Not that long ago, corporations seemed to always have the technical advantage over consumers. Email, BlackBerrys, even the internet were first commercialised and adopted into the workplace before they gained widespread traction in the consumer market.
Company laptops and mobile devices were not only cutting edge, they were often seen as status symbols.
But the tide has turned. Today, many technologies designed for the consumer market far outstrip their business counterparts in terms of functionality and user experience.
As a result, many consumer technologies are rapidly being adopted into the corporate IT environment. Smart phones and tablet devices are driving productivity gains in mobile workforces.
Social networking sites are catalysing commercial developments and connecting disparate teams in collaborative settings. Touch interfaces are changing the way people interact with data.
Driving the call for change
In turn, many employees — from executives down — are increasingly demanding the same experience at the office as they have outside of it.
The next generation of graduate intakes, raised on social media, will see email as an increasingly foreign technology. CIOs would be wise to take notice.
The reality is that business users are already bringing these technologies into the office to enhance productivity and become more effective at their jobs.
So if the CIO is not able to quickly turn IT into a strategic enabler of this trend, they may find that the business has created workarounds of their own, and potentially opened up the organisation up to new security risks and incremental costs.
But rather than just facilitate the adoption of consumer devices, CIOs must find ways to embrace and capitalise on them.
Consider, for example, the enhanced responsiveness of an employee who — while surfing Facebook at home — notices an email alerting them to a work issue and can then instantly use the same device to access the systems and data required to respond effectively.
Backing a horse or changing the game
Of course, that leaves CIOs in a position where they may be forced to choose from a number of new and rapidly emerging technologies.
And the choice can be complex: they can place their bets on a single horse and hopefully reduce the level of integration and adaptation that may be required, but they may also impact the organization's overall flexibility by tying the business to one device and its success in the marketplace.
Or they can build out applications to facilitate multiple devices running competing platforms, which can be a drain on resources and add new complexity to the IT environment.
In such cases, CIOs would be wise to focus their attention on enabling the organisation to take advantage of game changing technologies that embrace consumerisation, whilst maintaining governance and control over associated risks and costs.
For example, a number of progressive organisations have adopted virtual desktop infrastructure technologies such as VDI and remote desktop services that use cloud computing advances to host a central version of the desktop that can then be accessed on any number of devices, both consumer and corporate.
This means that an executive switching from their laptop to their smartphone to their home PC can instantly access the same desktop (and related applications) no matter what device they use.
And since most of the computing power and data storage resides in the data centre, many of these organisations have found that they can extend the lifespan of their existing assets at the same time, a potentially compelling business case when faced with an entire desktop and laptop refresh (such as a migration from Windows XP to Windows 7).
There are, of course, a myriad of other considerations to take into account: how will the organisation incentivise employees to purchase and upgrade consumer devices?
What are the tax implications of employee device purchases? Or how will the IT department monitor security and prevent data loss on social networks? Certainly, there is complexity in deveoping an effective strategty.
Enable to transform
But the consumerisation of business IT may offer organisations a compelling and fairly straightforward roadmap for achieving sustainable business transformation through IT enablement.
In my January column (Enabling the productive business) I shared some ideas for gaining more productivity from employees, in part by leveraging consumer mobile devices.
But even organisations without mobile workforces can gain from the consumerisation of IT. In some cases, businesses are using mobile channels and social networks to attract new talent and communicate with clients.
KPMG, for example, participates in Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn; we have iPad apps that deliver thought leadership to the public and a growing number of our employees use their own tablets at the office and client sites.
It seems fairly certain that CIOs can expect to see an increasing number of consumer technologies enter the workplace in the near future.
Some will offer new opportunities and efficiencies, others will simply be a stepping stone to something much more valuable. Regardless, CIOs would be well advised to always approach the adoption of new technologies — from whatever source — with a single-minded focus on what is best for the business.