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Consumerization of tech: The new enterprise disruptor

We hear it all the time now, the drumbeat of consumerization. But what makes it different than tech revolutions of the past? It turns out, it's those very differences that make it more liable to forever change how we acquire and use information technology in the enterprise.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Our IT organizations will either be a primary enabler of this phenomenon and learn to manage and govern it, or they will be largely pushed out of the way and marginalized. One trend has emerged with clarity from the discussions this year about the tidal wave of consumer tech moving into the enterprise: It's profoundly reshaping the IT landscape in most organizations. Just a year ago, Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) was barely on the strategic radar, yet a recent CDW survey of the federal government shows that as of last month, nearly half (44%) of federal employees now use a personal device for work purposes and that 62% of agencies now permit the use of worker provided devices.

Yet this is government, which actually tends to be a bit more conservative than the IT industry in general, though consequently it's a good indicator of the change as a whole. In fact, consumerization is further along than that, at least broadly measured from a device perspective. Though data are still emerging about the trend in all industries, the early numbers in the private sector are even more dramatic, with a new report from Harris Interactive claiming that 81% of firms have already adopted some form of BYOD policy. Another recent data point shows that half of workers are even willing to foot the bill if they can only bring their own devices.

But consumerization is not just about devices or user supplied technology like Web and mobile applications. It's not even directly about social media, app stores in the workplace, or extreme ease-of-use, even though all of these feature prominently in what I call the CoIT phenomenon. Instead, it's about a new mindset.

This new mindset around IT is one where users tend to lead the IT charge. Not always, but increasingly so. They have frequently occurring technology needs on the ground. They also have the resources, time, and urgency to find the technology, or least more than the IT department does. So part of the consumerization story is a pull model of easy-to-access IT. Most of the time, it's what they find in their browsers or app stores and on the shelf at their local mobile store or online electronics retailer.

Related: Consumerization in 2012: Cloud and mobile blurs into other people's IT

But consumerization is just as much about about IT abundance these days. Perhaps the term super abundance isn't inappropriate here. While there's little question that the iPad was the first consumer technology that workers at all levels began to demand support for in a way that was not possible to ignore in most companies, it really is just part of a vast cloud of new options that have genuine disruptive potential to a degree that, for lack of a more accurate phrase, is very disquieting to IT managers, IT architecture/governance teams, and IT security staff everywhere.

Consumer tech's disruptive tendencies

Consumer IT is disruptive to the enterprise because of several key factors that are inherent to its nature and why it's often qualitatively different from the mini computer and PC revolutions of 70s and 80s:

  • Endless variety and choice. Unlike what the IT department is prepared to offer, the consumer world has literally millions of options when it comes to apps. The implication is that there's almost always an app to solve a given problem. There are hundreds of types of smart devices to choose from. Never before in history has there been an abundance of such IT choice. Such solutions are now becoming easier and easier to find all the time because of app stores and online retailers, which also have workable quality control through features such as user ratings and recommendations. App stores and peer reviews also make consumer IT sources more informed than they have in the past. The app store gateway also ensures a level of safety and assurance that wasn't there in the past.
  • Almost zero barrier to acquire. One button click in an app store or a handful of fields in a Web app will get you access. Increasingly, robust data import options -- even though they give the security team nightmares -- make it easy to get your information into consumer apps, further lowering onboard cost. A few minutes research and clicking versus going through the maze of internal IT acquisition makes consumer IT extremely appealing in comparison. It's also one reason I'm bullish on enterprise app stores as a means of combating this as necessary, though this will take years for many organizations to deal with.
  • Low cost, approaching free. While some of the better hosted, off-premises SaaS enterprise software can have a hefty price compared to consumer apps, it's nearly always cheaper than on-premises, often by a wide margin. But it's the consumer apps that are useful for business that are often the biggest draw for so-called shadow IT, because they are essentially free. Apps like DropBox and Evernote, though excellent examples of consumer apps that are extremely popular with business users, are just the tip of the iceberg, given that there are more than 550,000 apps alone in Apple's App Store.
  • Easiest to use. That the user experience for consumer IT, because it must succeed continuously to acquire and then retain its users, is consistently much better than enterprise applications probably comes as little surprise now. The use of traditional enterprise IT solutions is typically decided once and then mandated for use and infrequently revisited thereafter. In the end, usability is not nearly as important to the standard enterprise IT selection process, even though it is to the users themselves. Consumer IT wins the hearts and minds battle here because it's optimized for the most important point of use: the human experience.
  • More advanced and innovative. The capability gap between consumer and enterprise is widening as thousands of developers race to take advantage of location, touch interfaces, augmented reality, in-hand OCR, gameification, voice input, video/audio integration, near-field communication (NFC), and much more that new consumer devices make easy and possible, but that enterprise vendors are taking a great deal of time to even consider, much less put on their roadmaps. In fact, traditional enterprise vendors, with only a few notable exceptions, are turning out relatively uninspired mobile versions of their apps and generally not taking advantage of the intrinsic power and innovation inherent in iOS and Android platforms and compatible devices. Aside from devices, social media, big data, and other consumer trends are also not making their way into enterprises nearly as fast as they are being adopted by consumers.

What does all of this mean? It creates a widening chasm between what's readily possible and what centrally managed organizations can achieve on their own. I've been arguing for decentralization of IT for some years now but I didn't quite expect it to take this turn, in that I expected IT leaders to see the writing on the wall and actively create programs to move IT selection and innovation closer to the ground, so that more choice and options were available. I'm now seeing that the consumerization tidal wave is actually being actively disruptive to IT, who is largely going along with it because they can't stop it. In fact, many of the global CIOs I've been recently speaking with tell me they actively feel they are losing control.

Giving Up Isn't An Option

A new set of CoIT predictions over the weekend on TechCrunch by Uzi Shmilovici observed that we should expect a new class of enterprise software that not only embodies but specifically takes advantage of these trends. That the advancements will come from increasingly consumer-oriented companies I believe is correct, but it largely won't (and really, logistically can't) come from the IT department in its current form. His other prediction I think is even more transformative, that there is a dramatic shift in discovery channels taking place. In other words, even though CoIT in some form, is nearly 1/3 of our IT already, the revolution hasn't even happened yet because the flood gates are still a long way from fully open.

Related: Ten strategies for making the "Big Leap" to next-gen mobile, social, cloud, consumerization, and big data

In my opening keynote at IDG's consumerization conference last Monday, I advised IT managers to get ready for 10x-100x more IT in the next couple of years. I believe our IT organizations will either be a primary enabler of this phenomenon and learn to manage and govern it, or they will be largely pushed out of the way and marginalized. However, for the long term benefit of the organization, I truly believe there is one major chance (outside of our core transaction systems, which have a longer life) for IT to learn to live and co-exist productively in this CoIT world. I don't think giving up is a legitimate option, particularly as the legal and regulatory shoe is sure to fall as this trend continues.

How is consumerization affecting your organization? Are people using the devices and apps and not telling anyone, or is IT starting to facilitate the process?

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