The last few years have seen something of a revolution in terms of consumer IT. Since the mid-1990s, it has been common to see desktop PCs and associated hardware in UK homes, and by the mid-noughties, the vast majority of homes had upgraded to a broadband connection. But over the past five years, the rate of technology adoption has stepped up a gear. The arrival of exciting new smartphones, netbooks and more recently the media tablet has seen a significant shift in user habits, and the way the UK population engages with IT in general.
Consumers now desire internet access on the move, whatever their location, enabling them to take advantage of a full range of online services. Fixed broadband lines have quickly fallen down the list of priorities for many people, who are happy to browse the web using their phones, tablets and other handheld devices. People are increasingly attached to technology, and want constant access to the tools they shape their lives around. The convenience afforded by mobile technology has provided consumers with great flexibility, and ultimately power. They are able to exert greater control over their work and personal lives, simply by virtue of having access to next-generation consumer IT.
As modern technology devices become more accessible to the public, and enter into wider use, their popularity understandably increases. Many users have become increasingly reliant upon their smartphone or tablet to organise their day. From an employer's perspective, this creates certain challenges. Employees expect to have access to a wide range of web-enabled devices, and will potentially be encouraged to work more productively if equipped with such tools. The functionality of mobile devices is undoubted, but organisations need to weigh up the pros and cons of allowing consumer IT to seep into the workplace.
IT in the workplace: Potential for conflict
IT leaders have been faced with such challenges before, as the arrival of high-speed internet broadened the range of online services accessible to computer users. Early internet adopters were often faced with long waits for single pages to load within their browser, but following the introduction of broadband services in 2000, web development kicked on. Home internet users found that they could use instant messaging as a real-time alternative to email, while the arrival of VoIP and webcam technology meant they could make phone calls over the web.
Employees quickly realised the benefits of applying such solutions in the workplace, often before their employers had given the matter any thought at all. If Skype could be used to converse with friends and family in foreign lands, it could certainly help facilitate virtual business meetings. In the same way, instant messaging could enable employees to communicate more efficiently with colleagues and members of the public. For those who had experienced the benefits of web-enabled IT tools, there could be no turning back. Where traditional work processes and practises could be improved by the application of consumer IT, employees were all too quick to extol its virtues.
Many business leaders may have ignored these protestations at first, but as Web 2.0 tools have become more common, the majority have relaxed their attitudes. In some cases, chief information officers have been reluctant to embrace consumer-led trends, with the disconnect between the IT department and employees being all too apparent. Decision makers may have different attitudes about the value offered by particular IT tools, and ultimately, given their higher status, it is these that help shape policy. However, by failing to respect employees' desire to utilise modern IT, businesses risk alienating some individuals within their organisation.
Introducing enterprise IT in the workplace
When taking key decisions over the use of enterprise IT, business leaders should remember that it is the employees who are the principle users of such solutions. Their views cannot simply be disregarded if companies wish to maximise the benefits of their technology infrastructure. If workers are able to identify a potential role for consumer IT within the workplace – whether this be smartphones, tablets, laptops, or communication channels such as social media – executives should at least give the proposals serious thought. Employees have a great deal of practical knowledge and understanding about how things work on the ground, and if they wish to use Web 2.0 in the workplace, there are surely benefits to be had.
Business owners have to balance the sometimes-conflicting needs of empowering employees and motivating them as effectively as possible, while retaining organisational control. For instance, allowing all workers across a large organisation to simply bring their consumer devices into work unchecked risks jeopardising network security. The safety of data and confidential information must always be a priority for businesses, and not something to be sacrificed for enhancements in other areas. Strong policies are needed to govern the use of consumer IT devices, and ensure their benefits are realised, rather than their pitfalls. Few companies are able to equip all employees with corporate USBs, smartphones, laptops and tablets of their own, so careful thought and attention needs to be given to the way consumer IT is used.
Dale Vile, chief executive of analyst firm Freeform Dynamics, pointed out recently that while employees tend to be solely concerned about their own working environment, IT leaders are required to take a much wider view. Employees realise that modern IT tools, such as those they use in their own homes, can make their working lives easier, but how many of them consider the dangers? So while employers should be looking to latch on to emerging trends and practices, a certain degree of caution is perhaps still advised.
Writing for Computer Weekly, Mr Vile urged IT teams to consider a range of factors - including cost management, security, compliance, return on investment and business future-proofing – before formulating policies on consumer IT. But a presumption in favour of IT adoption may be advisable. "The trouble is that too many tech-related decisions in the past made by IT departments have been very one-sided," Mr Vine stated. "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." Companies need to nurture their staff, rather than alienate them, and one way they can achieve this is by keeping an open mind on the use of consumer IT.