This years VMworld conference, notably now one of the biggest and most important events in the IT world, was dominated by one theme: Consumerization. Not even having yet found a place in the Engish dictionary, you’d be forgiven for wondering what the word means. No, it’s doesn’t mean people doing more shopping, in fact it’s specific to the IT world and describes the trend of technologies to spread from the consumer IT market to enterprise (e.g. Mobile Apps), rather than the traditional path which is the other way around (e.g. the PC). Do you use your personal mobile phone to check work emails or write work related notes? Do you bring your personal mac, PC or iPad to work? Do you use MSN messenger, professional social networks, or document syncing services for work? Do you find your personal software and favourite websites easier to use and more functional than the ones your business offers? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you represent the fast growing number of employees who are changing the way corporate IT managers are looking at the world. We are moving into an era where consumer technologies are penetrating all aspects of our lives, particularly the workplace.
The interest from enterprise vendors in this trend is clear; VMware CEO Paul Maritz’s and CTO Steve Herrod lead this year’s VMworld conference with mobile and application focussed keynotes, despite VMware having its technology roots firmly planted in IT infrastructure and server virtualization. They launched their new ‘Project Octopus’, a system that allows users to sync and store documents in a secure environment, similar to Apple’s recently announced iCloud, and T-Cloud’s SecureSync but focussed on enterprise. Some say it will be difficult to pull users data away from this consumer dominated space, with their data already spread around services like Dropbox, Google Apps, and soon iCloud. Others believe enterprises need to lock down their data and create virtual ‘silos’ which span servers, PCs, tablets, and mobile devices and keep corporate data safe and protected from the increased risk of theft or hacking. Whatever the success of VMware and other enterprise vendors in ‘enterprise-ifying’ these popular apps, one thing is for sure, today the growth of data and success of enterprise IT depends dramatically less on a corporate top down approach and more on consumer expectations and habits.
The Man in the Middle
Regardless of how major IT vendors respond to this trend, I believe it is the CIO and IT managers response that is most crucial. IT managers play an increasingly difficult role of ‘man in the middle’, stuck between a mix of employee demands, software and devices such as iPads and iPhones; and the growing risk of data security, theft, and disaster recovery. IT managers have to balance the potential benefits of consumerization, with the associated risks. And this is not a future trend, it is happening now. According to Unisys’s recent study of 2,820 information worker respondents from ten different countries, over 95% of devices purchased by consumers are also used in a work environment. However, in the same study it was found that 70% of IT managers and employers wanted to standardised devices for their employees. This shows a mismatch between the reality of consumerization in the enterprise, and the IT managers expectations of their system. However, if employers can meet the reality of employee use of personal devices in the workplace head on, rather than just play ‘catch up’ with consumer trends and preference, there is a great opportunity to improve employee satisfaction, productivity, and even lower IT budgets.
And the issue is not just with devices. Many employees use their preferred platforms, applications, and even SaaS as tools in their workplace. I am one of those; a Mac user using Mac apps and SaaS document collaboration tools to aid my work. What does this mean to data security? Enterprise standards & compliance? Scalability? For years enterprise IT and IT departments have failed to keep pace with the rapidly expanding base of easily available and extremely useful tools available to any consumer at the press of a button or swipe of a credit card. This should be a wake up call to managers who want to return IT to it’s once glorious purpose of aiding enterprise productivity, rather than holding back employees and reducing efficiency with legacy software and rules built for the ‘top down’ era of enterprise IT. It’s time for some radical rethinking of software. Luckily, it’s already begun.
Cloud to the rescue?
Enter Cloud. Cloud, or I should say SaaS, is helping bring enterprises back on track, in line with staff expectations of design and interface gained from social networks, games, and smartphones. Services like Google Docs and Baihui allow employees to collaborate, share data, and work from anywhere, in ways that are not possible with conventional IT software. New enterprise software like Project Octopus and SecureSync will allow enterprises to regain control of the data while offering cloud – like sync services to their employees, keeping data safe but allowing convenient access from anywhere. VDI (Virtual Deskop Infrastructure) allows users access to their desktop environment not only from inside the office but securely from outside and from any device, without file transfers or security holes. But even these technologies may not be enough to shift the momentum of users away from their flashy iPad applications and social networks like QQ and Dropbox, which offer similar services. As well as utilising public and private cloud solutions, IT managers need to find clever ways of allowing access to popular services while maintaining security and educating their employees about the risks of data security.
From fear to leadership
With the rate of development in mobile devices, applications, and the consumer cloud, the average employee can now derive more value from personal IT purchases than from their company’s IT department. However, as well as empowering the employee to become more efficient, these consumer technologies in the workplace can represent significant risk to the IT manager. It’s no surprise then, that the obvious reaction to this trend of consumerization is one of fear. However, I believe through a combination of communication with employees, Cloud solutions, and careful policy-making, IT departments can turn this wave of consumer technology into a major strategic advantage for their whole company.
The first challenge is to recognise the trend, gather data internally about what devices and software staff are using, and carefully open access to useful tools and services. Next, the IT manager can provide a suite of matching tools and software such as SaaS applications which reduce risk and increase employee flexibility. Finally, it is up to the IT manager to help employees understand how to best utilise their personal devices and software for work purposes, while educating them about important topics such as data security, and regular backup. A simple idea such as providing a free secure backup service for employees’ mobile devices and laptops can both help win the employee over to the value of the IT dept, and help protect important company information which might only reside on a their personal laptop from loss or theft. Gartner believes the consumerization of IT is the most significant trend affecting the IT Industry in the next ten years, even bigger than Cloud Computing. I believe these two massive trends are fundamentally linked; that IT managers now have a unique opportunity to shift their thinking from one of fear to one of leadership, and to help their organisations gain a competitive edge by empowering staff with next generation, flexible and secure IT solutions.
A day after Facebook launched it’s new ‘Subscribe’ (poor choice of name, too geeky) feature, allowing anyone to effectively follow anyone’s public posts, I noticed this on Zuckerberg’s facebook page. His page has been spammed by someone posting links to their youtube page…