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Consumerization: All or Nothing?

Lists are good, and lists with alliteration are even better. So I recommend this blog at the Harvard Business Review’s site, which offers an "Enterprise-Class Checklist for Consumerization of IT." Here are the six elements that author R "Ray" Wang, CEO of Constellation Research, identifies as critical for a consumer technology to work effectively within the enterprise:

1. Simple
2. Scalable
3. Safe (i.e., not disruptive to the enterprise's internal systems)
4. Secure (i.e., in the classic "IT security" sense)
5. Sustainable
6. Sexy

Those all seem like pretty reasonable items to check off when you're sizing up BYO technologies within your enterprise user base. But Wang also offers some points that should give IT managers pause when considering where they stand with regard to consumerization. First of all, he notes that, "While overall corporate tech spending is up by 17 to 20% in our latest data, spending by IT departments is flat at best," suggesting that the money and therefore decision-making power is leaching out of IT when it comes to technology directions in the enterprise.

Perhaps even more of a concern is an issue where IT might have thought it held a trump card: Wang asserts that cloud-based consumerization technologies are actually more reliable than IT-provided systems: "Software-as-a-Service and Cloud vendors mostly deliver 99.9% uptime. In an upcoming Constellation Research survey of IT departments, preliminary results show internal reliability ranging from 97% to 99.1%."

Now, some people might question that 99.9% figure for the cloud—three nines equals less than 9 hours of downtime per year, and several of the past year's high-profile cloud outages lasted longer than that. I’m skeptical about "deliver" versus "promise." Even so, if the figure on IT reliability is accurate, that's a fairly eye-opening statistic no matter what the cloud providers are doing.

If enterprise leadership chooses to view the reliability issue the way the HBR blogger does, IT may have a challenge in competing with cloud services. But in general—as Wang himself acknowledges—having IT standardize and coordinate technology implementation remains a best practice: "When IT leads the purchasing, systems remain structured, orderly, and efficient."

The challenge for enterprises is that this standardization function isn’t just nice to have, it's essential--and yet paradoxically, potentially low-value. Here's what I mean: Are any enterprises standardizing on Google Docs? Are they telling users, "We don't provide you with Word, Powerpoint and Excel; if you want to do a spreadsheet, you’d better learn Google Docs"? More likely, they're providing Microsoft, and also supporting—or at least turning a blind eye to—Google. Which gives you all the cost of Microsoft licensing and support, with all the risk of unauthorized Google.

So now, for every productivity application—including voice/UC—you have the choice: Spend big bucks for a platform nobody's really enthusiastic about, but that's required to provide a lowest-common-denominator. Or take a blind leap into the world of the consumerized app, trusting that knowledge of basic productivity apps is so widespread in our culture that users can teach themselves to download, use, share, secure and support something they grabbed off the Net. I don't think that works either.

This view takes IT in exactly the direction it doesn't want to go. It makes IT into a cost center, a department that spends money to provide a capability-of-last-resort. IT implements Office (or a PBX) so that users who lack the inclination or initiative to get on Google Docs or Skype or their mobile phone, still have somewhere to go.

I think the answer to the dilemma—and the way that IT stays relevant here—is for IT to make the transition into being a true service provider for the enterprise. IT creates a menu of technology that users choose from—if a user's job requires office apps, that person can choose Microsoft or Google, but not both. Maybe they're incented to choose Google based on criteria like how much they collaborate with colleagues at other locations, or Microsoft based on how often they create presentations or business-critical spreadsheets. Obviously, this is the direction that mobility implementation seems to be headed—BYOD, but not necessarily any device you want.

In short, IT's job changes from running the technology to running the users (and a good chunk of the technology).