Employees are boss when choosing tech

Staff members are increasingly influencing uptake of company technology by bringing their own smartphones, tablets and apps to work, as Jessica Twentyman reports

What was, at first, a trickle of personal mobile devices into the workplace quickly became a flood. Now that flood has become a deluge – not just of employee-owned smartphones and tablets, but of applications too.

In today’s workplace, employees use a wide range of consumer and consumer-like technologies to plan business trips, schedule appointments, communicate with each other, and share documents. These include many of the tools familiar to them from their lives outside of work: Skype, Gmail, Dropbox, WhatsApp, Twitter and so on.

The upshot is that, as well as having to deal with “bring your own device” (BYOD) policies, bosses also now face the prospect of enforcing “bring your own application” (BYOA) rules. “In fact, you may as well call this movement ‘bring your own work’,” says David Quantrell, senior vice president in Europe, the Middle East and Africa of Box, a provider of document storage and sharing tools, which is reaping the benefits of the consumerisation trend.

Either way, what’s clear is that the pendulum of technology procurement and implementation has swung firmly in favour of the employee – and away from the employer. When a new tool is rolled out, workers are no longer passengers taken along for the ride. They’re firmly in the driving seat and, in many cases, they’re passionate devotees of the tools they decide they’re going to use to get work done.

“I’m starting to think there’s as much emotion today around the technology tools employees use for work as there used to be around the allocation of company cars,” says Karl Jolly, director of people at Welcome Break Group, the motorway service station and hotel operator.

Some bosses feel that any technology, which makes employees more productive, should be encouraged and embraced. Others are not so sure. How can they be sure that the confidential company information and data that workers share using new tools won’t go astray?

These concerns are perfectly legitimate, but bosses who seek to turn the tide of consumerisation may be fighting a Canute-like battle, according to some IT experts. “They can either choose to surf this wave or get drowned,” says Adam Warby, chief executive of technology services company Avanade.

Those who manage to surf the wave and stay ahead of the curve, however, have much to gain as a result. In an Avanade survey, which polled almost 600 C-level executives across 19 countries, more than seven out of ten said they had changed at least one business process, including those in IT management, sales and marketing, human resources and customer service, in an effort to accommodate the use of mobile and consumer technologies. One in five, meanwhile, had changed four or more business processes.

And the benefits these more progressive companies reported as a result speak for themselves, says Mr Warby: increased sales (73 per cent); increased profit (54 per cent); greater agility (58 per cent); and improved employee satisfaction (37 per cent).

“There also seems to be a strong correlation between the employee experience of technology and the customer experience of a brand,” he says. In other words, employees with modern, easy-to-use digital tools are better equipped to better serve similarly equipped customers.

This creeping encroachment of consumer technologies should serve as a stark wake-up call to more traditional IT departments and their leaders, according to analysts from IT market research company Gartner.

“Increasingly, when an employee needs an application or when they see a way to improve an aspect of their work, they will first go to their favourite app store, before they ask internal IT or their colleagues,” according to Gartner analysts Brian Blau, Nikos Drakos and Mike Gotta in an April 2014 report.

These “shadow IT” purchases, which circumnavigate established IT procurement processes, should be seen, they say, “as an indication of inadequacies in officially sanctioned applications or as opportunities to improve them”.

The good news for chief information officers and heads of IT, however, is that there are now plenty of ways to introduce consumer and consumer-like technologies into the workplace, while still maintaining an acceptable level of security and control.

At takeaway food delivery service Just Eat, for example, director of ICT Martin Russell rolled Google Apps to the company’s 1,000-plus staff last year. The initial goal was to provide them with e-mail services using Gmail, he says, “but adoption of the rest of the apps spread organically across our company”.

The Google Hangouts messaging tool, for instance, has changed the way staff at Just Eat communicate with each other. In his own role, Mr Russell manages his entire IT team remotely via Hangouts. And the Google+ social networking tool has essentially taken the place of the company’s internal social network, he says.

But because these apps were procured through Google Enterprise, the arm of the internet giant that deals with corporate customers, Just Eat still has the security and control it needs as a business.

The pendulum of technology procurement and implementation has swung firmly in favour of the employee – and away from the employer

“For us, it’s about helping employees to work the way they live,” says Thomas Davies, Google Enterprise’s director for Northern, Central and Eastern Europe. “It’s about giving them tools that are intuitive, easy to use and familiar to them, but at the same time, enabling those tools within an IT environment that is secure, location-aware, customised for the company that uses it, and which integrates with other back-office applications the company uses.”

With many consumer tools, a typical pattern of adoption is fast emerging, say Gartner’s analysts. A lone employee starts using a consumer service for free, brings it to work, encourages their colleagues to use it and their employer ends up buying a corporate subscription to that service. It’s a way, they say, for apps providers to generate demand “that will later develop into high-value, managed services [to] businesses”.

At Box, for example, Mr Quantrell reckons that at least half the company’s revenues may be driven in this way. “Even for the biggest companies, it’s the user experience that drives initial introduction, but the user experience is also what fuels subsequent uptake among other employees,” he says. At Box’s biggest enterprise customer, energy management company Schneider Electric, chief information officer Herve Coureil has been able to roll out Box to around 70,000 employees in little more than nine months, according to Mr Quantrell.

This is an important point because one of the main benefits for IT departments is the way these apps can spread “virally” through a workforce, by word of mouth, just as they do in the consumer world. That’s a far cry from the high-cost, multi-year implementation projects to which many IT departments have reluctantly become accustomed, says Google’s Mr Davies.

It’s time, then, for IT departments to face facts: for them, business transformation will involve learning to accommodate the needs of digitally savvy employees with access to a whole world of low-cost, task-specific and easy-to-use applications. As the gatekeepers of corporate IT, their days are numbered. They must learn, instead, to be brokers, helping to introduce these technologies in ways that satisfy both user demand and governance requirements.

CONSUMER TECHNOLOGIES

EVOLVE OR DIE…

How should IT leaders be dealing with the deluge of consumer applications into the workplace, especially when many are introduced by employees, without IT’s consent or endorsement? At IT market research company Gartner, analysts offer the following advice:

1. Identify those consumer apps used by employees, outside IT control, and the circumstances that brought about their use;

2. Categorise the strengths and weaknesses of these apps, and use their strengths to form technology strategies;

3. Regularly contact app owners to promote two-way dialogue as a way to determine which consumer mobile apps to adopt;

4. Look for ways for IT to assist with non-IT-owned apps where it makes sense, such as single-focus apps or those that better match employees’ lifestyles and behaviour.