Consumerism and productivity Part 1: Do users really know what technology is best for business?

Let me put my cards on the table. I do not, repeat not, subscribe to the view that users always know what’s best for them in a work environment. Indeed over the years I have come to the conclusion that generally they don’t.

Why? Well for two reasons. Firstly, users are generally driven by want more than need, and want is in turn driven primarily by factors that are very subjective and not particularly business-oriented – status, image, personal interest, religion (with a small ’r’), etc.

Secondly, users generally don’t know what they don’t know. They are unaware, for example, of how important requirements such as cost management, security, compliance, return on investment and future-proofing are to making sensible technology-related decisions. They are even less aware of the factors that enable these such as consistent policy, efficient and effective processes, coherent infrastructure and properly managed support.

So, I feel compelled to challenge people when they use the terms “consumerisation” and “productivity” as if they are synonymous. Let’s define these two terms so you can see what I mean.

When people talk about the “consumerisation of IT”, they are generally referring to the phenomenon of users making their own decisions on technology and services. In practice, this is centred on the elements of IT that are most accessible to users, i.e. devices (notebooks, handhelds, slates, etc) and publically available services (e.g. social media, communication and collaboration services). What these have in common is that users are able to start making use of these without involvement of IT professionals, though, of course, the IT department is often leaned on to provide connectivity to the corporate network and bail users out when things go wrong.

Productivity is about the business getting the best return from resources consumed (money, man hours, management bandwidth, operational bandwidth, etc) whilst ensuring the business is properly protected from exposure to unnecessary risk. I know some talk about it in the context of individuals being able to make the best use of their time, but this only matters if the net contribution from any productivity improvement action is positive at an overall business level. At the risk of repeating myself, but in the interests of getting absolute clarity on this, productivity can only be sensibly assessed, monitored and managed at an aggregate level – focusing on individual employees can be very misleading.

Now if we bring these two concepts together, it becomes very clear very quickly that “consumerisation” and “productivity” do not always go hand in hand. As a really simple example, if a free-for-all on mobile devices leads to some notional productivity improvement from employees being able to get their e-mail on their personal iPhone or Android device, this is only useful if there isn’t a negative impact elsewhere. If the result is that IT needs to spend additional time on management, support and remedial work that detracts from their ability to service critical processes or business development activity, then the result could easily be an overall net loss in business productivity (not to mention the probable increase in various risks).

As I am in that kind of mood, there is one more notion I would like to challenge. This is the principle that consumerisation somehow means that we should give users a totally free hand to choose their own tech, even when it’s funded by the business. I often hear people say that we shouldn’t force equipment and applications on people. It’s better to give employees an allowance for kit such as notebooks, slates and mobiles, and let them install whatever software they think is best for them to do their jobs efficiently. This is re-inforced by the premise that Generation Y types coming into the workplace will “demand” it anyway, so you might as well “get with the programme”.

Quite apart from the obvious dodgy reasoning that for the first time in human history, it apparently makes sense for inexperienced teenagers and young adults with a lot of growing up to do to dictate business policy, we must again come back to the principle that users really aren’t that informed and objective when it comes to tech decision-making. Some might think that the latest premium bling available in the High Street, or the budget option if that’s all they can afford, might make them more productive, but the chances are that something provided by the business that has been selected in an informed and sensible manner will actually do the job much better.

But the genie is now out of the bottle. The trouble is that too many tech-related decisions in the past made by IT departments have been very one-sided. The emphasis has often been on meeting the corporate requirement and making the life of IT professionals as easy as possible, with not enough consideration given to user preference. This history and the associated user frustration with IT, together with the ease of access to technology we all now have as consumers, means the phenomenon of consumerisation is probably here to stay in one form or another. If you try to stop it, you’ll simply drive activity underground. The imperative is therefore to manage it, bearing in mind all of the factors we have discussed.

In my next article on the matter, I’ll pick this up and suggest some ways of thinking through it to drive genuine productivity while avoiding the pitfalls of natural chaos.

This is part one of a two part series. Part 2 here.


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Dale is a co-founder of Freeform Dynamics, and today runs the company. As part of this, he oversees the organisation’s industry coverage and research agenda, which tracks technology trends and developments, along with IT-related buying behaviour among mainstream enterprises, SMBs and public sector organisations.