Should IT Embrace Consumer Technology?

SAN FRANCISCO — Message to enterprise IT managers: Web 2.0 and so-called social networking services like blogs and wikis are going to be used by employees with or without your help, so you might as well be part of the solution and support them.

That was the theme of a talk here at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo by Tom Austin, a vice president and fellow at the well known research firm.

Austin started by noting most companies have clear policies that restrict employees from using company equipment for personal use. But he said the difference between “work and non-work” is actively disappearing in the work place. By some estimates, he said as much as 79 percent of e-mail is social in content. “We’re social beings,” said Austin. “It’s not just about how many widgets you can produce.”

By 2012, Austin and Gartner estimate the primary role of business networks will be to support social interactions, rather than transactions.

But he pointed out there are fundamental differences between how the Internet and IT works. “The new generation wants to work the way they’re used to,” said Austin. And most do regardless of a company’s official policy. “How many here would block the CEO from using a GMail account,” he asked rhetorically.

That message would have resonated well with Matthew Gotzbach, product manager for Google@work at Google (Quote), who spoke at a later session. Gotzbach, who has a background in traditional enterprise software, said there’s been a shift the past ten years where more innovation is coming from the consumer side than business and academia. For example, he noted employees often have faster, “cooler” computers at home than at work now.

“The business world is spinning its wheel’s just trying to keep the lights on,” said Gotzbach. He said more than 75 percent of a typical IT budget is spent just maintaining and running existing systems, according to the book The End of Software. And where last decade most software startups were focused on enterprise applications, he said that’s switched with a clear majority now in the consumer side.

Austin conceded IT has to lock down certain applications like payroll, but should support the use of consumer-oriented collaboration software and shared bookmarking services. He said employees already use services like Google’s G-Drive for storage and e-project for ad hoc projects. “If you stop them, they’ll find a way to use it. If you try to block all of it, you won’t be able to channel the energy of what’s working,” he said.

Austin suggested IT identify the Web 2.0 enthusiasts in the company and let them try certain projects like setting up blogs or something more ambitious. He thinks the trend in enterprises will be to allow a kind of company ‘MySpace’ where employees can share professional skills, pictures of their dog, where they went to school and other personal information on an opt-in basis.

When someone sees, for example, a colleague has a common interest in running, Austin said it will help communication and collaborative efforts.

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