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February 11, 2014

To BYOD, Or Not to BYOD - Is It Even a Valid Question?

Among the many fascinating and challenging issues raised and debated at the recent ITEXPO in Miami was the subject of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Historically, decisions about whether to allow it or not within the workplace have focused on security aspects. However, recent studies from several leading bodies suggest that trying to prevent the trend is no longer even a possibility - the question now is how to manage it effectively.

Device Proliferation: The Irresistible Force

The concept of Bring Your Own Device has been around for years, but its impact has been minimized by the technology itself. Back in 2005 when the idea first came to prominence, cell phones could do little more than make calls or send texts. The average laptop cost over $1,000. The theory was that, in the future, people might take their own machines to work - but it was hardly a subject of immediate concern. It was still five years until we would see the first iPad.

That future is now. Your smartphone can probably do more than most desktop PCs did a decade ago. Communications have changed dramatically. Depending on your point of view, BYOD is now either an integral part of your job or - if you happen to be an IT manager - a menace.

But, as pointed out by Richard Absalom and Adrian Drury in a report for the research and analysis group Ovum, it's not going away. The sheer number of devices in employees' possession has reached critical mass. The report concludes that exclusion is no longer an option. The question is how inclusion will be managed.

Potential vs Problems

The benefits for SMEs are relatively straight-forward. If your employees want to bring their own devices to the party then you, as the business owner, have lower IT costs. You also have a workforce that's more productive (because they're more comfortable and proficient with their own devices) and happier, because they made the choice rather than having something foisted on them.

Regulatory compliance and security issues are likely to have less bearing - or be more manageable - simply because of the size of the organization. Should incompatibility rear its ugly head, a face-to-face chat and the offer of assistance with an upgrade can probably resolve things.

In larger companies, these areas becomes more problematic. One-on-one decision making is frequently impractical. How can you be inclusive when you're coping with hundreds - perhaps thousands - of different devices, multiple layers of management, and numerous levels of access?

Then there’s the complex question of personal privacy. If an employee brings their own smartphone or tablet to work, how much of the content can you justifiably access? If you can't control the information flow, how can you protect your own systems from attack or from potential leaks onto media channels that could damage your business? It's no surprise that the whole issue of BYOD has IT managers throwing their hands up in despair (even if secretly they'd rather use their own laptop than the one provided for them).

The Management Imperative

The Ovum report's assertions are borne out by the figures. GSMA, the global mobile trade association, tell us that in 2012 there were 6 billion connected devices and that by 2020 that will have doubled. They will become more of a bridge between our work and social lives - not less.

Recent thinking is tending away from the businesses themselves, towards outsourced solutions. The argument is that specialists are better able to handle the rapidly changing environment, thus freeing companies to focus on core competencies.

Several leading hardware and software providers are promoting Enterprise Mobility Management (EMM), delivering flexibility that can cope with employee-owned devices, corporate-supplied, or a mix of both. Modular infrastructures are used so expandability is part of the package. Software allows the virtual nirvana of providing accessibility and security on a case-by-case basis.

Is Everybody Happy?

The other advantage of bringing in outside expertise is that it's in the interests of the supplier to maintain the efficiency of the client organization's infrastructure. Providing relevant updates and a constant flow of information benefits the customer's business on the one hand while increasing profitability for the provider on the other.

BYOD is an issue that many small businesses will be able to tackle on their own. At the other end of the scale, large conglomerates may have the resources to deal with it themselves. Fortunately, in the middle-ground, where companies sometimes struggle to cope with the technological challenges associated with growth, there are now viable alternatives to depending on an overburdened IT department.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

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