The consumer is king. We've all heard this clichéd phrase with reference to retailers and their need to offer superior customer service. It's rarely said in reference to enterprises and their employees' IT needs, however.
Intel calls its own product "the big, beige box", and has put a bounty of $1 million on its head. Whoever can think outside said box, and present a new, stylish PC design based on specified Intel technology that will appeal to the actual users of the company's business computers, wins.
Expect this notion to become an industry-wide mantra. Companies must adapt their decisions to the needs of their employees, or face both rebellion and loss of control over the corporate IT environment. This is one of the more startling trends that was highlighted at Gartner's annual symposium held in Cape Town recently.
Gartner believes that the consumer is playing a stronger role in IT decision-making every day, referring to the trend as the "consumerisation of IT".
Gartner says the combination of high-performance platforms, fast and inexpensive internet connectivity, and myriad services like e-mail, voice over IP, social networking, banking and shopping have changed users' perceptions, preferences and opinions of technology. These views are now being inflicted on the enterprise, forcing it to adapt or face extinction.
The digital explosion
Steve Prentice, chief of research at Gartner, says the trend first became noticeable across the IT industry two to three years ago, but has its roots in the late '90s when the affordable digital camera first made its début. The digital photography market exploded on the consumer front.
"While the professional market has held out for some time, the consumer market embraced digital photography in a big way," he says. "With that explosion in digital photography came a knock-on effect across the rest of the IT market. The moment you had a digital camera, you needed the ability to print your photographs, e-mail them to friends and family, do a little bit of editing and perhaps even upload them onto a website."Consumers started buying computers for the home, kitting them out with accessories and getting broadband internet connections. The increase in demand drove prices down and performance up. With more powerful computers, people started doing more, becoming more proficient with technology and developing preferences towards specific brands, standards and software packages.
"At its recent developer forum, Intel acknowledged that the consumer is as interested in how computers look as in how they perform. We only need to look at the fact that, five years ago, all computers were beige for testimony of this," he adds.
While this would normally be harmless, Prentice says that these events have resulted in consumers becoming more cutting-edge than their employers.
With computers becoming more cost-effective, consumers tend to replace and upgrade more often than their enterprise counterparts do. This means they have access to the latest features and functionality, which means they're more sophisticated than many organisations give them credit for.
Some vendors understand this better than others and enterprises can learn from that. "Apple, for example, understands this best of all," he says. "They kill their top performers at the height of their popularity, only to introduce even better products. Apple also has short product lifecycles and places a huge emphasis on design.
"While other vendors ignore this last aspect, people do care about design; they might not know what makes good or bad design, but they are subliminally attracted to the look and feel."
Where computers used to be the domain of big spenders, now they're commonplace. "In the enterprise, for knowledge workers, computers are nothing more than a tool," he says.
Prentice says that different knowledge workers have different priorities, and expect specific weights, capacities, sizes, user experiences, operating systems and battery life from their technology today. And because of the lower cost and accessibility of IT to the consumer, if the knowledge worker cannot get what they need to do their job from the company, they will most likely buy it themselves. Should the IT department allow these users access to the network, they will be losing control of the environment and begin exposing themselves to risk.
This is where a massive conflict of interest resides.
Prentice says IT departments should consider that most enterprises have two classes of users: the professional knowledge worker and the naive and oblivious types.
Users aren't created equal
Prentice says the idea that all users need to be controlled or, for that matter, can be trusted emphatically is not sound. The former will result in knowledge workers rebelling and the latter will result in undue risk exposure from unskilled users.
"While IT is still fighting the war, the battle has been lost," Prentice says. "Naturally, IT wants to manage the environment since that is the way it has grown up. IT is used to locking down the environment and having standard configurations."
He says there's clear evidence that more users are becoming knowledge workers. And since these employees are the value creators for the organisation, they are the people the organisation cannot afford to lose.
Prentice says it's interesting to note that a growing number of knowledge workers are entering the workforce equipped with their tools of choice.
"They don't necessarily want what the company gives them to use. So, if companies don't need to buy them their tools, surely this represents a massive saving? The organisation now just needs to work out how best to avert risk by managing and supporting those myriad devices and user choices."
"Ultimately, the IT department can either try to hold onto their ideal of control or try to understand that their standards don't suit the preference of all users. The traditional way of working in the company was process driven, but knowledge workers and younger employees don't do process. They need to collaborate and use innovative approaches to solving a problem; they cannot be micro-managed and need more freedom in terms of their technology usage patterns," he says.
Prentice says companies must adapt or die as the trend is most certainly not going away. Today's children know all about technology. They've had access to it from day one, they are now very comfortable with it and will seldom require training.
"While this means organisations will certainly need to change their approach to IT management, the smart businesses will take advantage of that more highly skilled workforce."
Resistance is futile
"You cannot resist this kind of change; you just need to manage it correctly. IT will need to figure out which parts of the enterprise architecture need to be controlled and which need to be managed.
"On the one hand, the right balance between freedom and choice can be given to knowledge workers; on the other hand, the right levels of control can be implemented."
This is possibly one of the reasons SMEs are becoming such a force to be reckoned with since they seldom have legacy IT environments, invasive policies and procedures, and strict standards to adhere to.
As this trend continues to grow, so will the opportunity to small, agile operations that can embrace individuality and users' preference. With no legacy to break, SMEs will become stronger than ever over the next decade.