrace it. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to defeat an enemy is to make him a friend.” All CIOs need to understand the consumerization of IT isn’t the enemy. Chances are there’s a way to bring it into the company and have it work for you rather than against you.

With that said, I realize that one of your mandates as the CIO is security. Since that’s one of your imperatives, anything that can cause that to be compromised is the enemy. However, if you really look at these things, you’ll often find these new technologies have more opportunities than threats. You just have to take the time to see the business case. The fact is that smartphones, tablets, cloud computing, and social media are powerful tools that have a business use.

Granted, it’s often difficult to see the business use and the business case for things that kids are playing with. But realize that many of the greatest innovations start in the realm of kids and gaming; what people are starting to call gameification (You can see my article on the topic: Gameification: How ‘Kids’ Games Transform Business.) They then migrate to the business sector, and then make their way to education.

So this is nothing new and something I’ve been writing about since the 1980s. The flow of innovation rarely comes from the business community. Knowing this, it’s up to the CIO to not be so entrenched in the protect-and-defend model that you fail to see the opportunity.

Here’s a case in point: A few years ago I met with a defense contracting company that had over thirty-thousand engineers. I was talking with the CEO and his direct reports, which included the CIO. They told me not to mention social media. It was a pet peeve of theirs and they didn’t want all their engineers and tens of thousands of employees “fiddling around” with this stuff.