How CIOs Can Learn to Love IM Messages, Social Networking Sites, Blogs, Wikis and Other Tools of User Empowerment

The world has changed. IT executives can't deny employees the freedom to use consumer applications at work. Here's how to live with and profit from them.

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Tue, June 19, 2007

CIO — Digital cameras didn’t creep up on the Drees Company as much as they pounced. Five years ago a lot of employees at the $1.1 billion real estate company weren’t even using computers. Today, those same employees are responsible for one of the company’s more innovative uses of technology.

But at first, says Brian Clark, Drees’s manager of data management, the company wouldn’t support the devices. Technology that wasn’t approved by the IT department was not supported in the workplace. But employees ignored the rules. “This was when cheap digital cameras were first coming onto the market,” Clark recalls. People used them to take pictures of under-construction homes, upload the pictures to their work computers, and then e-mail them to out-of-state buyers, insurance brokers or contractors. Clark admits it was a great idea. It’s a lot easier to show a contractor a picture of the place on the wall that needs fixing than to try to describe it on the phone. Soon, however, the behavior reached a tipping point, which was when Clark knew he had to fix it.

 
USER TECH INVASION
 
 

Every camera had its own proprietary software, and the IT department didn’t have the resources to test every one to find out what it would do to its environment. When rogue cameras occasionally would appear, Clark made it clear that his department wouldn’t help users with any technical problems. IT also tried to find a camera solution the company could use because the business benefits were undeniable. Finally, about a year ago, a user suggested that Drees use Picasa, a free, camera-agnostic photo management application from Google. Clark ran a few tests, determined that it didn’t pose any risks and rolled it out. Picasa is now standard on every Drees computer.

Picasa is a free consumer application; a company using it doesn’t have to pay for licenses, but it won’t get any support from the vendor either. A recent survey by CIO magazine of 368 IT leaders found that 41 percent wouldn’t even consider such an application for use in their enterprises. But Clark, like the majority of technology executives surveyed, sees it differently. “Our attitude has changed a lot,” he says. “First, you can’t dismiss Google anymore. They aren’t some fly-by-night company.” Second—and he has learned this from experience—using freely available software can have a huge ROI. “We don’t teach people how to use it,” he says. “But when they do, it allows us to leverage someone else’s work at little to no cost. How can you not win in that situation?”

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