The biggest challenge on the horizon for tech executives is not going to be cloud computing, virtualization or enterprise systems. Rather, it's going to come from the grassroots of an organization in the guise of a movement to Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) to the workplace. We have all heard of how the new generation of workers will change the way employees interact with their employers, and while much of it is overblown, this is a generation that has a fundamentally different attitude towards technology that will definitely reshape corporate IT.
We're witnessing the end of an era as workers retire who entered the workforce before computers were common in the home. This generation interacted with the PC as a business tool and little more, and was unfamiliar with its inner workings and maintenance, and therefore demanded a "high-touch" IT staff to maintain the machines. The PC was a tool to get a job done, and when that job was done the machine was powered off and life went on. The newer generation of workers grew up with the personal computer. Not only were computers integrated into their lives, but they were a means of personal expression, interpersonal communication with both friends and colleagues, and a tool that blended their work and personal lives in one consolidated workspace.
Recently a similar trend has occurred with mobile phones. Corporations were the early adopters of smart phones, with the effective and centrally-controlled Blackberry ruling the day. Smart phones were tools for executives or the province of a small cadre of "phone geeks," but not something the average person was interested in. That changed in the last year or two, and the smart phone has become much like the PC, a single device that people expect to use to manage their personal and business affairs in any manner they see fit.
In either case, an environment that's locked down and ruthlessly controlled by IT simply will not cut it anymore. As computers and phones have gone from exclusively business tools to a means of personal expression, IT dictating make, model and application selection will be just as anathema as the CEO dictating what color shirt, shoes and pants to wear. Users are going to demand an ability to use devices of their choosing to interact with corporate infrastructure, and I believe this trend is irreversible. IT organizations can choose to fight a losing battle and maintain their walled kingdom, or adopt a BYOT approach.
Bring Your iPhone to Work Day
If you consider how people use their computers, BYOT is far less threatening than in might have been a few years ago. Most people interact primarily with email and documents, and perhaps a few centralized business applications. Long before all this fancy "cloud computing" talk arrived on the scene, most corporations had moved their applications into a corporate cloud of sorts, and there are very few applications installed directly on a user's PC anymore that are not commodities like word processing or spreadsheet applications. In fact, many remote workers eschew clunky corporate laptops running outdated software and work on modern desktops through webmail and other "corporate cloud" portals. With technologies like virtualization becoming more prevalent, it makes far more sense to provide employees with a hosted virtual desktop, or even a virtual "work computer" on a USB stick that they can run on the hardware they prefer, whether it is a desktop with a massive LCD panel in their home office, or a Macbook at the local coffee shop.
Smart phones are in a similar boat. For the vast majority of corporate-types, the critical application on these phones is corporate email. As vendors standardize around a mechanism for providing push email, the infrastructure for something like a Blackberry looks increasingly irrelevant. Giving up the centralized control of a Blackberry-like infrastructure will be painful for IT departments, but users are already revolting against phones that are locked down at the corporate level, and demanding to know why their friends can install Facebook and read their gmail on their smart phone, but their IT department refuses to allow it. As functionality like remote wipe and Exchange sync become standard, IT will struggle to justify saying "no" to users that want one phone of their choice that integrates their personal and professional lives, especially as these users take titles like CEO.
But who will support it all?
This has long been the "final answer" from IT when attempting to keep BYOT from taking root. While "but that's not supported" has worked for the last several years, the excuse is wearing thin as large companies like Kraft and Unisys implement BYOT, and a generation of workers that supported their own technology enters the workforce. Rather than looking like the bad guy, IT can adopt BYOT-friendly policies and infrastructure, and make users well-aware of the fact that if they want BYOT, then they are the prime providers of hardware support and maintenance up to a basic set of corporate standards.
In the long run, BYOT is actually a very good deal for IT. BYOT gets IT out of the role of supporting huge fleets of dull grey business laptops, and for the rather meager price of letting users choose a device that they feel a personal connection to, actually improves the image of corporate IT. A cost-neutral approach of letting people pick their own technology even becomes a big corporate differentiator, presenting your company as forward-thinking when all you've done is reduce your IT infrastructure and "bought users off" by letting them pick the hardware they actually choose to support themselves! Gone are the hoards of steely faces growling "unsupported," and also gone are the IT headaches associated with the thankless job of supporting end-user hardware.
Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com.
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.