Consumerism and productivity Part 2: How to deal with employees’ devices in the workplace

In the first part of this discussion, I covered the hard reality of consumerisation and the dangers of letting end users take too much control of IT.

The argument I made was that user decisions in relation to technology are more likely to be driven by want rather than need, and that challenges stemmed from the fact that users generally don’t know what they don’t know.

But given years of user frustration with IT, and the ease with which users can now make their own arrangements, we have to accept that the genie is out of the bottle. Like it or not, users will have more of a say in the use of IT in business from this point onwards.

Against this background, I promised some practical tips on how to think through the whole consumerisation thing in your environment, so here goes.

1. Acknowledge the situation

The first thing you must do, as implied in my previous comments, is to acknowledge and accept the situation. It’s no use pretending that nothing is happening, and if you do see consumerisation tendencies in your workforce, you must accept that blocking all such activity is going to be hard, if not impossible.

Indeed, we have heard tales from IT managers confirming that attempts to block unilateral adoption of technology and services typically fail. Some forces are simply too powerful to resist. For example, senior business managers and politically strong groups – such as the sales department – are some of the worst offenders when it comes to breaking any ban you might try to enforce.

Even if you could persuade such groups to set an example and resist temptation, the chances are that activity across the broader workforce would simply go underground. You are then in an even worse position, as employees are actively hiding stuff from you, so you a have lack of visibility as well as a lack of control.

So what can you do to manage the situation?

2. Understand employees’ behaviour

In order to answer this question, we need to understand the different types of behaviour we see. If most employees in a particular group are doing something new that provides a capability that they wouldn’t otherwise have, then this may be an indicator of a genuine need that is not being met, or a potential opportunity to do things in a better way. Use of a public social media site to facilitate project or team co-ordination, or the adoption of personal handhelds to provide e-mail access when away from their desks might be examples here. Other examples include the use of pay-as-you-go audio conferencing services, public web- and video-conferencing, use of slate devices by sales guys to give more intimate customer presentations, and so on.

In such situations where there is a clear business benefit, you have two main choices – embrace what they are using and put some kind of support and control structure around it, or replace what they are using with a more business-ready alternative. Which option you lean towards will depend on the nature of what they are using at the moment and what alternatives are available that might better fit the needs of the business and IT, if any.

If most users have adopted the same solution but it’s clearly inappropriate, e.g. a consumer-class online service that offers limited control over security and information management, or a handheld device that is going to be difficult to secure, manage and support, then replacement is the only safe option. If users are essentially solving the same problem, but with no consistency, e.g. they are all using a different online service or device, then replacement will again be the most likely solution, as excessive diversity usually translates to high cost and risk.

The decision to embrace a solution that users have initially adopted unilaterally can only be made with proper due diligence. I am not going to go into detail here; suffice it to say that you make an assessment based on all of the technical, functional and commercial criteria you would normally apply when evaluating an option from a vendor or service provider.

3. Set boundaries on what technology can be used

But what about when there isn’t a clear business benefit or you don’t have the budget for a replacement approach? This is where clear policies are required. You may, for example, elect to tolerate a certain amount of personal equipment use for employee satisfaction or morale purposes (which can have an indirect benefit in terms of recruitment and staff turnover management), but put some boundaries around what is permissible. Some organisations, for example, have said that personal smart phones may be hooked onto the e-mail server if they are on an approved list or meet certain criteria.

But let’s be clear that every device connection to the network or public service used will come at a cost and/or carry some risk, so even if you do take a more permissive approach, lines need to be drawn and some employees need to be told “no”. If the company and the IT department are seen to be generally accommodating, defending those lines and enforcing the policy is much more likely to be effective than trying to implement a blanket ban on anything personal.

The reality is that consumerisation is a complex topic, and while no-one has all the answers at the moment, I hope this discussion has at least got you thinking about how to deal with it pragmatically.


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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.