I'm not quite old enough to remember a workplace without computers, but I do remember working without email, instant messaging (IM) or the Internet. When I think about how those technologies got introduced into my particular places of work, I realize that this "consumerization of IT" concept, which seems to be the hottest topic next to cloud computing, is not really so new.
I remember getting an AOL account in the early '90s and discovering that I could send messages to other people through my home computer connected to my blazing fast 4800 baud modem. (I vividly remember selecting the 4800 baud modem over the top-of-the-line 9600 baud modem, because I couldn't imagine needing all that speed. Oh, how young and foolish I was!)
It wasn't long before I started wondering why I couldn't do email at work. I was working for a large company in the IT space after all. It would be really convenient to send a note to a co-worker in another location, or even to partners and customers. It took a while but, when my company eventually adopted email, it was limited: we could only correspond with other employees, not with the outside world, and my user ID was something intuitive like AVHMXD.
Although I wasn't close to our IT department, it seemed clear that they were being dragged reluctantly into this new world. They were only going to move on their timetable, based on their rules and, if that limited user freedom and productivity, then so be it. I couldn't understand how they could be so slow-moving and obstructive.
Around 1997 I moved to a much smaller company. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the company not only provided email, but also unfettered access to the World Wide Web! Again, the Web was something I experienced first outside the workplace, through that same old AOL account. I thought “how lucky I am to be working for a small, agile, innovative company that provides these freedoms.”
This time, I did know the IT guys and I quickly saw the other side of the equation. By offering this service to end-users, the IT department took on some serious hassles and the company itself was exposed to risks that had to be managed. This was uncharted territory; the rules were yet to be written and IT didn't have all the tools that might have helped to keep our company safe, secure and compliant.
A few years later I was working for another small company that had been acquired by a somewhat larger company. Although many of us were familiar with IM outside of the workplace, it had been forbidden by our small company IT leadership due to the perceived security risks. The employees of our parent company, however, relied heavily on IM and couldn't understand why our IT managers blocked us from using this tool, which clearly helped users be more productive (or at least appear that way). Of course, we inevitably ended up using IM, but only once our IT team felt they were able to manage it effectively.
Two themes resonate for me in looking back on these examples of consumerization. The first is inevitability. It is truly inevitable that newer technology will find its way from consumer use to the enterprise, assuming it can be applied for business value. The second theme is about the balance that IT sometimes struggles to strike between giving users access to these new technologies on the one hand, and protecting and managing the enterprise on the other.
If you haven't already, it's time to accept that bring your own device (BYOD) and other consumerization initiatives are going to happen - it's just a matter of when. Then focus on the best way to strike that balance. My colleague Oliver Bendig wrote a great blog post recently about how self-service models are helping companies do just that. Desktop virtualization is another enabling technology.
I'm not much for predictions, but I'm confident that twenty years from now someone in their forties will be reminiscing (probably on some futuristic holo-blog) about the old days when their employers forced them to use company-owned PCs and applications.
Image: © Scott Adams, May 28, 2008. Dilbert.