Emerging Technology (Enhancing, Engaging, Connecting)

The Consumerization of IT

Institutions are seeing a rise in the consumerization of technology, and with it comes both benefits and problems. Consumerization is the term commonly used to describe a phenomenon that has been forming almost since the first computers appeared.

As computers became smaller and less expensive, technology moved into the hands of consumers. Add to this a corresponding evolution in the areas of networking, smartphones and similar technologies, and information technology now belongs irrevocably to the people.

The consumerization of technology isn’t a surprise, but the extent to which organizations have not reacted effectively to it is. And this is nowhere more the case than in higher education.

When personal computers started to enter the business environment, and when they became connected through local area networks, IT experts issued warnings of the impending chaos to follow. But productivity went up, costs went down, and those desktop computers proved irresistible because of their capabilities and the freedom they afforded. When cell phones and personal data assistants (PDAs) evolved into smartphones connected by cellular networks outside the enterprise, the consumerization tide rose even higher.

When higher ed discovered the prospect of “free” technology made possible by Gmail and Google Apps, the temptation was too great for many institutions bent on saving money — at any cost. The center of gravity had moved from central systems and data storage to the individual user and the many places where data was stored: in “the cloud,” on PC and laptop hard drives, in flash drives, on smartphones and more. The problems associated with this included such things as e-discovery for legal issues, loss of intellectual property, security compromises and many more. But hey, we’re saving money — right?

Today, institutions are struggling with the consumerization of technology, and particularly the concomitant implications of it. This situation affects nearly all organizations, as witnessed by the reports of such things as lost “official” government email messages, and the emergence of lawsuits concerning ownership and legal protections for personal data storage on such devices as smartphones.

There are no magic wands for dealing with the consumerization of IT, but I would offer several important considerations to help guide the conversation.

  1. Making shortsighted decisions to accept “free” IT services is inexcusable. If organizations don’t step up to provide quality solutions to user needs such as data storage, collaboration and communication systems, they cede their fate to the preferences of users. And they also cede their business assets and their ability to respond to legal challenges as well.
  2. No one wants to use separate systems for personal and business use, hence the “bring your own device” (BYOD) and “bring your own apps” (BYOA) trends. This means — and requires — adaptation of business processes and information systems to these trends. For example, devices today are more than capable of dealing with multiple email systems, such that personal and business email need not be intermixed in a single, outsourced account. As well, collaboration systems can be accessed by multiple platforms. And true cloud-based information systems can be accessed via the web without the need for client software.
  3. Security is critical and should be attended to in a mature, strategic way. Malware protection is the most basic of protections in a world where threats have become far more serious. Significant advances in such areas as roles-based security, applications-based network protection and others have provided new tools to deal with a decentralized, consumerized technology environment. Use them.
  4. Virtualization can be a godsend. If you don’t want users directly accessing and interacting with key enterprise systems, don’t let them. Desktop virtualization is now a commodity — widely available, cheap to acquire, simple to deploy.
  5. Unfortunately, some organizations and institutions are still trying to “control” their environments. This means they’re already completely out of sync with their user base. The key is staying ahead of the curve, including understanding the trends and skating to where the puck is going to be and not where it’s been, as Wayne Gretzky stated. Find ways to solve the needs of both the organization and individual users.

There are many benefits of consumerization. For colleges and universities, this can include diminished need for computer labs, expensive campus agreements for software, laptop checkout programs and the like. But it is time to accept two key facts. First, consumerization is here to stay, and those who fail to adapt will feel the consequences. Second, high-quality IT solutions are not free; in fact, they’re not getting cheaper when taken comprehensively. The key is finding the correct new places to invest strategically.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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