Taking It Personally

As the line blurs between consumer and corporate technology, companies may have to rethink how they equip mobile workers.
Josh HyattJuly 15, 2009

When Tom Goodmanson suddenly jumps up and begins waving his iPhone around — in the middle of a restaurant, say, or from the stands at a hockey game — make sure not to bother him. The CFO of Calabrio is being productive. After all, he’s familiarizing himself with the trendy smartphone because he considers it “a solid productivity tool” that may benefit employees at Calabrio, which makes software for managing call centers.

But Goodmanson also cops to a keen personal interest in the device. He’s a big fan of Shazam, an iPhone application that can identify any song it hears and then connect him to iTunes so he can buy the ditty. Goodmanson, 40, has reunited with the hair bands of his youth, including such architects of anthem as Styx and Kansas. Doesn’t he worry about how his own wayward employees will carry on when faced with the iPhone’s many distractions? “I believe that if people are treated like adults, 99% of the time they act like adults,” he says. “I try not to live in the world of locking down machines.”

As employees become more mobile, locking down machines — or restricting IT usage in any way — is becoming vastly more difficult. Workers’ enthusiasm for the latest technologies has pros and cons; their comfort with newer devices boosts their productivity, but also makes them more likely to protest, or ignore, corporate policies that dictate what can and can’t be used.

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Just a few years ago, companies worried about employees using personal USB drives to transport company data to their home PCs; some employers went so far as to pour glue into every USB port on desktop computers. But as mobility has increased — by year end, IDC estimates, fully 70% of the U.S. workforce will qualify as “mobile” at least part of the time — the emphasis has shifted from inhibiting mobility to facilitating it.

Two technology trends in particular are enabling almost any worker to pack a technology arsenal at very little cost. Netbooks, cheaper and lighter mini-notebook computers that can tuck into any briefcase and more than a few pocketbooks, are racking up sales by the millions. Meanwhile, smartphones have evolved into pocket computers that can meet a huge range of IT needs.

CFOs understand gadget-mania, which makes it difficult for them to take a hard line. Bud Robertson, CFO of Progress Software, says that when employees have asked about using the technology they prefer rather than following the company’s standards, “we tell them we won’t support any of that stuff.” So how does he explain the fact that Progress now supports both the Palm Treo and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry products? “We try to keep out as much consumer technology as we can,” says Robertson, “but sometimes it sneaks in.” Come next year, Progress will save money by standardizing on the BlackBerry — which was not, incidentally, Robertson’s top choice. “Our power users like them,” he explains.

According to research firm Creative Strategies, within the next two years more than three quarters of all cell phones sold will be smartphones, devices that merge voice capabilities with Internet access. Employees are undergoing a similar convergence, as their consumer desires and workplace needs meld, or try to.

Why not let them use whatever technology they like? Proponents of that approach argue that companies that outsource IT needs can simply have their vendors reconfigure support for a broader range of technologies; in other cases, users may create their own shadow community, with IT sharing what it knows about the best practices for, say, securing certain applications. “Companies want employees to be as productive as possible,” says Josh Holbrook, director of enterprise research at The Yankee Group. “If employees are comfortable with the iPhone, then they will use a lot more of the applications available to them, which is good for business.”

Netbook Value

While they may pose certain managerial challenges, the latest mobile devices also offer plenty of advantages. The advent of smaller, lighter netbooks, for example, represents an acknowledgement that for all their versatility and power, most computers are used for checking e-mail and surfing the Web. In order to do those activities from their couches, backyards, or even the local funeral home, consumers have been willing to see high-end microchips and optical drives jettisoned from the devices. The price point ($299 to $499) has also been a big draw.

These machines “have some limitations, but they’ve struck a chord with consumers,” says Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies. “With corporate budgets where they are, CFOs will have to rein in their IT spending going forward. Netbooks have given them a glimpse of what is possible.”

In turn, the industry has gotten a peek at its own future. Research firm iSuppli projects that global PC shipments will rise just 4.3% this year, but that notebooks will get a 15% boost, largely thanks to netbooks.

In addition to the lower price point, companies find netbooks appealing precisely because of the functionality they lack. At Comtech Telecommunications, “we’ve found them to be ideal for employees who travel internationally,” says Michael Porcelain, CFO of the satellite-communications equipment maker. “We don’t have to worry technical information that is prohibited from leaving the country.”

Working from Phone
Smartphones offer an expanding array of applications — e-mail, Web access, contacts, address book, calendar — on an even more portable device. And, they can also make phone calls. The BlackBerry remains the top choice among business users, thanks in part to its security features. Apple’s iPhone represents a major advance of consumer technology into the corporate world, where its substitution of a touchpad for a keyboard has touched off hot debate.

“For businesspeople, the iPhone can be cumbersome,” maintains Ernest Scheidemann, CFO of software maker Allen Systems Group. “If you’re writing a lot of e-mail, it’s easy to send it to the wrong person.” The BlackBerry’s Qwerty keyboard is often preferred by frequent typers, although Research in Motion also offers a version with a touchpad. Needless to say, the new Palm Pre offers both.

The pace of innovation is such that the smartphone of the not-too-distant future may have just as much functionality as netbooks do — if not more. Companies risk a perpetual game of catch-up in establishing appropriate rules. “We need to come up with a policy restricting USB drives, but we haven’t done it,” says Karen Cambray, CFO of Zeemote Inc. “I use them all the time. I’ve got one in my purse right now.” Zeemote, it’s worth noting, makes wireless joysticks, proving that even companies at the forefront of technology have a hard time setting their own limits on mobility.

Josh Hyatt is a contributing editor of CFO.