Can IT give users a consumer-like experience? Should they?

Experts share how they've responded to the consumerization revolution in their organizations

In the old days, IT ruled the roost and users, well, they used what they were told to use and that was the end of the story, whether they liked it or not. Well, turns out, many people didn't like it, and have started to take matters into their own hands, aided and abetted by a growing array of consumer applications on the Web and their mobile phones.

These consumer applications are not only easier to use, they have changed users' expectations about how applications should function at work. If they are so darn easy to use at home, why aren't they seeing the same trend at work? This is all falling under the umbrella of what's been coined 'the consumerization of IT.' What's a grizzled IT veteran to do? Well, if you're smart, by most accounts, you should be following your users and finding ways to make this work.

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Vetting a new tool

"In general, the chances are high that we are already aware of the product that is being brought to us. If it is something no one has heard of and, after preliminary review, is deemed worthy of testing, we will test it internally among ourselves to see if a) if it has practical business application and b) if it’s well written and secure. If it meets the criteria, we will generally release it in an "unsupported" format which means that users may use it but at their own risk. We have many applications that fit into this role such as Skype and Tungle."

Nate McBride, director of IT at AMAG

What's driving consumerization?

The consumerization trend revolves around a set of new end user expectations explains Bill Briggs, director with Deloitte Consulting. "Consumerization is the effect of end-users setting new expectations for enterprise IT based on the technology experiences, features, and devices they are using in their personal lives." He says this can manifest itself in a number of ways including giving users access to corporate data on their mobile phones or it can have an impact on enterprise software design.

Dave Bucholtz, principal IT engineer at Intel agrees, but believes it's about how users relate to these new tools. "The consumerization of IT is really the push by our end user customers to use their personally-supplied hardware/software/use cases in a standard IT environment." He adds, "We use the following definition for consumerization - The increasing influence that our technology experiences in our personal life, both hardware and applications, have on the technology that we expect to use at work."

David Sacks, CEO at Yammer sees it as a trend that makes enterprise software behave more like consumer software from the get-go. "Enterprise software is becoming more like consumer software. Employees want to use tools at work that are as intuitive, useful and user-friendly as the tools they use at home," Sacks said.

But Nate McBride, director of IT at AMAG sees it a bit differently. In his view, the consumerization of IT involves "the blurring of the line between the types of computer use in the home versus the types of use in the workplace." He sees this developing in a number of ways including more employees working from home, more employees using what were once "enterprise"-grade electronics in the home as they become available at a consumer price point and finally the use of cloud applications.

How is IT reacting?

As you might imagine, the reaction to this trend runs the gamut from acceptance to complete rejection. John Crupi, CTO at JackBe says he's seen it all. "The reactions span the spectrum, from complete agreement to raging denial.” He adds "Interestingly, the naysayers can be corporate IT types (who don’t believe their users are ready for this kind of control, power or responsibility) or the business types (who simply don’t have the time or wherewithal to get their hands dirty)."

Crupi believes that most of the negativity tends to be based on misconceptions. "Once they understand what this trend really means, I’ve seen even the most vehement disagreers come around," he said.

Azita Arvani, principal at Arvani Group, Inc. says his mobile clients are moving cautiously, but growing more flexible about consumerization. "So, now there are corporate-liable and individual-liable devices. Developers of modern smartphone platform, such as iPhone and Android, are eyeing the enterprise market. While the developers are excited about enterprise app possibilities, there are still some kinks in the enterprise app distribution before the floodgate opens," he said.

Bucholtz says he has seen reactions evolve over the last 12 to 18 months with acceptance moving from the top down. "More focus seems to be coming from the CIOs, architects and planners than engineering or operations parts of the organization, but that will change as roadmaps change and as programs begin to spin up. From an ISV/developer standpoint, we are really starting to see them begin to focus in this area and actively develop products that will begin to help IT in this trend," he said.

McBride says fear drives negative reactions, but he believes the ones who embrace this technology will be the big winners in the future. In fact, he says in his own company embracing consumerization has changed the perception of IT for the better. "Moving towards a consumerization model for us was one of the best decisions I ever made, and by letting the users control their environment (to a certain extent) we have gained an immense amount of IT love in our company. We are not viewed as the enemy here but as a friend and this allows us to forge better partnerships and get more accomplished with the functional lines," McBride said.

How should IT respond?

It's likely that some companies have seen this trend and stuck their heads in the sand or decided to try and lock down the fort, but experts say it's time to accept it and begin a process of looking ahead. Bucholtz says IT teams need to be looking forward where the departments are going to be in 3 or 4 years."Simply said, IT needs to start spending more time identifying tomorrow's needs and trends and not be so focused on trying to solve yesterday’s problems," Bucholtz said.

Arvani agrees saying that "IT departments have to realize this isn't a passing fad." Lest you think that IT pros aren't hearing this message, Richard Casselberry, who is director of IT operations at Enterasys sees it exactly the same way. "Companies need to embrace the new technology," Casselberry said, adding "Ones that bury their heads and think it’s just a fad are going to get outpaced by those that adapt and innovate. IT people need to get out and really understand the new technology."

Even security expert Piero DePaoli, director of Core Security Group at Symantec advises accepting the inevitable. "My advice to enterprises is to embrace consumerization and understand that there is an entirely new generation of workers who have grown up with the Internet and immediate, ubiquitous access to information. This is how these users work and they will be very productive employees," DePaoli said.

But DePaoli says, IT still has a big role to play to help users understand policies and risks. "IT should also constantly keep their users up-to-speed on security policies as well as the risks of open Web applications and the implications of security breaches to the company. Most importantly, enterprises should have tools in place for device security – like password policies, remote wipe capabilities, content security and device management – to ensure that employee devices are safe no matter where they go," he said. Lastly he adds, "These tools should be in place regardless of whether the device is corporate-owned or employee-owned and compatible with every operating system that might come into play."

In the end, the last thing you want is a civil war between users and IT. That's why you need to begin to accept that change is inevitable in this business and act accordingly. Trying to lock out consumers from certain online services, only encourages them to find ways to work around those directives. A better approach is to work with your users, put a sensible set of security and governance policies in place and recognize the change. It's happening all around you whether you know it or not.

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