As consumer tech sweeps enterprise, IT staff fight for control

The consumerization of IT creates challenges but also opportunities at work

The spread of consumer technologies at work has put many IT departments on the back foot, but a conference in San Francisco this week is looking at ways IT managers can take back control and turn the chaos to their advantage.

IPads and smartphones are only the most visible consumer trends shaking up the workplace. Social networking, a proliferation of free online services and an expectation of slick, Google-like interfaces are all pressuring IT departments to rethink their game.

A decade ago, just 10 percent of devices in the workplace were "unsanctioned," or outside the control of the IT department, according to Dion Hinchcliffe, executive vice president of strategy at Dachis Group, a business consulting firm. Today, he said, it's at 30 percent and rising fast.

"We're only 20 percent away from most IT being outside the control of the IT department. That will make us not the IT department any more," he told the crowd at the Consumerization of IT in the Enterprise conference.

The answer: to embrace and control the consumer trends rather than try to fight them. "If you try to block it, it will go around you," Hinchcliffe said.

First Data, the big U.S. payments services provider, has armed 150 of its sales staff with iPads and will extend that to 800 by mid-year. It built a custom iPad 2 app that makes it easier for its staff to sell more of its products and get contracts signed more quickly.

"Our sales people carried around books and forms; they only sold a few of our products because the rest were too confusing," said Don Stockslager, vice president of boarding tools, strategy and support at First Data.

The app created a single access point for all of First Data's products. The reps create a profile for each customer and the app makes recommendations based on their buying history and preferences, and draws up a contract on the spot that the customer signs with a stylus.

"As soon as the customer lifts their pen, the data starts moving in the background and draws up the account," he said.

It took some work getting there. First Data created a service-oriented architecture on the back end to abstract away the complexity of the myriad systems the iPad app has to talk to.

Beer distributor Ben E. Keith also gave its sales team tablets, which were "hands down the favorite form factor for our pilot group of sales reps," said Steve Fleming, the company's vice president of administration and information.

Beer reps get an average of 40 seconds to pitch store managers, he said, and the tablets allow them to look up information quickly about the different kinds of beer, and even show the latest Super Bowl commercial to drum up interest in a product.

Ben E Keith's sales increased by US$33 million last year despite a lousy economic environment. "I firmly believe it's due to having that extra functionality in the salesman's hands," Fleming said.

It went with a sturdier tablet than an iPad. "I don't know that the iPad is rugged enough for a beer salesman's environment if it gets dropped," he said, but "we're talking about it."

But it's not just mobile devices that are changing how IT leaders need to think. Social networking began as a consumer trend but has changed how employees communicate with each other, and how companies interact with the outside world.

Clinical research company Quintiles turned to social networking in a big way to find new employees, and also to recruit and track participants for its trials.

"What was the number one website accessed by our employees in the past few years? Facebook," said Joe Donnici, vice president of Quintile's core IT division. "And that's ok, though we have to verify they're not misusing it."

Alcatel-Lucent, Cemex and Burberry were also credited with aggressive social media strategies. Burberry has 11 million "fans" on Facebook, and some analysts attribute its 22 percent jump in revenue last quarter to that social outreach, Hinchcliffe said.

Encouraging employees to surf Facebook at work will require an attitude shift at some companies. "This is one of the cultural issues we have to work with if we're going to capitalize on opportunity," he said.

And Hinchcliffe allowed that IT managers can sometimes say no, for reasons of security, device management and all the other challenges consumer technologies present. "We've been doing this for 10 years, sometimes we know what's best," he said.

A few of his tips for navigating consumer tech in the workplace: lay down clear and simple rules of engagement for employees; enable self-service IT; and don't get locked into technology decisions (such as Android vs. iPhone) that can't be reversed later.

(The CITE Conference and Expo is produced by IDG Enterprise, a division of International Data Group, the parent company of IDG News Service.)

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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