Corporate IT departments are failing to adapt to changes in the way that people are using digital technology. They are misunderstanding what is driving the demand for using consumer technology in the workplace as cries for better devices, rather than the desire to have more control over the tools that people use for their jobs.
Even with the trend toward BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), the underlying modus operandi of the Enterprise IT culture is to try and control every interface that is exposed to corporate data. This has emerged because Enterprise IT is focused on 2 things:
- ensuring data security
- reducing operating costs
It is worth gaining some context of how It has been used within large businesses over that last 50 years to understand why corporate IT is the way it is.
1960s-70sIn the early days of computing in business, computers we huge capital investments and required a specific and justified use. So although they were the first general purpose computers, they were generally deployed for specific applications such as account reconciliation, financial transaction processing or manufacturing automation.
Universities and research departments also invested in early mini-computers to allow their academics and researchers to use the processing power to analyse larger amounts of data than could be done by hand and develop new applications for the machines.
But these computers were expensive, time on them was in short supply. It was not unusual for the students to work nights just to allow them to get access to computer time if their project was not allocated a specific computing time budget.
In the late 70s the birth of the home computer changed this upside down. For just a couple of thousand pounds, anyone could get a computer all to themselves, all of the time. While the like of Jobs and Wozniak set-up Apple to sell kit computers to enthusiasts, Bill Gates at Microsoft had ambitions to get a computer (running his proprietary software) on every desk and in every home. The industry chuckled to itself at the thought - what would be the point of that when not everybody could use a computer.
1980sThen in 1981 IBM woke up and created the IBM PC. It became the defacto standard for business computers for the next 20 years and echoes in the PCs purchased today. It standardised the hardware, including the processor (Intel 80x86) and expansion interfaces, and even the keyboard layout. Most PCs were provided with Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating systems and anyone could develop, distribute and sell software applications for them. At the time, and even today, many opined about the dominance of the IBM/Intel/Microsoft platform, but this standardisation allowed both hardware and software companies to flourish, creating new applications for computers and accelerate the growth of the business computing market generally.
Emerging from this period of software development were some applications that we take for granted these days. Word processing turned from being a text based function into what we know it to be now by subsuming the Desktop Publishing (DTP) application functionality. Spreadsheets became immensely powerful, able to run business scenarios at the press of a single button and producing high quality graphs suitable for board meetings and end-of-year reports. Databases allowed the collection and manipulation of information that was previously ‘locked’ on paper in filing cabinets.
All of these applications went beyond fulfilling a single purpose for users. The adaptability of these desktop applications allowed users to develop new uses for them, they could record macros, edit scripts, design automated processes and manipulate data on their own computer, on their own desk, using the tools that came as standard.
At the beginning of this period, the use and exchange of data was via printouts and floppy disks, physical objects no more easy to lose than a manilla folder. By the end, most corporates and many small businesses had some kind of data network allowing files to be passed between computers more easily.
1990s-2000sThe 90s saw the explosion of the network, not only within organisations, but beyond. While the Internet had been around for some time and was well used within academia, the invention of the World Wide Web made it far more accessible. By the IT department, the network outside of the business was seen as a dangerous place, where data was not safe. All of a sudden it became too easy to access large amounts of very sensitive data and to lose them.
This data security risk was made even more significant by the wide scale adoption in the 90s of abundance of high-capacity, low-cost memory. All of a sudden it became possible to lose whole databases as easily as losing a set of keys.
Enterprise IT’s response was to apply controls, to reduce access and prevent the copying and distribution of data. Firewalls blocked websites that allowed files to be moved around, laptops and workstations were locked down to prevent users from installing tools that would circumvent the firewall restrictions, mobile phones with crippled features became the corporate standard. IT effectively became a mechanism to prevent people doing things that they found useful. The battle lines between the web and data security were drawn up.
2010s-nowAs smartphones have become more prevalent more people have been introduced the benefits of easy access to information sharing and moreover they have been exposed the possibilities of selecting, installing and trialing applications that use shared data and are designed to fit their specific working processes and patterns.
The pain of using locked down corporate tools is so contrasted by the pleasure of using devices like the iPhone and the benefits so great that it is common to see business people carrying two devices around, their corporate Blackberry for their business phone calls and email, and a personal iPhone for everything that they can’t get the Blackberry to do.
Business users try out productivity apps for tracking their time, expenses travel, contacts, task lists. All of these are things where corporate enterprise is obviously failing to provide them with the tools that work in the way that they want, but their desire to make their own working lives easier and more productive means that they pay their own money to try alternatives out for themselves.
In response many organisations are experimenting with or adopting BYOD (bring your own device) as an answer to the demands from within to stop being quite so draconian. However, many of these BYOD strategies are mistaking the demand for more flexibility of devices for a request for better devices rather than the desire to have access to tools that they can adapt.
Tools vs machinesThe essential difference between tools and machines is that tools are adapted and manipulated by those that use them to allow them to do their job better. While machines are built by one group of people to be operated and maintain by another group who have limited capability to influence changing that machine.
While the Enterprise IT approach to BYOD gives employees the ability to use the latest smartphone, tablet or other computing device, ticking the boxes of appearing to be modern and forward thinking (and perhaps attracting or retaining skills and talent) it still relies on the software systems to protect the organisation’s data.
Enterprise IT BYOD allows the employees to install Angry Birds and even the their own choice of email client, but rarely does it allow the employee to connect their downloaded expenses app to the company expenses system or integrate a speech transcription service to an internal document store. And how many Enterprise IT departments give employees a list of sanctioned cloud storage and file sharing services (contrasted with how many corporate employees use Dropbox regularly without permission).
I believe that the Enterprise IT culture within most large corporates it still fundamentally failing to understand the problem that has allowed them to become sidelined by consumer technology. They are still providing a machine, a monolithic engine that the employees operate. While these operators are, wherever they can ignoring the machine and picking up the tools that most fit their needs. They do this because they were designed to commoditise desktop computing, to make it efficient and allow it to scale during a period of standardisation.
We are now in a period of technology innovation, where applications are abundant and cheap. The challenge now is to allow people to be effective by allowing them to choose and adapt their own IT tools.
Enterprise IT of the futureA successful organisation, and therefore one with a successful IT department, in the future must still concern itself with core shared systems and services, but it will be far more focused on providing application interfaces rather than user interfaces. It will be able to recognise and purchase based on the quality of a vendor system’s APIs. It will then manage, secure and protect those interfaces no matter what user application is connected to it.
The IT department will also become a curator and quality control for an application marketplace, ensuring that employees are provided with good and useful advice on which applications are suitable for corporate use. Where suitable applications are not available for specific processes or use cases, the IT department would provide any application development team (either internal or external) with the information they need to create good applications as well as providing development and testing APIs.
By doing these things, the Enterprise IT department will support the need for their organisation to keep up with the whirlwind of change that is happening in the wider world of technology and once again become an enabler for employees who simply want to be able to do their jobs better.