Sometimes, the corporate data centres of the world lead when it comes to the adoption of new information technologies, and sometimes they lag. And when IT is lagging, and a hot new technology is being picked up by tech-savvy consumers, it usually does not take long for these people to bring that technology into the workplace.
And that is where the IT organisation's headaches begin.
Two new reports, one from Yankee Group and the other from IDC, examine the issue of the consumerisation of the data centre - which in plain English means employees bringing better IT to work than their companies provide. This can obviously cause problems, as it has in the past. But this time around, the situation is a little different.
When PCs first became relatively affordable in the early 1990s, it was not unusual for an end user's home PC to have a lot more capability and functionality than the PCs that were sitting on their desks at work. In this case, the disparity between the level of technology at home and the level at work did not cause disruptions in business so much as grumpiness on the part of workers, who wished that their companies would get with the program and upgrade their desktop machines and associated networks.
The advent of Windows 3.0, with its much-improved graphical user interface, and high volume PC manufacturing, made a GUI-based PC an affordable investment for many families, who were happy to spend money on a PC for work as well as entertainment purposes.
Businesses, who only care about work, took longer to realise a return on PC investments, of course, but over time, companies did manage to get graphical interfaces and modern, easier-to-use software on the desks of their end users. And the upgrade cycles through Windows and PC hardware generations have made the PC makers and Microsoft a fortune.
You could similarly argue that cellphones, pagers, personal digital assistants, and other kinds of consumer devices got their real kick from consumers before they made their way into the workplace.
But, according to a report from Yankee Group entitled Zen and the Art of Rogue Employee Management, the current wave of consumerisation in the IT organisation is a little bit different.
According to the report, about half of the employees surveyed by Yankee Group for the study said that they were better able to control their personal IT environment than the official IT organisation - and they felt empowered to do so.
And instead of trying to fight this trend, Yankee Group's report suggests that the IT organisation take a Zen attitude with it and try to adapt it to work for IT instead of against it.
"For a lot of reasons, this phenomenon causes big problems for IT," explains Joshua Holbrook, program manager of Yankee Group's enterprise research. "But the biggest problem is that in the end, when something goes wrong, IT organisations have to support applications that they are not aware of."
Holbrook is not without sympathy for end users as well. "If an end user, who is also a consumer, has the choice between a Yugo - what the business is offering to solve a problem - and a Ferrari - what the consumer market is offering to solve the same problem - they are going to choose the Ferrari. IBM has had Sametime messaging out for five years," Holbrook said, giving an example of the choices that end users are making behind the backs of IT. "But this stuff is just not as good as the consumer instant messaging software available from Yahoo, AOL, and Microsoft."
This should come as no surprise to anyone in the business, particularly C-level executives addicted to their BlackBerries who probably do not know how to log into their networks to check their e-mail.
Just like these executives, end users are trying to get around or through problems to do their work. And they want the best technology to do so.
End users want instant messaging, even if their companies forbid it on their networks; they want to use Skype and other voice over IP products; they want to use text messaging, and they want to have a mailbox that does not have file size limits or that blocks things at the corporate firewall.
And they are going to make Web 2.0-style mashup applications because tools are becoming available that allow people without serious programming skills to do so, and end users are going to figure out how to use social networking, wiki, and other software tools in the course of their work, too.
Rather than fight end users, Holbrook says that IT organisations, backed up by the higher-ups in the company, have to put in place parameters for how consumer technology can be deployed in the workplace, and have to facilitate the development and dissemination of best practices regarding their use to employees.
Holbrook advises that companies set up an IT care cooperative between the IT organisation and the employees who want to use various consumer technologies, and then deploy wiki and social networking software as a means of providing self-support among employees for products not officially deployed by or supported by the IT organisation.
The trick, of course, is getting these technologies to play within the security and governance parameters of the organisation. But one thing is for sure. If history is any guide, people will use technology, whether or not it is officially sanctioned. So you might as well take that into account.
Server maker Unisys commissioned the analysts at IDC to study the consumerisation of IT, particularly as it relates to the use of various technologies by an increasingly mobile workforce. Unisys just wanted to figure out what was going on, and of course wants to sell IT organisations a set of services for managing these consumer-type technologies rather than having companies attempt to do it in house.
IDC surveyed 686 companies in April of this year to see what consumer technologies they were officially deploying (and presumably that their end users were unofficially deploying); the survey respondents were a pretty even mix between North America, Europe, and the combination of Asia and South America, with the heaviest presence in Europe. Companies polled had over $1 billion in annual sales in the United States and at least $500 million in sales in the other regions.
Averaged across all geographies, 74% of employees polled said that they used a computer as part of their daily work, with North America averaging 82%, Europe averaging 72%, Asia/Pacific averaging 70%, and South America averaging 68%. About 91% of those using computers as part of their work say their computer usage has increased in the past five years, and the average increase is 57%, as gauged in hours per day.
Here is the interesting bit: now ask about the use of multiple computing devices in the workplace. The rankings flip. Some 58% of employees in South America report that they use multiple computing devices as part of their work, followed by 54% for employees in Europe, 50% for those in the Asia/Pacific region, and 39% for employees in North America. Belgium, with 68%, had the highest use of multiple devices among all the countries surveyed.
In the more developed economies of North America and Europe, there is a tendency for devices to be issued for work-only use, and in Asia and South America, there is a tendency to allow a mix of work and personal use.
On average, the IDC survey shows that 34% of the workforce is mobile or remote among the 686 companies polled; Sweden has the lowest penetration of remote and mobile workers, at 19% of the employees polled in that country, with Brazil and France tying at 41% of their employees as the highest penetration measured by IDC.
Given the services angle to the study commissioned by Unisys, IDC did eventually get around to talking about services. Generally speaking, IDC found that those companies that are friendly to the use of consumer technologies in the workforce are more likely to provide 24x7 help desk support to all end users, not just classes of end users.
They are also more likely to consider the practices of organising help desk support operations by class of end user rather than by device, and make the investments to do it this way. And, those companies that adopt consumer technologies are also more likely to increase their spending on the outsourcing of support for those technologies. In essence, the argument for using consumer technologies in business and for getting outside support for them is the same:
Come on, man. All the other kids are doing it.