How Can Enterprise and Consumer Technologies Co-exist?

A group of Accenture executives have put together an interesting piece in BusineWeek titled “When the iPad is the Only Computer Your Employees Need – Or Want”. The authors mention the excitement surrounding consumer technologies, which is completely absent in the case of enterprise technologies.

Why is enterprise technology—the kind your employer has always provided—being eclipsed by products your kids use? To begin with, consumer technologies are more fun, more intuitive—and better for what people actually want to do. Facebook and Twitter, for example, provide a broader form of connectedness than e-mail. Microsoft and Google’s mapping services keep adding higher resolution and more relevant information. YouTube has blasted a crater-size hole in the bulwark of broadcast media, and users upload about 24 hours’ worth of videos to it every minute. When was the last time an enterprise application created so much excitement that its growth could be measured every 60 seconds?

I have always felt appalled at the sorry state and the cumbersomeness of our “work” software (see here and here). Instead of “enabling” people, they often eat up a lot of productive time to accomplish minor administrative tasks. As a result, several people bring their own solutions to the situation. They start using consumer cloud storage to create backup of data, in case the VPN isn’t working from outside office, they connect with prospects over social networks, search for critical information on their self-paid smartphones, read company articles on tablet devices – the list goes on. The authors write:

With all that’s happening, it’s easy to imagine a world, five years from now, where the ninth generation of Apple’s iPhone is many employees’ primary computer, and where the time that employees spend on enterprise systems is measured in minutes per day, not hours.

There is a hint of freedom in this view of the future—a secret thrill in having a way, finally, to escape the shackles of corporate technology policy. However, from a business standpoint, the presence of consumer technologies in the enterprise, and the increasing inclination of workers to “go rogue,” are not unqualified pluses—by a long shot. These technologies create real risks around data security, scalability, cost management, and data governance. They complicate operations for the many big companies that still make extensive use of legacy systems.

And they then go on to exist how these two technologies can co-exist.

1. Make decisions based on facts, not conjecture. Don’t guess at the impact consumer technologies are having. Ask your people, for starters, but be sure to distinguish between their use of consumer technology on company time and their use of it to do company work.

2. End the blanket ban on Internet services. Employees are pretty much ignoring these bans on Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, and the like anyway. Look for ways to take advantage of these services in the workplace.

3. Embrace consumer applications as a recruitment tool. Some companies already use their support for open systems and Apple products to impress their flexibility upon job candidates.

4. Get out in front of the trend. Employees are already spending their own money on technology that benefits their employers. Pick a group, set some ground rules for a category of technology (smartphones, say), set a per-person budget, and see how people do with it.

5. Accept the inevitable. More company data will reside in the cloud, so update your IT and data policies accordingly.

Bottom line: Every company will have to explore ways to make use of the consumer technology revolution. The big strategic technology issue for the next decade will be how business leaders, CIOs, and IT departments adjust to a world that has gone in a new direction—that has gone a little rogue—and is not coming back.

It’s high time we re-think the way things get done, the way software powers businesses and people. One can intuitively think of the substantial productivity gains for the enterprise as a result. And for employees, it’s one more step towards the ideal enterprise.

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