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The hidden costs of BYOD

Carmi Levy

The back-to-school season holds a certain degree of peril for corporate technology. Students aren't the only ones loading up at the big box electronics store these days; increasingly, employees are buying their own mobile devices and expecting the IT department to hook them up.

The trend, known as bring your own device (BYOD), can return significant benefits for the average company, including transitioning at least some of the technology burden from the IT department to employees. Instead of managing capital-intensive fleets of homogeneous technology, IT instead hooks up staff-purchased gear. Employees use what they're most comfortable with — which can drive productivity and aid recruitment and retention efforts for increasingly mobile-savvy employees — and IT is free to redirect scarce resources to more value-added initiatives. Lance Perry, Cisco's IT VP, told attendees at the Enterprise Conference and Expo earlier this year that his company is already saving between 17 and 22 per cent because of BYOD.

BYOD is being fuelled by the consumerization of tech, specifically the growing retail availability of affordable, high-powered devices and solutions. While enterprise was once the exclusive domain of advanced machines and networks, the transitioning market now means the average consumer — and employee — typically has access to more sophisticated technology than the IT department does. But as the back to school season shifts into high gear, workers bringing ever more personal devices to work could be exposing the organization to the darker side of BYOD.

A well-established trend
Whether corporate decision-makers like it or not, BYOD is already changing the way they choose, purchase, implement and manage technology. Enterasys Networks data shows 74 per cent of companies allow at least some form of BYOD usage, and employees are taking advantage of the newly relaxed rules: 81 per cent now use at least one personally-owned device for business purposes. Unfortunately, only one-tenth of companies surveyed are "fully aware" of the employee-owned mobile devices currently being used on the corporate network.

That lack of awareness is only one of many risk factors facing organizations grappling with the BYOD challenge. Others include:

  • Separation of personal and private data
    Not all platforms and devices make it easy to keep the two categories separate. Data leakage is a very real possibility if IT can't effectively manage device-borne data. Many consumer apps were never built with corporate security in mind, and lack such basic capabilities as secure authentication and encryption. An Avanade study confirmed over half of respondents whose companies permitted BYOD had suffered security breaches involving consumer-grade technology.
  • Higher monitoring and management costs
    Pre-BYOD, IT's job was relatively simple because it had absolute control over everything employees used. Common platforms, tools and standards made life easy for help desks and support teams. BYOD brings diversity, which can make it difficult when things stop working. Resolution rates drop, response times go up, and support costs soar.
  • Reduced economies of scale
    Deals negotiated by centralized IT or purchasing departments are often better than those obtained by individual employees. Aberdeen data shows the typical enterprise plan for smartphone-based data and voice service costs $60 monthly, while the average employee BYOD reimbursement is $70. Hidden costs such as an average $18 per month in administrative processing when employees file for reimbursement drive BYOD even further into the red. Worse, many plans make it difficult to differentiate between personal and professional use, so the organization may be stuck paying for personal service, too.
  • Increased failure rates
    Consumer technology isn't necessarily built to the same standard as corporate equipment. That cheap laptop in the big box store bargain bin uses lower-quality components, and its plastic-rich chassis may not stand up to the average road warrior's abuse. When the machine does break, warranty coverage will be spottier for consumer equipment, and mail order repairs will take longer than corporate on-site or depot-based arrangements. Questions about who the employee should call for support are also more frequent when BYOD comes into play. This can, in turn, increase downtime as employees flounder between conflicting support resources.

Despite the risks, the BYOD trend isn't going to reverse anytime soon. Gartner is already calling it the "single most radical shift in the economics of client computing for business since PCs invaded the workplace," and says companies must establish a position on it even if they don't plan to support it.

Organizations that ignore the trend do so at their own risk, as employees will increasingly seek their own solutions with or without IT's help. To reduce exposure, organizations of any size must update acceptable use policies, tighten reimbursement procedures, and update security and support resources. Similarly, there's no rule that says everything goes: indeed, IT should place limits over what kinds of platforms and devices will be supported. Those rules should be revisited at least annually to maintain balance between employee wants and needs, and the organization's ability to accommodate them.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.