Consumerisation is a word I am hearing a lot these days and yet as I type this I realise that it is still a word in its infancy, even my word processor didn't recognise it. So just how real, how important and how established is this phenomenon?

Consumerisation is much bigger than just enterprises having to manage their employees bringing their own devices into the network and it is not an issue that only surfaced in the last 12 months. At its core, consumerisation describes how innovation in information technology now emerges primarily in the home and how it is adopted (some would say invades) the world of work. The reasons for this shift can be accurately characterised in four words; expectation, visibility, utility and flexibility.

Great Expectations

The internet is of course a regular part of everyday life now, everyone from six to sixty conducts a varying proportion of their life online. Large-scale, free-of-charge web mail services such as Excite (the original) Hotmail and Yahoo are almost 20 years old now; the same can be said of instant messaging. The social network has been with us in one form or another since the launch of AOL in 1989. The Application Service Provider (ASP) boom dates back to the dot com era, and computing hardware has been shrinking in size from day one.

The graduates of today and even of the past several years have grown up in an inter-connected world and their lives have evolved to fill all available space within that world. To expect a new hire to work without access to Web 2.0 is now no different than expecting them to work without access to more basic means of communication like telephones and simple email. In fact most of us could more easily function without the latter two than without the internet.

So why now? 

It's all about Visibility, Utility and Flexibility. The capabilities on offer, their attractiveness and scalability have been historically limited by cost. Whether that is the cost of the handset, the tablet or the bandwidth it has always been a barrier. This meant that the buying power to really make use of and importantly to control the use of these technologies, resided squarely with the enterprise.

 Recent technological innovations haven't just shifted the playing field; they have changed the game entirely. Data costs both for broadband and for 3G access have tumbled, unlimited use packages are now the norm. The advent of the iPhone turned device selection into a consumer driven choice and the success of Android has amplified that. The success of iPad has meant that the laptop is being relegated to the status of the desktop. Cloud services like Twitter, Facebook,  Google Apps, Amazon Web Services, Apple's new iCloud have pushed the collaboration  and communication platforms outside the corporate perimeter and into the hands of the user.

We increasingly expect our work environment to be available on-demand and visible from wherever we are, whatever the hardware we choose to use; in fact this is one of the key defining characteristics of Cloud. File sharing services, virtual server availability, social networks, blogs, wikis, instant messaging public hotspots, low cost mobile internet, high-performance hardware, collaboration environments all mean that external is the new internal. It is entirely possible, with a combination of these consumer services to be able to sit in your head office, never once connect to the corporate network and still have all you need and more to do your job effectively.

The enterprise is blind

So when I access my corporate email from my 3G tablet using a web interface and use a public file sharing service to synchronise my files, when my laptop is left chained to my desk and my work life is mobile, when I use public social networks for professional networking and never connect to the VPN; did the enterprise just go blind?

A true consumerisation strategy needs to establish a means of managing any device that connects to corporate assets over public networks such as 3G. To rely on them periodically connecting to the enterprise network is no longer sufficient. It needs to be able to remotely differentiate the corporate from the personal content on user-owned devices in order not to overstep its bounds and it needs to recognise that consumerisation is about so much more than the device your employees chose to use. Access to information and services both internally and externally needs to be re-examined in the face of this crumbling perimeter.

First and foremost enterprises should acknowledge the reality that is already upon them and redesign outdated polices, practices and most critically, update training. As was pointed out in a study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, that was sponsored by Trend Micro back in 2009 "Much education, training and organisational experimentation is needed to ensure that greater technology freedom does not sap productivity or cause damage to the company. The sooner that firms begin to tackle this, the sooner the benefits of technology democracy will start to flow.