Mention the "consumerization" of IT, and the first thing most IT leaders think about is the associated devices. As the bulk of IT innovation shifts from the enterprise market to the consumer space, and employees come knocking at IT's door toting iPhones, Androids, and tablets, it's easy to look at this phenomenon as device-centric. As you continue down the path you might end up in the situation of many IT managers, regarding consumerization with a wary eye as a threat to enterprise security and standards, a management hassle, and a costly sideshow with little benefit.
Consumerization is a seismic shift
While the devices are part of the story, what's most interesting about consumerization is that it marks a shift in innovation. As recently as a decade ago, the latest IT innovations appeared in large enterprise first. These technologies might eventually trickle down to medium-sized companies and eventually find their way into the hands of consumers. Desktop computers, laser printers, fax machines, laptops, and email all followed this path. If you wanted access to the latest and greatest technology, you went to the Fortune 500 rather than your local electronics store.
What this means for IT managers is that enterprise requirements are no longer the prime market movers. Years ago demands for faster spreadsheet processing in the enterprise brought us new CPU features; now consumer video games push the processing envelope and, amazingly, processors for consumer video cards are now routinely found in the world's supercomputers. Whereas the BlackBerry of years past was an enterprise device first and foremost, today's leading smartphone platforms cater to the whims of consumers first, with businesses a distant second.
The silver lining to this shift is that the cost of innovation is now spread over millions of consumers, rather than a handful of enterprise customers. A business that would find the cost of a high-powered 3D modeling engine impossibly expensive might be able to accomplish the same task with an Xbox, or a small business can combine consumer GPUs and open source software to garner computing capabilities that would have been unfathomably expensive in the enterprise market. While you may sacrifice "enterprise grade" support and reliability, you'll gain commodity pricing and rapid innovation cycles that were previously out of reach to even the largest corporations.
As innovation shifts away from the enterprise, so too does the expectation that companies equip and provision employees with the technology required to get this job done. We might laugh at an employee who refused to come to work without his employer providing appropriate clothing, shoes, a pen, and a notepad, and in the coming years we'll likely giggle at the suggestion that a company issue a computing device and phone.
Many companies have long lamented the costs associated with managing complex office telephony networks, and at many companies employees now use personally-owned phones to conduct business as a matter of course, while desk phones collect dust. While personal devices present management challenges, they also present a raft of opportunities for companies to abandon costly infrastructure, while letting employees use their preferred and familiar tool to accomplish their work.
There are still technologies that are enterprise-centric and will likely remain that way. Despite this fact, the trend points toward consumerization in the long term, and even traditional enterprise software ranging from help desk applications to CRM are moving toward a consumer-friendly, cloud-based model. Rather than rolling eyes at each consumer device that winds up on your network, look for opportunities to exploit cheap, innovative, and rapidly evolving technologies. Furthermore, look at those devices as opportunities to provide expanded capabilities to your employees while retiring legacy infrastructure.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.