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In “The Digital Workplace: How Technology is Liberating Work” we suggest that we are on an unstoppable trajectory towards location-free working.  The world of work is changing and as the Telework Research Network’s Kate Lister suggests, “you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”

Going hand-in-hand with this is an increasing desire for employees to be able to use their own technology, often a personal device that they may have bought themselves, and which usually has a high degree of portability. These are chiefly mobile phones, tablets, notebooks and laptops. Some of these devices provoke a great deal of brand and general geek-like loyalty (tip – avoid spending too much time with any obsessive Mac users), and so takes on the persona of a something between a best friend and a loyal companion.

Being outside the confines of the office and being able to define your own physical workplace  – at home or on the go – also may exacerbate and accentuate this desire for an employee’s  technical autonomy.

Also there is just convenience.  According to the recent quarterly mobile workforce report from iPass, the average number of devices carried around by a mobile worker is 3.5, up from 2.7 in 2011, with the explosion in tablet use likely to be the contributory factor.  3.5 seems a lot of devices to take on the plane.

Of course this trend leaves IT in a dilemma. They are torn between their traditional role of ensuring good performance, reducing risk and so on, with wanting to provide a great user experience and support these emergent ways of working.  The first requires a “lock-down” approach, the latter a certain loss or easing of control.

IT also has finite resources. Of course they have no choice but to walk a fine line between the two schools of thoughts, but with legal, risk, statutory and technical responsibilities pulling in one direction, and what the users actually want pulling in the other, the future is looking complicated.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies is one of the ways in which IT are responding. In many ways this seems to be a win-win situation, and an opportunity to touch more employees at reduced cost, particularly if a significant proportion of your workforce are not deskbound and do not have access to a computer during working hours.  For example UK-supermarket chain Sainsbury’s just announced they will allow their 150,000 staff to access their secure network from personal devices.  This is likely to be a popular move – the latest quarterly iPass mobile workforce survey suggested that 92 percent of respondents felt that their SmartPhone should be enabled for both their personal life and for work.

Although BYOD is only just emerging and may become more widely accepted, it may only give them a breathing space. I wonder if the dilemma between maintaining governance and satisfying user demand is just going to get harder.  Here are a few thoughts as to why:

The pace of change in the consumer world cannot currently be matched by the enterprise

Things move very fast in the consumer world, and tastes and trends change. This makes it very difficult for IT departments to respond and almost impossible to keep up the pace – for example tablets look like they could be a game-changer in the enterprise, but should they wait to see the impact of the Amazon Fire before making any buying decisions?  With infrastructure considerations and due diligence processes and annual budget rounds, it’s difficult to respond quickly to maintain true competitive advantage, and nearly impossible to meet user preferences.

Consumers are preoccupied with new devices

There is an obsessive buying trend amongst some consumers to buy the latest device, demonstrated most clearly when a new iPad is released.  This accelerates the pace of change and means IT departments will always be behind, either being able to support these devices or more importantly, equal the user experience on them.  As attractive products are launched in ever shorter release cycles, IT departments will continue to struggle to keep up.

There’s a lot of “legacy thinking” within IT departments

There is still a lot of “legacy thinking” within IT departments which refuse to recognize current user demands.   Most technology provided by IT departments is regarded with disdain by employees.  Peter Hinssen, who has written extensively about the effect of the adoption of IT on society, and was a guest on IBF 24, has famously described ‘work’ as “The brief period during the day when I use old technology.”

In our book we interview Lee Bryant, founder of social business consultancy Dachis Group London. He suggests that IT departments are well aware of users’ views, but refuse to do anything about it. He’s observed that

“I’ve sat through meetings with senior IT people where they say, ‘Look, we expect the users to hate us. We’ve never delivered anything that makes them love us and we don’t feel that we’re going to change that dynamic any time soon.”

It’s possible there may be a lot of soul-searching within IT departments as some of this traditional thinking is inevitably challenged.

The cloud makes it easy to bypass IT

The cloud and proliferation of hosted services at very reasonable prices means it is very easy for divisions, teams and individuals to ‘do their own thing’ and organize their own technology.  Governance is very difficult to maintain centrally when a team can collaborate very effectively using tools in the cloud at next to no cost, with no initial set-up required.  As cloud offerings get better and better, governance becomes harder and harder.  The proliferation of Yammer is a good example.

IT departments may start to split functionally

In our interview Bryant also goes on to say he believes IT departments may start to split functionally.   He says:

“In the next five years I think IT will see a split of functions and velocities. So I think you’re going to have core, mission-critical system IT that will continue to be conservative and, indeed, should be, and will protect the kind of operational crown jewels. I think there are going to be the plumbers who just keep the networks flowing – with no more power in the organization than building facility management people today.

I think all the rest will really migrate from the basement, metaphorically, into the business and work alongside business managers as technologists or engineers,or whatever you want to call them, who deliver business applications and business value.”

This approach sounds sensible as long as activity is co-ordinated. If technologists are working directly for business units, in some instances it may lead to greater challenges to central IT.

So overall IT faces a tricky path forward.  Should they be dynamic and lead the charge or risk being labeled dinosaurs and left behind?  Do they agree to increasing user demand for consumerisation or prioritize security above all?  The likely answer is a path that straddles both camps, and one which involves educating users to a greater level of awareness about the current sets of choices that organizations have to make.  I certainly don’t envy their position.

About the author

Steve-BynghallSteve Bynghall is a researcher and benchmarker at the Digital Workplace Group. He has produced several best practice reports, is a regular blogger and provides knowledge management services to DWG members.

Steve launched and managed the global client extranet programme at BDO, the fifth largest accounting network in the world.

During his 13 years at BDO, he played an integral part in two major intranet reiterations, as well as launching a number of other knowledge-related platforms. Steve has recently co-written a book on crowdsourcing with Ross Dawson.

Steve is passionate about being able to work from anywhere, and is occasionally seen in local coffee shops with his trusty laptop. When not working, Steve can be found exploring London with his family.

Connect with Steve on Twitter: @bynghall or on Google +.

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