At TechEd 2008 last week, IT managers convened to discuss the assertion that consumer technologies are leading the charge to change the world of technology and that IT organizations are altered because of those technologies.
There are still many companies that have yet to set a formal policy for use of these tools. IT managers who are charged with protecting corporate data and who will ultimately end up supporting the tools hold mixed views on their encroachment.
Elliott Gerard, an IT manager who works in e-discovery at General Mills Inc., the St. Paul-based global food company, offered that his company really started to talk about the influx of such technologies as Microsoft began to release online collaborative services.
He wonders how safe it is to store business-critical documents in the "cloud" using a business service, recalling that it wasn't that long ago that Google Inc. scanned the email of users of its free email service so it could better target advertising. "It's horrifying," Gerard said.
One big reason? "The average user isn't smart about security," he said.
Consumer trends become corporate tools
Technologies like email and IM began as consumer tools but inched into corporations, sometimes surreptitiously, as in the case of IM where end users signed onto public services. Many enterprises still fear IM will bring in new viruses or be a detriment to productivity, so they continue to prevent its use.
But in some cases, human resources departments have fought to permit IM to help attract new generations of job candidates who might otherwise be loath to work for technologically averse companies.
In the past few years, a proliferation of free collaborative and social platforms, such as Google Docs, Facebook, Igloo Software and similar sites, which came after the adoption of mobile devices, CDs and thumb drives have crept into corporations and broken through IT controls.
"We allow [consumer technology] in but it's not something we support," said one IT manager for Chevron Corp. during the panel discussion. "If it gets in the way, it gets taken down."
Consumer technology can be a source of inspiration or a center of innovation for IT shops.
One systems engineer at a Salt Lake City-based financial insurer said his company strives to control devices and tries to filter out certain websites. But it's almost impossible to block whatever the latest thing is because it's impossible to keep track of. On the other hand, the company must honor regulatory compliance rules that drive the company to prevent end users from "doing what they want."
Add to that the fact that the CIO himself likes to bring in some new tools. "We have a team blog where we can share ideas, but you can't have your own [blog]," said the engineer, who declined to be identified. "We try to give our people outlets for self expression."
The social divide
Plenty of organizations willingly embrace the influx of new, and often free, tools. Many of these organizations also don't mind if end users check Facebook during work hours.
Google's freebies are a boon to Missouri State University where Google Apps is used for some classes. Employees and faculty are encouraged to use whatever resources are available, said Rob Martin, an enterprise systems administrator at the Springfield, Mo., school.
For some, walls come down because work time and home time are hardly divided anymore. Some employees figure that if they check their work email at 11:00 p.m. on their own bandwidth at home, then they should be able to check Facebook during the day.
But do IT managers really want someone who syncs up documents to a phone to take that same phone to a bar on Saturday night? To address these sorts of concerns, IT organizations have to learn to think more creatively when it comes to dealing with consumer technology, said Dharmesh Godha, chief technology officer at Advaiya, a Bellevue, Wash., Microsoft partner.
Blogs and IM did start out as consumer technologies and are now entering business. The same will happen with Facebook, Godha said. "It's a thin line between consumer and business technology and you need to make sure that new IT people are trained to handle these issues."
Separately, IT managers need to start demanding that vendors have more IT supportable consumer technologies to make your life easier, Godha said. "I'm not into IT being a police organization, but we need to think about making IT more strategic and we need to put more pressure on the vendors."