Bring your own device to work is finally here

September 1, 2010: 7:00 AM ET

CIOs are under pressure to allow personal devices into their enterprise IT departments. Companies that treat this change as an opportunity rather than a threat are more likely to win.

By Gary Kovacs, senior vice president at Sybase

When Henry Ford introduced the Model T in 1908, the speed limit in most places -- provided you were outside city limits -- was just 20 miles per hour (in town, it was usually just 10 mph).

That restriction seems hopelessly quaint today. You know what else will soon seem equally quaint? Your company's repressive approach towards employees' devices.

Most companies provide a limited selection of laptops and smartphones that range from bland to blander. Meanwhile, employees are champing at the bit to bring in their own stylish smartphones (the iPhone 4 and HTC Evo come to mind), cute netbooks from Asus and Acer, and, increasingly, useful tablets like Apple's (AAPL) iPad.

But most IT departments still either block these devices outright, or grudgingly grant them only limited entry. While citing security and management risks, a fear of change seems to underlie their objections.

A quick history lesson reveals why. Most companies, if they were around then, first developed their IT management policies during the mainframe or client-server era. Administrators protected those expensive assets like high priests guarding holy relics.

As we moved through the PC and Internet eras, IT, inevitably, loosened up a little. But the basic 'command-and-control' framework never disappeared.

Problem is, we are in a new era, characterized by two transformative changes. First, the consumerization of IT means that new innovations hit the consumer sphere first before entering the enterprise. A good example is the iPad, the tablet reinvented by Apple. Despite being aimed squarely at consumers, the iPad has in just a few months already won enterprise fans such as Mercedes-Benz and Wells Fargo bank (WFC).

Second is the emergence of mobile-centric enterprises that are adopting rather than preventing these new ways of working. Kraft Foods (KFT), for instance, is letting its 97,000 employees buy their own PCs, offering them a stipend to do so. Carfax is offering its employees interest-free loans, while Citrix Systems (CTXS) is giving workers a whopping $2,100 to choose their own computer.

Other companies, including my own, are letting employees connect their personal iPhones to corporate applications, and/or footing their monthly bills for them.

These firms, what I'll call 'unwired enterprises,' understand how 'bring your own device' policies can empower employees to be more creative, efficient and productive. And they manage the risks of 'bring your own' policies by relying on management software that enables IT to keep personal and business data 100% separate, and consequently, secure.

Under pressure, CIOs must find a way

Many CIOs I talk with say they feel the pressure to transform, and understand the upsides that they might gain. But their actions speak louder than their words. Too many continue to maintain outdated policies such as a single-phone standard or bans on corporate data on personal devices. Not only does that leave workers grumpy, but they are usually impossible to enforce well, anyway.

But as sports shows us, the best defense is usually a good offense. Companies that treat change as an opportunity rather than a threat are more likely to win in this new era.

For instance, having employees bring their own devices can reduce training costs as well as the amount of IT support calls afterward. They can make employees more productive in and outside of the office. And they make employees, especially younger ones and/or those in creative/knowledge positions, happier.

Embracing a 'bring your own' policy can also help accelerate the process of IT transforming itself from "The Cost Center That Says No" to "The Business Partner That Helps Drive New Revenue."

One well-known global delivery company is using mobile software to turn its delivery drivers into salespeople. By using a little imagination and some key tools, this firm was able to create a whole new army of revenue generators.

Nicholas Carr argued several years ago that IT Doesn't Matter because technology was so commoditized and widespread that it no longer provided a meaningful competitive advantage to businesses.

Carr was wrong. Access to cutting-edge technology may have been democratized. But there will always be companies that win due to their smart, progressive adoption of IT, and others that lose for failing to take advantage of opportunities in front of them.

Companies with the courage and foresight to implement policies like 'bring your own' which encourage the new ways of working will get a leg up business-wise over their fear-filled counterparts.

Gary Kovacs is senior vice-president of markets, solutions and products at Sybase, an SAP company.

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