A couple of weeks ago I poked fun at the trend known as the consumerization of IT -- the notion that business users will soon get most of the technology they need directly from commercial mobile and cloud vendors rather than from internal IT. The idea that a shift like this will happen across the board overnight is just ridiculous.
But that doesn't mean IT should ignore the trend or try to stand in its way. On the contrary, IT needs to lead and take advantage of it.
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I'm not the first to say this, but the parallels between today's consumerization trend and the very early days of PCs are striking. From a user standpoint, the PC was about personal empowerment: The technology to do my job better is available on the open market and the IT department, which seems to care little about my needs, is not going to stop me from getting it.
If I recall correctly, way back when, the IT organizations that were quickest to embrace and lead the adoption of PCs gained the advantage -- not only over IT shops that fought the new desktop paradigm, but also over those that rolled out PC technology willy-nilly. The same will be true of consumerization.
A new relationship with users
The key for IT is to provide a framework within which users can procure their own stuff. Rather than users getting out of hand and messing things up, they can actually help take technology to the next level -- and do much of the work to get there themselves.
The trick is to treat users as if they were part of IT. In fact, they already are. The majority of security breaches, for example, are caused by users who unwittingly download stuff they shouldn't. Users are the front line in protecting the security of the organization. If they felt like they were part of something, rather than simply following someone else's rules, they might be more careful.
If users are going to get more capabilities on their own, they need to accept the responsibility that comes with that greater empowerment. Rather than the consumerization of IT diminishing IT's power, it makes users conscripts to the IT cause.
If employees want to use their own smartphones for company email, for example, they need to accept that their device will forever be password protected -- and if the device is lost, it will be wiped remotely. IT can set up the process, so users can provision their devices in this way on their own. The business gets added productivity with almost no additional overhead.
In many companies this DIY model may soon extend to the user's primary computer. It's quite possible, for example, that Windows 8 will include a client-side hypervisor, which will be able to run a secure virtual machine containing everything the user needs in the way of business apps for work. When the system powers down, the business virtual machine goes away.
The main criterion for client hardware, then, is that it must be able to run the virtual machine. That's a wide range of hardware -- so why not let the user choose? The company reimburses the user for the cost of the machine, but vendor tech support takes care of maintaining it -- curing one of IT's biggest headaches.
The cloud side of consumerization is more complicated. Cloud services and applications need vetting to screen out providers with poor security practices and to avoid subscriptions that are redundant or wasteful. One interesting approach I've seen is VMware's Horizon App Manager, which gives users access to SaaS and Web apps, but allows IT to enforce policy -- for compliance, among other things -- and track usage.
You don't need to contemplate cloud apps very long to see the limitations of the consumerization of IT. Individuals should not simply run off and subscribe to stuff, and cost, security, and compliance aren't the only reasons. Even more important is data integration with applications already running in the enterprise. Otherwise, users are reinventing silos that fragment data about customers, products, projects, and so on.
So the long-range challenge for IT is to provide a consumer-like experience and enable users to self-provision through IT. In some cases, this may result in a certain class of user becoming more rather than less technical, as they customize SaaS apps and maybe even aid with simple integration. But IT must always provide a rational framework.
The trade-off is clear: IT relaxes control over a certain part of end-user technology consumption, while in exchange end-users take on some low-level IT tasks while adhering to explicit guidelines. But for this new relationship to work, IT must also be attuned to the new capabilities users want and have a fast-track process to get highly desirable new products or services on the approved list.
The limits of consumerization
The consumerization of IT is mainly about adding capabilities around the edges rather than replacing core functions -- nor does it have anything to do with the core application development that forms much of the intellectual property held by larger organizations. IT people do more than stand up servers and install software. They ensure everything works together, that people don't duplicate effort, that priorities are straight, that there's a plan and a point to the money being spent on technology.
But the surest way to cause chaos is to go overboard on control and try to stand in the way of consumerization. You can't win that battle because users will find a way around your prohibition -- and you'll be left with a mess to clean up. One the other hand, if you provide the right framework and leadership, you have a shot at enjoying one of the rarest combinations in IT: more capabilities, less work, and happy users.
This article, "Staying ahead of consumerization," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog, and for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.