Consumerization of IT: From Trend to Tipping Point

Disruptive IT Trends5 minutes readSep 14th, 2010
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During a recent presentation, someone in my audience asked about the genesis of the “consumerization of IT” movement.

While the trend toward using consumer devices in the workplace has gained momentum recently, it’s actually as old as the IBM PC XT, which introduced the concept of personal computing in the early 1980s. That was the time when corporate IT departments first put computing power in the hands of non-technical people, and when the only personal computing device at home was a simple electronic calculator.

Back then, IT departments were mostly limited by cost and an un-savvy user base. They did their best to understand the intersecting point between the technology, the workforce, and how to provide centralized support to make them more productive. But in an effort to deliver what Gartner later coined a lower “total cost of ownership” (TCO) over time, we found ourselves in a position where corporate IT ultimately delivered a very inflexible computing platform. Essentially, they took the “personal” out of personal computing, and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) took advantage of TCO to mean, “use only what I sell.”

To drive costs down and simplify support, corporate IT departments used fewer vendors. Although it made great economic sense, the simplification trend went too far. Essentially, PCs became less personal, because they were networked, governed by group policies and local policies, and then the word “lock-down” became more prevalent. What also became prevalent was a plateau of productivity, and with it, many savvy pundits and authors such as Nicholas Carr, wondering out loud whether IT could ever again deliver a competitive advantage.

When Gartner coined the term TCO, it took into account the technical attributes of bringing personal computing into the corporate enterprise. I would argue that, today, if we built a new measure of TCO, we’d include in that measurement not only the efficiency factors — including cost — but also the effectiveness factors, which equal impact.

Having over-rotated on cost and efficiency, we’ve forgotten about the impact to every employee who finds his or her role and effectiveness constrained by a paradigm of computing measurements built 10 to 15 years ago. We’ve forgotten that our investment in our employees’ productivity far exceeds the investment in technology. Which one have we compromised for the other?

We’ve become so focused on IT costs, we’ve forgotten about “road warrior” employees who can’t effectively do their jobs because they’re constrained by technology. Technology is supposed to help us win in the marketplace, and if a competitor gets it right first, they win. We found ourselves in a position where corporate IT ultimately delivered a very inflexible computing platform.

Enter 2010, when we see that the consumerization of IT movement brings a new challenge. Today, corporate IT departments are once again at risk of delivering an inflexible computing infrastructure. But this time, it’s not because of prohibitive capital expenses or an un-savvy user base.

Today, according to Unisys-IDC research, the typical consumer/information worker uses four devices. Any consumer has the ability to walk into Best Buy, Officeworks or PC World, purchase a wireless-N router for their home entertainment network for $50 (or the equivalent in another local currency), and provision it in 20 minutes. And they do it. They buy it for themselves, their kids, and their friends.

In the last 10 years the world has shifted. A large percentage of non-technical staff have sufficient technical proficiency to use these new devices, driven by a strong desire to use them. On the macro scale, device proliferation is at a new peak. According to the Unisys/IDC data, more consumers than ever are purchasing computers that outperform what they have at work. And, according to Forrester, consumers are connecting them to the enterprise as fast as they can buy them, regardless of policy.

With these devices comes an explosion of unauthorized applications and options, together with social networks, that are all delivered over the World Wide Web. When I talk to CIOs at customer sites, there’s a dialogue around aware of this new trend but there isn’t yet a deep understanding. There’s a certain amount of denial around the quality of support they provide, versus how their end users perceive that support.

They’re also worried about the three potential risks that come with it: security, spiraling support costs, and HR/legal issues. While each of these risks deserves its own blog post (or book!), I’ll instead just deliver the punchline for all of them: Today, the greatest risk of all is to remain inflexible.

We should recall that the introduction of PCs into the enterprise IT arena was driven by business units that purchased the equipment and felt they gained the capability to leverage technology more quickly, but also gained independence from the chains of corporate IT. This bottom-up trend, whether it was endorsed or not by the CIO, overtook enterprise computing in the corporate workplace.

Similarly, consumerization of IT is also a bottom-up trend driven by our knowledge workers, road warriors, and other employees who purchase their own technology, considering it a type of entertainment. This trend will be unstoppable, just as the PC-XT was when it was driven by business unit needs rather than by IT.

I welcome your comments here or on Twitter.

over-rotated on cost and efficiency, we’ve forgotten about the impact to every employee who finds his or her role and effectiveness constrained by a paradigm of computing measurements built 10 to 15 years ago. We’ve forgotten that our investment in our employees’ productivity far exceeds the investment in technology. Which one have we compromised for the other?