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BYOD revolution: Employee-owned devices open doors for enterprise

Do you BYOD? If not, you likely will soon.

The acronym, which stands for bring your own device, refers to the growing trend where employees use their own personal mobile devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets, when they head to work. What started out as an innocuous shift has evolved into a major trend that's changing the face of end-user corporate technology inside and outside the office.

IT no longer calls the shots
It wasn't so long ago that corporate IT was solely responsible for choosing every last piece of technology that employees used on the job. Corporate technology decision-makers owned the entire life cycle of a device, from choosing which ones to purchase, to acquisition, implementation, and support all the way to end-of-life disposal. This approach ensured significant central control over technology, allowing IT to keep a lid on support complexity and, by extension, cost.

The downside? Maintaining every aspect of the technology infrastructure can, in itself, be an expensive, complex undertaking. The exploding popularity of consumer-focused mobile devices like smartphones and tablets has driven a shift in that thinking. These days, staff members buy their own devices, then bring them into the office with every expectation that IT will connect them to the corporate network. Also known as consumerization, this trend breaks down IT's traditional end-to-end ownership of client-based technology as it exposes the organization to a new set of challenges. Like it or not, most companies have no choice.

The trend is clear
According to a recent British Telecom report, known as "Rethink the Risk", 60 per cent of employees are already using their personal devices when they head to work, while 82 per cent of companies surveyed said they either currently sanction BYOD or plan to do so within the next two years. Almost half — or 46 per cent — of employees working in organizations that don't support BYOD say they'd like to be able to hook up their own devices while they're on the job.

The appeal of BYOD to employees and the organizations they work for is significant:

Choice and control
Increasingly mobile-savvy employees bristle at IT's traditional centralized approach to device management, with 40 per cent saying IT imposes restrictive rules that hinder their ability to get the most out of technology, and almost half saying IT imposes too much security, as well.

Approximately 42 per cent of employees already using their devices at the office say they're more efficient. A full 58 per cent of IT professionals agree, saying mobile and consumer-focused technologies can drive up productivity.

About 84 per cent of IT decision-makers say BYOD-supporting companies enjoy a competitive advantage over those following a more traditional approach to technology deployment.

A Good Technology report says 50 per cent of BYOD-friendly companies require employees to foot the bill, with 45 per cent either providing a subsidy or allowing them to submit expense reports to cover at least part of their monthly rate plans. This shift of ongoing cost to the employee, along with reduced need by IT to plan and implement all-encompassing mobile technology rollouts, frees technology resources for other priorities.

Watch out for the gotchas
BYOD doesn't come without its own share of caveats, however. A full 70 per cent of respondents to the BT study said BYOD had increased the complexity of their overall technology landscape, and 60 per cent said it had driven up costs. Beyond the sheer numbers, the more heterogeneous array of technology can be more difficult for IT to manage, as monitoring and security solutions now have to accommodate a wider range of devices, operating systems and solutions. The risk of security breaches goes up as employees are no longer restricted to tightly controlled corporate networks. Support processes may also struggle to keep up thanks to the greater device diversity.

Organizations may also face liability concerns over who owns the data as employee-owned devices easily mix both corporate and personal information. Processes that protect corporate data integrity need to be drawn up to accommodate a wide range of usage scenarios, including resignation and termination. Acceptable use policies drafted up in the pre-BYOD era will need to be thoroughly updated to reflect what an employee can and cannot do with a personally owned device when on and off the job. Companies subject to regulatory oversight — especially common in sectors such as financial services, health care, and government — will need to be especially careful to ensure they don't inadvertently risk compliance.

Despite the concerns, the trend toward BYOD is well-established, and the opportunities to cost-effectively build a more mobile-enabled, agile technology environment that drives employee productivity far outweigh the relatively manageable list of concerns. With employees often taking matters into their own hands and hooking up their own mobile devices without IT's help, the time to act is now. Organizations that have been holding out need to prepare themselves for this inevitable change.

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

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