There’s a lot of buzz about how the next big shift in corporate computing will be employees using their own devices at work.

Yet there seems to be confusion about what the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend means for the IT department. The death of the corporate laptop? Helpdesks supporting every conceivable computing device? Will implementing BYOD be a trivial matter, and is it even possible to opt-out of BYOD altogether?

To find the answers to these questions TechRepublic spoke to two CIOs to find out why one is implementing BYOD – and another is holding back.

Holding fire on BYOD – Paul Green, CIO at Sheffield City Council

For Paul Green, director of business information solutions at Sheffield City Council, organisations shouldn’t start by asking whether they should implement BYOD. A better first question, and one that Green is asking at Sheffield, is: ‘Which devices are best-suited to allow employees to do their job?’.

The best device – when considered in light of factors such as integration with back-end systems, information sharing and security – he said, may or may not be a consumer one.

While staff may instinctively prefer the gadgets they have at home, Green said that doesn’t mean consumer hardware will always be the best tool for every job.

“At home I have an Apple iPad and an iPhone. At work I have a BlackBerry and a laptop computer. The reason I operate that way is because my role in enterprise is very different to how I consume and share information at home,” he said.

Green foresees several negatives of BYOD for the organisation and for the individual.

Firstly there is the issue of support under BYOD. Individuals will have to take more responsibility for troubleshooting personal devices, as it won’t be feasible for the helpdesk to provide the same level of backup that they do for corporate devices.

Green questions whether staff will struggle to fix devices on their own, and whether manufacturers of consumer devices have the relevant support structures in place to help individuals resolve technical problems swiftly.

“It’s less critical if you can’t update your Facebook status than not being able to undertake your job role,” he said. “If someone has an iPad and they have not got the right support, that individual potentially could be inactive for three to five days.”

There’s also the question of liability. Green is concerned about the complexity of resolving issues such as whether the individual or the organisation is liable for taxes on equipment and services purchased in relation to a BYOD scheme, or for licensing the software accessed using a BYOD device.

And then there’s difficulties around security and management of devices. While organisations can restrict supported BYOD hardware to devices they know can be patched, Green says it is already difficult to get corporate laptops users to log on from outside the office so that regular updates can be applied.

These potential problems, liabilities and additional responsibilities are something that individuals, as well as the business, will have to consider, according to Green.

“Individuals also need to be extremely well-informed about what responsibility they are taking if they wish to pursue a BYOD route. They are increasing their own risk and they would have to judge whether that outweighs any potential benefit,” he said.

Despite these caveats, Green said that staff are asking questions like ‘I can do this at home, why can’t I do this at work?’. But before rushing to implement BYOD, Green said, it is better for the IT department to first consider how they can make the computing experience better for staff.

“I think by carrying out this strategy we are potentially reducing any potential benefit that BYOD policy would introduce, while still maintaining the same level of assurance, security and scrutiny, and more importantly best value to the organisation,” he said.

Backing BYOD – Jos Creese, CIO at Hampshire County Council

At Hampshire County Council, CIO Jos Creese is preparing for the roll out of a BYOD scheme, which will begin later this year.

He sees BYOD as an irresistible force that the IT department would be foolish to stand in the way of, for fear of holding back the business.

“There’s a certain whiff of inevitability about Bring Your Own Device, as there was with PCs in the early 1980s,” he said.

“You don’t resist inevitable IT trends, whether they are cloud, BYOD, social networking – you find a way of harnessing them and using them to allow the organisation to do what it needs to do.”

Demand for BYOD has trickled down from execs wanting to use their iPhones and iPads at work, and from staff in general looking for more options to work flexibly, he said.

“It makes sense for us to say ‘We will find a way of doing that’, because it increases staff productivity,” he said.

Creese believes that much of the opposition to BYOD arises from the presumption that it means wholesale replacement of corporate PCs with personal devices. Instead Creese sees BYOD as giving staff a choice between using a personal or corporate issue device at work.

“It’s an extension of what IT should be doing any way around supporting mobile and flexible working,” he said.

“We will still have people who come into work, they will have a desktop, they will work in the normal way, and we will be providing managed laptops and all those sorts of things to people.”

The key to keeping BYOD manageable, as Creese sees it, is giving staff that choice between personal and corporate devices at work, rather than forcing them to choose one category of device.

If staff have this choice, it remains feasible to limit support for BYOD without the threat of staff being without a working device.

“There is a misplaced assumption that by allowing people to bring their own device you support every possible device known to mankind, now and in the future, and that you will support at the same sort of level of technical competence that you previously had when you were providing managed devices,” he said.

Preserving employee choice between a work or personal device also resolves the issue of what BYOD services and equipment can be charged back to business. Nothing can be charged back as it remains the employee’s choice to use BYOD hardware over the corporate issue alternative.

The cost to the IT department of ignoring demands for BYOD could limit its ability to influence future business decisions, he said.

“It’s absolutely essential that IT is seen as an enabler of business change and improvement, not a barrier to it,” he said.