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One of the biggest challenges currently facing IT departments is the consumerisation of IT. The trend is simply unstoppable, but the movement does bring a number of advantages for both employees and organisations.

Employees benefit when they work for organisations that pay attention to their needs and desires and try to comply with them. Stephan Conaway of the London Borough of Brent is one CIO who pre-empts user demand.

“Our approach is to use devices as they are shipped by the manufacturer, so they are as close as possible to being a consumer product,” he says.

“A lot of our philosophy is about giving users choices so they can use the technology they like; we try to avoid forcing on users corporate solutions that don’t adequately meet their needs.”

Besides just helping them get good hardware, the consumerisation of IT makes it easier for employees to take care of personal business while at work. Moreover, because people take their work devices home, companies are more likely to let them stay home to work, at least some of the time.

As for the advantages to enterprises, one of the benefits of consumerisation is that workers are more connected to the outside world. They get more information about the market, and they broadcast more information about your company to the market.

Another benefit to organisations is that people end up doing more work because they have their work device and work applications with them at all times. Enabling people to check mail late at night or in the wee hours of the morning is particularly useful to companies doing business across multiple time zones.

Finally, corporations benefit from consumerisation because it stimulates competition among application vendors. Developers are falling all over themselves to try to meet the demands of business users, and the result is no less than a new breed of business applications that will transform the landscape of enterprise IT for the better.

The consumerisation of IT is by no means a new wave. Over a decade ago, high tech giants such as HP and IBM recognised a market segment they called ‘prosumer’, a portmanteau of the words ‘professional’ and ‘consumer’. The segment was made up of professionals who go to the store to buy products to use at work. The personal digital assistant (PDA), for instance, was one of the first products sold to prosumers.

But now the consumerisation of IT more closely resembles a tsunami, provoked by laptops, smartphones and more recently by the rise of tablet computers. Most workers now bring their devices home with them, have easier access to applications through app stores, and don’t hesitate to download consumer-grade software on the same device they use for work.

The effects of decentralised IT

Because information technology has become such a big part of most people’s lives, workers are now more tech-savvy than ever before and many get along just fine with little or no IT support. Employees troubleshoot devices themselves and when they get stumped, they’re just as likely to get help from friends than they are from company-sponsored IT support.

Some workers skirt company policies and use unauthorised apps, a practice, often described as shadow IT, that isn’t easy to prevent when people are using personal devices. But IT can’t just stand on the sidelines when such apps are then used to access the company intranet or company data on devices.

This use of unauthorised apps has another unwanted side effect. It reduces the shared learning that results from company-sanctioned apps being used by a large population of workers. Also with so many people using different apps, you lose the benefits of compatibility. An employee who uses Apple’s Pages word processor, for example, cannot easily co?author a document and track changes with an employee using Microsoft Word.

Many workers insist on finding software through consumer channels. Some of the more sophisticated dig up consumer software that changes the way work gets done. These employees end up changing business processes without the knowledge of the IT department.

Consumerisation takes control away from the IT department and changes the business application landscape in three distinct ways:

  • Off-the-shelf consumer apps are being brought into the enterprise for help with work;
  • Applets that run on devices to provide access to legacy systems are being sold through consumer channels;
  • Enterprise-grade applications are gradually changing their look and feel to more closely resemble consumer apps.

Off-the-shelf consumer apps

Several apps that have come into standard use in enterprises were originally brought in by workers without the knowledge of the IT department. In most cases, these products were brought in to solve an immediate problem and over time, they came into common use.

For example, Skype provides a reasonable substitute for face-to-face meetings with remote colleagues, partners and clients when travel can’t be arranged. And Google’s Gmail is a good way of sending large attachments when one needs to get around company-imposed file-size limits. Finally, Dropbox can be quickly set up to share files among members of both internal and external working groups.

Most IT departments get nervous about the use of non-standard software. Security concerns abound, because as soon as a worker puts company data on a device running any consumer app, the threat to data privacy is heightened.

There has been much talk of using social media in the enterprise, with one criticism being that it can be a distraction preventing people from working on business matters. If workers are constantly chatting with friends, how can they get anything done?

On the positive side, many people also use Facebook to chat with clients and partners, and sometimes it’s the quickest way of establishing a chat session. But nothing is safe on Facebook and organisations need clear guidelines as to what information can be shared. Some go so far as to block access to social media sites through the company intranet, but that’s only effective when workers are behind the firewall, and policies that are too strict are bound to fail.

Sometimes policies restricting use of consumer apps are undermined by senior executives. According to a February 2013 report by analyst Gartner, efforts by IT organisations to impose controls are frequently frustrated by top management who insist on using personal software for company business.

The term Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) has come into common use to describe the trend where people bring their own hardware. But the new important acronym is BYOA, which stands for Bring Your Own Apps. With BYOA, where the focus will be less on the devices and more on application management.

Aware of this new, some organisations are using application management (AM) solutions to whitelist or blacklist apps. The whitelist approach involves keeping a list of sanctioned apps; everything not on that list is forbidden. By contrast, the blacklist approach involves keeping a list of forbidden apps – everything not on the forbidden list is allowed.

Legacy access

With so many people using the same devices for personal and business functions, a solution that’s growing in popularity is to run a virtual desktop environment on laptops and tablets, so they become a screen interface to large enterprise applications. This solution goes a long way to minimising the threat of mixing personal and company data, since little or no company data is loaded onto the device.

Virtual desktops also reduce provisioning and support costs, and the vendor of the virtual desktop application takes care of the differences between device types, thereby reducing the IT headaches that can result from BYOD. Many open source virtual desktop systems are available for free or for a minimal outlay.

Rob Miller, assistant director of IT, London Borough of Lambeth, is one advocate of the virtual desktop. “My personal MacBook can access any of our network services, but only via a Citrix VDI session, so no data is on the device,” he explains.

“I can also use it to access services such as email and our online helpdesk via a web browser, which don’t require a connection to our secure network,” he adds.

Several products are also available to provide screen interfaces to mainframe applications. Many executives use apps running on tablets to access IBM 3270-based interfaces of legacy mainframe systems. The application running on the tablet provides the famous 3270 green screen on the remote device.

On the downside, virtual desktop solutions and screen-scraping applications can be slow; this is especially true when virtual desktop solutions are running multimedia applications. Moreover, when the connection is lost or slow, the employee can’t get any work done.

Some vendors are providing offline support, but the only way to do that is to store data locally, which might defeat the purpose of running a virtual desktop system.

App consumerisation

Despite the changes brought on by hardware-led consumerisation, there’s no replacing legacy applications. These huge software systems are at least partially customised and usually span the business processes of different departments. Nothing you buy at a consumer app store will provide the CRM, ERP or supply chain management functionality required by medium- to large-sized organisations.

However, the vendors of legacy systems are well aware of the potential threat coming from less expensive consumer apps, and they are moving towards a more consumerised look and feel. Several application vendors are providing tablet interfaces to sales force automation systems to make customer collateral, sales presentations, and ordering systems available to sales teams in the field. Others are providing executive dashboards and analytics software that can be run from handheld devices.

Besides modifying enterprise applications to look like consumer apps, business software is increasingly being delivered through mechanisms that mimic consumer app stores.

Large application vendors such as SAP are offering enterprise app stores to deliver their own applications and those of their partners, through a channel that resembles app stores. But instead of using enterprise app stores provided by specific vendors, many organisations have chosen to implement their own enterprise app store, offering a variety of applications from a variety of developers.

In its report Enterprise App Stores Can Increase the ROI of the App Portfolio, Gartner recommends that organisations use the enterprise app store to automate the procurement of enterprise software licences. IT can negotiate overarching contract terms with software vendors that provide enterprise-grade apps, and then provide user access to those applications through an enterprise app store.