Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Firms must think carefully about policies on devices

January 26, 2013

OK, you’re running a business. Which is more important to you—innovation and creativity, or consistency and predictability? It’s not just a philosophical question. It’s likely to determine which side you take in the “BYOD” discussion.

“BYOD” is tech-speak for “bring your own device,” and it refers to whether you want to allow employees to transact your business using their own laptops, notebooks or smartphones, or if you want to impose your own standards and supply what you think they should have so you keep control of the technology.

It’s an important decision for a business that has any sort of IT support. If you supply standard devices, it makes life easier on the IT folks. They’ll be able to design a single security policy that applies to everyone, and helping employees through problems will be faster. Consistency promotes efficiency.

But consistency doesn’t necessarily promote productivity. Making an Apple user adapt his workstyle to a Windows tablet or BlackBerry phone has both training and frustration costs. Besides, savvy users of all devices quickly discover the applications that work well for them, applications that even their own IT staff might not know about. That’s the innovation and creativity side of the question. Employees may know how to do things faster and better than you or your IT staff.

Of course, letting everybody choose their own hardware and applications can lead to chaos, blocking your best efforts at devising best practices. You might not know what technology your employees are actually using, which can lead to disaster in the worst cases.

BYOD is an important enough issue that Intel commissioned a major survey of IT professionals and users across several countries, including the United States. The results were published in October 2012 at intel.com.

The study presents several important points. By and large, the biggest benefit of allowing device freedom was an expectation of higher productivity. Following right behind productivity was increasing opportunities for worker mobility. It was somewhat surprising that few managers named cost savings as high on their list of anticipated benefits. Even job satisfaction came in low in the survey, and IT cost reduction barely registered.

It’s no surprise that a top concern was to have excellent security in place. Having disparate and ever-changing devices hanging on a sensitive corporate network makes a good many IT professionals lie awake at night. But what was somewhat surprising is that, right up there with enforced security, was the emphasis on an employee code of conduct. A moment’s reflection reveals why a code of conduct is so important: The best guarantee of security is voluntary user compliance. At its base, BYOD is a statement of trust as much as a productivity measure.

Compatibility was an issue, but apparently not a major one. Years ago, compatibility might have been a thornier problem, but today’s technical protocols usually permit smooth interactivity. An employee nowadays can sit in a corner coffee shop using standard WiFi and a virtual private network that almost perfectly replicates being in the office, and has little chance of breaking.

Many major applications now offer browser-based versions of their software. The survey showed that only about one-third of respondents worried about compatibility, and that sounds about right to me.

A much bigger issue is whether the personal device can support standard security provisions like remote wipe and encryption. And a connected worry is how well personal devices will work in regulated environments.

It’s not the security of the network that’s at stake here, but the security of data. This by itself may be a showstopper for BYOD. Proliferating cloud storage services should make any IT manager pause before adopting BYOD. A cloud service, which stores your data and content in a central place online, is great for collaboration and travel but frowned upon by companies with intellectual property to protect. More about cloud services in a future column.

At the very least, experts in the field counsel that, if you go the BYOD route, you sit down with employees regularly to see what they’re using and whether your security requirements are being honored. A code of conduct is a good thing, and often works amazingly well, but as the Russians say (and an American president repeated to historic effect), trust but verify.

As might be expected, vendors have begun offering services to help you move to a BYOD environment. Some vendors are good at it, some are bad. Confer with a trusted IT expert before engaging outside help, and ride herd on them if you use them.

So are you most concerned with consistency or innovation? Maybe it’s a good time to ask the question before employees start showing up with a constellation of devices asking to use them on the job.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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