5 ways a CIO can make a real difference to users

Empowering users with modern tools would help both users and IT, so what are you waiting for?

state of cios
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It seems that at most companies, CIOs play nothing but defense, worrying about malware attacks, ERP integration, financial reporting, rogue users, and licensing changes. But you can't win if you only play defense, especially in companies that rely on people to create, develop, and sell the products and services that make money.

Users figured that out years ago, which is how companies like Salesforce.com, Amazon.com, Apple, and Google became the powerhouses they are today even in enterprises.

Yet in too many companies, CIOs and their IT organizations stay in the data center, avoiding user needs and opportunities. If CIOs spend a little effort on user-facing technology change, I bet they would become the kinds of key execs that most aspire to. Here are some simple projects that CIOs can initiate to matter in their company's technology offense.

But first, there's one defensive strategy CIOs should seriously undertake: Replacing as many PCs as possible with Macs, iPads, and/or Chromebooks. The Sony Pictures breach showed how dangerous it is to rely solely on Windows PCs as your computing platform, given its long-term and ongoing susceptibility to malware attacks (a flaw in Android as well).

After the attack, no Windows PCs or servers continued to function, but the Macs and iPads were undisturbed, and the employees using them kept the company functioning. That lesson should not be lost on any CIO. A monoculture is bad, especially one that is easily compromised.

Of course, few CIOs will inoculate their companies by getting rid of this pervasive threat they've spent so much money and time on deploying and managing. But maybe they'll take action on these other five ideas.

1. Install Apple TVs in every conference room

They're cheap, at $100 a pop, and they work so easily with iOS devices and Macs to send screencasts, videos, presentations, and more to a shared display. Make it easier for people to participate in the presentation part of meetings, without the hassle of loading presentations onto a master laptop or managing cables.

The AirPlay protocol is built in to iPads, iPhones, and Macs, so attendees, including visitors, can easily share their presentations -- whether in Keynote or PowerPoint, or hosted on a Web server -- with fellow meeting attendees over Wi-Fi.

Apple TV can be managed via MDM tools, so you can regulate access to these devices as needed, if you're worried about YouTube jams in your conference rooms.

Windows users will have more difficulty, of course, as only iTunes supports AirPlay natively on that platform if you install the relevant Apple drivers. Windows laptop users can install third-party tools like AirParrot and Reflector if desired. But it's easier to go with an iPad.

Depending on your technology mix and number of available HDMI ports on your conference devices, you could also install Chromecast and/or Miracast streaming devices to support Android and Windows 8 devices out of the box. But be aware that these devices are not as streaming-savvy as Apple's Macs and iOS devices, so you might end up wasting a lot of meeting time trying to get these to work. Miracast is known to have trouble holding a connection, and few Android apps are presentation-savvy.

But test these streamers with your standard devices to see if you can broaden the number of devices that can stream in meetings. They're cheap, after all.

2. Create mobile apps for your employees

Many IT organizations look at mobile technology and immediately seek ways to manage it, rather than take advantage of it. That avoidance is sure to keep your organization behind the curve, especially in customer-facing areas where mobile devices are everyday companions that offer solid benefits.

Creating apps for internal use is a great way to safely and cheaply experiment with various mobile platforms and APIs. Your developers probably already use Macs, so setting up a group developer account (which costs $200) and installing Apple's Xcode IDE and Swift language on each is a trivial effort. Plus, you can use the same computers to develop for Android, whose tools run on Windows, Linux, and OS X.

By doing a few in-house apps -- nothing too complicated -- you'll start to get a feel for the mobile experience, as well as test out ideas in a safe but real environment. How about a meeting-room finder, for example? Or after-hours lights-on controller app? Or an app for "who wants to join me for a lunch break?"

Then see what you can tackle for your field forces, where you can test out not only the iOS and Android APIs but those for some of your data systems and Web services (think MBaaS).

3. Test push and geolocation notifications

Much of what people do every day is in a Web browser, so take advantage of push notifications in Apple's Safari for Mac and Google Chrome on any platform -- as well as in any iOS and Android apps you may develop -- for your internal apps. 

Where it makes sense, explore geolocation-based notifications on mobile devices, such as a "turn off your ringer" alert when people enter a conference room or quiet space (and remind them to turn the ringer back on when they leave).

By doing so, your IT organization will get experience with this modern technology, plus you may be able to help your own staff stay updated on what they need to know. Convenience matters!

But don't overdo the notifications -- it's easy to leave restraint behind and overwhelm users to the point that they disable the notifications.

4. Make Chrome the default browser

Microsoft's Internet Explorer is Windows' default browser, but it really sucks. Not only is it increasingly incompatible with modern Web pages, it's difficult to use. Worse, every version brings a different compatibility gap -- with HTML5, Java, and ActiveX -- that is a nightmare for both IT support and custom app developers.

The tie-in between IE versions and specific Java and ActiveX versions also means that many large organizations get browser conflicts: App A runs only on IE6, while App B needs IE8, and Windows can't run two versions of IE.

By switching to Chrome as the standard browser, you give users a tool compatible with today's websites, plus one that syncs well across whatever PCs, Macs, iOS devices, and Android devices your users may have. This makes it easier to keep bookmarks, passwords, and so on in sync. 

Switching to Chrome also will help force the issue of all the version-bound apps you need to get rid of in your company. Your IT organization is dealing with a lot of dead weight that you need to throw away as quickly as possible, which the use of IE both perpetuates and exacerbates. Microsoft would like you to replace IE with the current version (IE11), but that's as painful as moving to Chrome, with none of the benefits Chrome provides.

If you have a large Mac or iOS contingent, you'll no doubt get users who favor Safari. That's fine -- it has the same strengths as Chrome, plus some nice bells and whistles, such as its bookmark list. I would not ban or restrict Safari, but it's clear that most people prefer Chrome, and Google's wide platform support means it's easily adopted.

Chrome should be the standard, with Safari tolerated and IE all but eliminated. Avoid Firefox and Opera, given their increasingly poor performance and stability as well as their poor support for today's range of platforms.

5. Provide cloud storage to everyone

For years, every time I've check out the breach databases, I've seen the same pattern: lost thumb drives, CDs, and laptops constitute the vast majority of reported data breaches. (Break-ins and hacks are much less common, and lost or stolen smartphones and tablets almost never appear as the cause of a reported breach, despite all the mobile paranoia among many IT organizations.)

The solution is obvious: Provide cloud storage access so that there's nothing to be lost. I know, CIOs fear that the data will leave the company through cloud storage accessible by users' nonmanaged devices. But that's been going on since Day 1, and pretending that you have control over the data is foolish -- you long ago lost it.

Plus, by offering a managed cloud storage service, you can gain more control, or at least visibility, than you have today while steering users to do the right thing. Everyone wins.

Both Box and Dropbox have excellent, enterprise-manageable cloud storage services that work on all popular platforms and with many apps. Google Drive also has broad availability, but it lacks management controls most organizations will want, and Google makes it too easy for users to move data into their personal Google accounts by accident.

Microsoft's OneDrive would be most IT shops' preference, but the business version of the storage service works poorly on most platforms, with bare-bones capabilities -- and there's still no Mac version, though a a beta was finally released last week. Microsoft also unified its separate OneDrive and OneDrive for Business iOS apps last week, as it did for Android last summer. In a year, OneDrive may be a viable option, if Microsoft delivers on its "multiclient, with Windows back end" strategy. Who knows? Maybe SharePoint will also work across platforms some day.

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