Consumerisation is an amazing trend; the idea that anyone can make choices about the way they work and the tools they use to get their job done. From an IT point of view it can, at first, look like a scary proposition. All those people bringing in different bits of kit and making you look after them, manage them and connect them to your network. Of course, consumerisation is about far more than just devices – it’s actually about new ways of working, not about specific bits of technology. It’s about what the technology enables.

One of the more interesting aspects of the consumerisation trend is that people are more willing to do more for themselves – providing the tools are right. Not convinced? Just have a quick think about the types of things you used to do that required someone else’s input in the past:

  • Grocery shopping – once you visited a shop where the shop keeper served you, then came supermarkets, now online shopping is commonplace
  • Car insurance – once you visited a broker, then you called them, then you did it online, now you use a comparison site
  • Banking – once branch-based, now online banking is considered a norm and mobile banking is becoming a norm

Whilst these are all examples of consumerisation (consumerisation being about convenience at its root) they aren’t really examples of the consumerisation of the services we provide as IT professionals. Sure, they have a technology element, but they don’t directly relate to the enterprise. Does the model that we see evolving above have a place, though? I think it does; I think there is a key to enabling consumerisation in those three examples. Self-service is one of the keys to the consumerisation of IT.

Self-service is nothing new; we’ve had it for decades. We’ve been attempting to create self-service portals for one thing or another for years and I see this as a positive. Self-service is such a key lever that we have been pushing for it for so long purely because we know it’s the right thing to do. Applying it to IT systems, though, has often been done for the wrong reasons, in my opinion. Every self-service project I’ve ever been involved in that the users hated was done with the wrong primary driver. Cost saving is not the primary driver of good self-service.

Again, if we take the above three examples we can reach the same conclusion about why have they evolved as we know them today:

  • Grocery shopping – internet shopping - it’s convenient for the consumer
  • Car insurance – price comparison sites - it’s convenient for the consumer
  • Banking – online / mobile banking - it’s convenient for the consumer

Consumer convenience is the real driver. Cost reduction is a nice to have, but what does it mean to the consumerisation of IT? Here are my thoughts about where to bring a consumer-centric self-service model into play, why such models work and how they can help you save money.

Application market places

These days you don’t have to look far for an example of market places that have been a runaway success - application market places being an obvious one. That runaway success is an indicator that your users will be able to get their heads around the idea of a self-service market place to install their applications. Products like System Center can help you build an application catalogue that your end users can deploy for themselves. If you aren’t already doing enterprise application deployment (and most large enterprises are - I was employed to do this 11 years ago on SMS 1.2), then you must be under significant pressure for human-based installs. If you’re doing enterprise app deployment but there’s no self-service aspect, you have to ask yourself why you’ve not made that step.

If you think about what the end user wants when they ask for an application, they really just want to do a specific job. They need Visio to make a diagram, they don’t have Visio, they ask how to get Visio, they find the form, fill it out, wait, get told it’s not right, rework it, submit it, wait, then someone pushes out the package and then….well, by that time they don’t need Visio. It would be far more user-centric to have allowed them to self-select the product and install. Licensing just reared its head there and some will say that licensing gets in the way of this model – I agree it’s a challenge, but you need to work that out for your business – if someone needs Visio to do their job, they need it (or a similar tool to which you can guide them).

The advantage of an application market place is that it gives you the opportunity to demonstrate guidance to your users around the decisions they make.

Self-help

This, for me, is the biggest no-brainer self-service system to support consumerisation. Where do you go to get help with a technical problem? You go to your favourite search engine (Bing, obviously) and search for it. Where do your users go when they need help? Do they call you, or do they Bing it first? If they’re calling you it’s probably because you’ve got a restrictive IT regime in place and they think it’s the only route. If they call you when they can’t find the information they need, how can you help them better?

Enterprise search in the form of SharePoint FAST is a pretty darn powerful tool, and it can, with almost no configuration, search within the content of all the documents you pop on your SharePoint. Why not just upload your technical library of word documents created by your IT team and let your end users search them? Granted there could be some dark secrets in there, like administrator passwords and secrets (e.g. you can still launch a command prompt from a help file, but your end users can probably find the latter from the internet anyway). If something needs to remain secret then apply appropriate content control.

You’ll find that all the good public cloud based services have great self-help built in, Office 365 being no exception.

Remember what the point of a good self-help system is; it’s to allow people to consume conveniently. You don’t need to start out with heavy taxonomy. Begin with a simple search and allow people to tag and organise the content themselves to reduce management burden – just manage the content, not the content discovery. This will save you money running your helpdesk and make your end users more efficient. If you don’t believe me, do a simple trial.

Self-service infrastructure

This is the biggie with private cloud: it needs to be self-service/no-service to make it a private cloud. Private clouds are about providing resources to end users who can do things with them that give the business an advantage in some way. What everyone is looking for in a private cloud is the ability to have as much of the operating model of the public cloud as possible. Let’s give people what they want - if they need a new VDI session for a new starter, give them a simple portal through which to request the desktop and have it auto provision in the back end. If they need a new SharePoint team site, let them provision it themselves – they know what they need, so ask what value you’re adding and step out of the equation.

Don’t forget that sometimes no-service infrastructure is better than self-service. If it’s the end of the month and the pay run is on, allow the payroll system to auto scale up – a simple example of no-service, or rather no- human-interaction-required-service. Of course no-service can be helpful in other places: the VDI session we created above can be de-provisioned after 30 days automatically to prevent VM sprawl and to save cost.

When dealing with self-service infrastructure on behalf of a person (or department or team), don’t forget to make it chargeable. Making things chargeable helps keeps a keen eye on preventing sprawl, and doing so up front, when the user is making a decision, triggers extra decision making to ensure they do the right thing.

Self-service BI

The information you have within your business is a key asset (I actually rank it only next to people in that respect), so being able to make the most of that information is one of the most important things any business has in its arsenal. It’s no secret that data is getting bigger either, over time there’s more of it, so being able to store it is expensive. As a result, from a purely financial point of view, being able to make best use of it is critical.

Allow your people to be agile with the way they use data; let them break it down in interesting ways by giving them the tools for self-service BI. It’s actually quite simple to do, be it giving them Excel 2010 (which can process about 1m rows of data!), democratising data using SQL Server 2008R2, giving them cool tools like PowerPivot or even giving them a simple coding environment like LightSwitch. People will be able to do better things with data than even you can think of.

Of course you need to remain responsible, giving users appropriate access and protecting that incredible corporate asset.

Summary

Hopefully you can see that providing people with the tools to do things themselves need not be scary. Rather it’s a natural evolution of the way we’ve done things for years. It’s also something that your end users will not only be able to accept, but will actively want to adopt. The role of the IT professional is pretty clear – be a guide not a gatekeeper, provide appropriate access to the tools of work.