Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Deluge Is Here

image I work for a pretty large organisation and in order to keep people working, the computers secure, the business compliant with laws and standards (as well as maintain sanity) we have policies in place to guide the use of those computers. The other day, one of the managers noticed that a large number of people were bringing personal laptops to work and expressed concerns. Specifically he was worried that (1) people would be using these computers to take confidential company data away, (2) waste company time browsing the internet on these laptops, and (3) be displaying inappropriate material (so-called NSFW) content on these laptops. He wanted to know what company policies covered this. As a matter of fact, he was hoping we could issue an edict banning people from bringing laptops to work.

My perspective was  (1) you don’t need a laptop to steal company data. 500GB portable hard drives fit into a pocket. (2) People wasting company time is not a function of a particular medium and if you banned laptops, then you should ban blackberries, iPhones and iPods, books, magazines and chitchat. (3) Again banning the device doesn’t kill inappropriate behaviour. Most importantly while we had rules controlling inappropriate use of company computing resources and inappropriate behaviour in general, these were not company computing resources.

I, personally, had noticed this deluge of computers myself and my problem with it was the owners of these computers were engaging my team members to troubleshoot these computers. I had made it clear that they were not to do this during work hours, but every time I see a non-company laptop around the premises, I see it as one more possible source of distraction for my guys. My point is I really am not in favour of people bringing laptops to work (disclosure: I sometimes do, but I can do more with my iPhone than most people can do with their laptops). Be that as it may, this situation is symptomatic of a coming clash between businesses and their workers over technology.

Let me explain. In my company, internet access is extremely tightly controlled. Granting internet access is approved all the way through to top departmental management. There are very good reasons for limiting access. Bandwidth is limited, the rise of social internet sites like Facebook.com has resulted in a lot of misuse (and yes company time wasted), it costs quite a bit to provide this access per head so for each person you give rights to you want to have value for money. So what did the great “disenfranchised” mob do? They got their own computers and signed up for their own internet access contracts. Take that management, I imagine them saying.

The wonderful part of this is that technology is becoming an integral and intensely personal part of people’s lives. When you are comfortable with something it becomes easier for you to respond to it. It helps you come up with interesting ways to use it. This benefits you both in your personal life – and at work. On the other hand, the manager was right, there is a real problem. People are consuming company time and resources on personal use of technology – but you can’t use a blanket ban to handle it. Indeed scientific studies are showing that many of the assumptions about social media usage in the workplace are not true.

In the US, from the 90s onward, technology started in the home and was imported into the office. In the 80s however, people were introduced to technology at work and it eventually crept into the homes. In Nigeria, technology adoption is continuing apace for personal use and in the workplace and the there will be sparks. Organisations are going to have to avoid kneejerk reactions and come up with ways to protect their technology investments, and the hours they are paying people for while not stifling the personal comfort their people are having with the latest and greatest technologies. That personal comfort is exactly what people need so as to let the technology stop being a novel thing, but just another tool that can be used to generate more productive business people.

Consequently, while employees need to be more circumspect about how they use both company tech and personal tech in the office, companies need to take a step back and re-asses how they can harness the enthusiasm people have for personal tech for their benefit.

As a real world example, some companies who provide Blackberry services to their employees will only provision a company provided device. some of their competitors, on the other hand, will let you provide your own device and provide access to company email on it. The first company is completely locked down security-wise, but needs to invest in the cost of the device, the Blackberry service and paying the phone bills. The benefit they gain is complete control over who has access to the Blackberry service, they limit their backend management costs and make sure the people who really need the service get it. The second company avoids the cost of the device, the phone bills and the Blackberry service and only needs to manage the backend and the running cost of connecting these devices to BES (Blackberry Enterprise Server). They still have remote wipe capabilities to remove company data if the device is compromised, but by having more people connecting to BES their management costs are more). Still, this is a win-win for both the company and the employee. The company has people constantly available to get work done wherever Blackberries work, while the employees get the tech toy of they desire for work and pleasure.

Whatever companies do decide to do, the deluge of of personal tech in the workplace is here to stay.


Correction: During my “Year One” post last week, I stated that the blog had 990 unique visitors over the last year. The absolute unique visitor count was 544.

The opinions expressed in this blog post are exclusively mine and are not those of my employer.

Photo Courtesy Andrew Simpson at Flickr.com