Revenge of the 'stupid' user: Consumerization of IT

It's a new era for IT and management as technology permeates business, falling firmly into users' hands

Be careful what you wish for. The 1980s and 1990s were full of inspiring predictions about what computer technology and then the Internet would do for businesses as employees began to get such wonderful tools and capabilities. Now that users actually have them, the emotions are more bittersweet. Why? Because increasingly that access to technology has changed the power dynamics between IT and the user, to IT's disadvantage.

It's called the consumerization of IT, and it's a good thing -- though not without problems and challenges. This new InfoWorld blog will explore each week the consumerization phenomenon, which we think is better characterized as "personal IT." The basic shift, of course, is that technology is increasingly user-driven as "stupid" users have become smart enough to choose their own tools and work methods. Modern technologies -- social networking, cloud computing, and mobile technology -- not only encourage such individualistic technology use but are shifting the very notion of the endpoint away from a box or termina to the user himself or herself.

[ Learn about consumerization of IT in person March 4-6, 2012, at IDG's CITE conference in San Francisco. | See Galen Gruman's presentation on the real force behind the consumerization of IT. | Get expert advice about planning and implementing your BYOD strategy with InfoWorld's 29-page "Mobile and BYOD Deep Dive" PDF special report. ]

The consumerization phenomenon is not new. You could argue the first PCs in the early 1980s kicked off the democratization (or vulgarization, in some minds) of information technology, beginning the process in which the data center priests began to lose their absolute power -- echoing Martin Luther and the 16th century's Protestant Reformation.

I vividly remember, as a young editor at the IEEE Computer Society in the early 1980s, hearing the stories from those involved about the court-ordered AT&T breakup in which AT&T's business staff had to use the then-new IBM PC to create the business data required by federal judge Harold Greene, because the data processing department refused to meet the court's time line. That was the first salvo in what has been the uneasy partnership and tussle for power we've seen ever since.

There is a power shift under way, and it is fueled by a set of social shifts, just as the Reformation was (the rise of the merchant class was a big factor then). As a recent PwC paper has shown, these social drivers are deep and rooted outside of technology -- so IT ultimately has no lasting power to stop the consumerization trend.

But to consider the consumerization of IT as merely a power struggle between the lords of technology and the new middle class of technology users is missing most of the story. That struggle is real, but ultimately what's going on is a redefinition of the roles for -- and relationships between -- IT and business users. That's both more interesting and profound.

It's not that users will rise up against IT and send the CIO and the rest of the IT department to the guillotine. It's that users were once treated by IT largely as helpless infants to be protected from the bad consequences of using technology on live business information and processes. However, they should currently be viewed as teenagers who need instruction on how to prevent and deal with those consequences. Because if they are confined to their rooms, they'll find ways to sneak out and cause even more damage. In other words, it's time for IT to parent users so that they can be fully functioning adults.

That means education about risks and consequences. It means transferring responsibility for risks to business users, rather than leaving IT in the untenable position of enabling users but being responsible for their mistakes. It means understanding that core IT is a specialty users need to respect and trust -- just like any specialty function, such as product design, HR, legal, and sales. Users may have some familiarity in those specialties, but they can't take them over. On the other hand, there are some areas they can take on, even in such specialties -- with a little training and clear policies backed up by real consequences.

Each week, this blog will examine these issues for both users and IT, to help smart users be effective, to help stupid users become at least competent users, and to help IT rework its role to where the key business value is: making the business smarter and run better, not acting as prison guards and clerks.

This article, "Revenge of the 'stupid' user: Consumerization of IT," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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