Throughout the information age, the corporate IT department has stood at the chokepoint of office technology with a firm hand on what equipment and software employees use in the workplace. They are now in retreat. Employees are bringing in the technology they use at home and demanding the IT department accommodate them. The IT department often complies.
Some companies have even surrendered to what is being called the consumerization of IT. At Kraft Foods, the IT department’s involvement in choosing technology for employees is limited to handing out a stipend. Employees use the money to buy whatever laptop they want from Best Buy, Amazon.com or the local Apple store.
“We heard from people saying, ‘How come I have better equipment at home?’ ” said Mike Cunningham, chief technology officer for Kraft Foods. “We said, hey, we can address that.”
Encouraging employees to buy their own laptops, or bring their mobile phones and iPads from home, is gaining traction in the workplace. A survey published on Thursday by Forrester Research found that 48 percent of information workers buy smartphones for work without considering what their I.T. department supports. By being more flexible, companies are hoping that workers will be more comfortable with their devices and therefore more productive.
“Bring your own device” policies, as they are called, are also shifting the balance of power among electronics makers. Manufacturers good at selling to consumers are increasingly gaining the upper hand, while those focused on bulk corporate sales are slipping.
The phenomenon is upending the corporate market, which has traditionally hinged on electronics makers cultivating tight relationships with IT departments. Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, have long dominated the workplace, but Apple and its consumer-friendly blockbusters — the iPhone, iPad and MacBook — have made major inroads.
It’s not just electronics. A variety of online services that were originally aimed at consumers are crossing over. Google is hoping that people using its Gmail and Google Docs products will produce a guerrilla movement inside corporations strong enough to displace Microsoft and its Office suite of software.
Skype, the Internet calling service that started as a way to call friends at no charge, is pushing into the workplace. Dropbox, originally pitched as a way for people to store and share personal documents online, has also gained a foothold in businesses.
“You shouldn’t reject things that make employees more productive, and if those things happen to be consumer technologies, so be it,” said Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research.
Corporate IT departments often resist allowing consumer technology on their networks because of security concerns. Adding a hodgepodge of devices and services also complicates their job. But IT departments are gradually warming to the idea simply because their bosses left them little choice. The IT staff may grieve for their lost power, but they do it.
“They’re over the denial and anger stage, and now they are in the acceptance and ‘How can we help?’ stage,” said Mr. Schadler, who co-wrote the book “Empowered,” which addresses consumer technology in the workplace. “What broke the camel’s back was the iPad, because executives brought it into the company and said ‘Hey, you’ve got to support this.’ ”
A survey of more than 1,700 information workers earlier this year by Forrester showed how much of the equipment-buying decision rests with employees. Nearly half of the respondents said that they bought their work smartphone while 41 percent said their employer paid; 9 percent said the cost was shared between the two.
Netflix’s “bring your own device” policy takes into account the blurring of the lines between work and personal time.
“As long as they’re productive, innovative and engaged, we’re happy,” said Steve Swasey, a spokesman for Netflix. Kraft Foods’ “bring your own laptop” policy started a year and half ago, and now around 800 employees receive a stipend — Kraft declined to say how much — to buy either a Windows or Mac computer. Workers who want laptops that cost more than their stipend must pay for the difference out of their own pockets.
Kraft’s program is not quite companywide, however. Executives who handle confidential information, people who use laptops to operate production equipment, and most factory workers are ineligible. “It’s a relatively small part of the company,” Mr. Cunningham. “But it addresses the majority of the noise and complaining.”
Letting workers bring their iPhones and iPads to work can also save companies money. In some cases, employees pay for equipment themselves and seek tech help from store staff rather than their company’s I.T. department. “You can basically outsource your IT department to Apple,” said Ben Reitzes, an analyst with Barclays Capital.
A similar BYOD program at Citrix Systems, a software maker that also helps its clients implement such programs, saves the company about 20 percent on each laptop over three years. Of the 1,000 or so employees in Citrix’s program, 46 percent have bought Mac computers, according to Paul Martine, Citrix’s chief information officer. “That was a little bit of a surprise.”
There are downsides. Employees who want electronics that cost more than their companies are willing to pay or who desire devices like iPads that often fail to qualify for a stipend, don’t like the additional expense of buying their own devices. Nor do all workers look fondly on spending their weekend at Best Buy to get a laptop fixed (unpaid, of course.)
Ahmed Datoo, chief marketing officer for Zenprise, which helps organizations manage mobile devices on their networks, said some government agencies that handle classified documents use his service to disable cameras on employee smartphones inside the building. Some financial firms blacklist Facebook, among others, to ensure that all conversations take place on approved services that can be archived.
With its strength in consumer products, Apple is the obvious winner from more flexible corporate technology spending. Sales of Apple devices are strong while the rest of the PC market is weak, although how many of its phones, tablets and laptops are for use in the office is difficult to say.
Meanwhile, sales at places like Dell and RIM that focus on corporations are stagnant or sinking. HP, which is the leading PC maker and is strong in consumer PCs, is considering jettisoning that business to concentrate on corporate software and services. It even killed off its TouchPad, which was to rival the iPad, and its cellphones. This retreat is occurring because many of those companies are finding they just aren’t that good at selling to consumers. “What you’re seeing is that Apple’s approach is winning, and it is tough for the others to keep up,” Mr. Reitzes said.
“Bring your own device” is not for every company. Because of security concerns and data retention laws, some firms like Wells Fargo do not let employees connect to corporate networks with their personal electronics. Protecting the bank’s customers is more important than any benefit from letting employees use their personal devices for business, said Jim Spicer, chief information officer of corporate technology and data for the company.
But Wells Fargo, like many companies, has expanded the choice of corporate-owned devices that it issues to employees to include more consumer-oriented products. “The biggest challenge we have today is making sure that we don’t chase every device that comes along,” Mr. Spicer said.