BYOD's Phone Number Problem

A simple smartphone number can be an incredibly important corporate asset, but companies will have to give it up in a BYOD scenario.

Would you allow top salespeople to use personal smartphones for work?

BYOD, or bring your own device, makes a lot of sense for these road warriors. Client-facing mobile workers have the most to gain from popular BYODs such as iPhones and iPads. Yet some CIOs don't let salespeople use their smartphones on the job—it's the dirty little secret of BYOD.

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It all boils down to the phone number. Who owns this critical corporate asset?

It's not a stretch to foresee a salesperson jumping to a competitor with a phone number that customers are familiar with, and the dangers associated with that. "Salespeople are notorious for trying to take their Rolodex with them, and BYOD exacerbates the problem," says Ben Tomhave, principal consultant at governance, risk and compliance vendor LockPath.

Number ownership is the single biggest barrier to BYOD smartphone adoption, a CIO told me at the Consumerization of IT in the Enterprise Conference and Expo, or CITE, in San Francisco earlier this year.

The difficulty in porting numbers is "one of the reasons why we don't see a lot of sales groups go BYOD," says Brandon Hampton, a founding director of Mobi Wireless Management, a software and services provider that advises Fortune 100 companies on wireless strategies and the realities and myths behind BYOD.

But there are ways around this problem.

Google Voice and virtualization software that allow a smartphone to receive calls from multiple numbers are some of the more obvious solutions. Of course, this adds layers of complexity to BYOD that can offset cost savings and productivity benefits.

Hampton has heard of a new corporate policy that gives a company the right to take the BYOD number back when an employee leaves. Indeed, BYOD is creating a storm of employee policies in favor of companies to mitigate such risks.

"Through contracts and BYOD policies, companies can hedge against the [number portability] risk and protect the good will that companies have developed with customers or vendors or individuals," says Brent Cossrow, partner at Fisher and Phillips, a law firm specializing in labor and employment law.

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A policy that asks for the BYOD phone number to be returned to the company sounds problematic to Hampton. A smartphone and its number have become so personal to people, much like a wallet, that there's really no turning back the tide.

"I really wonder how they can pull it off," Hampton says.

VMware doesn't even try.

Late last year, the virtualization software giant launched an aggressive BYOD program that required all 6,000 employees in the U.S. to use their personal smartphones for work. Salespeople with corporate-owned phones were told to take ownership of the phone and number, as well as work with the wireless carrier to transfer liability.

Was VMware concerned about losing the phone number asset?

"I'm not sure you really own it" in the first place, says VMware CIO Mark Egan. "When folks join VMware, they usually come with a phone attached to them. When they leave, they want to keep that number... I've had the same phone number for many years over probably three or four companies."

Nevertheless, traveling phone numbers in a BYOD scenario are not going away, leaving companies to make the call: trust departing employees with phone numbers, leverage technology or set hard-and-fast policies that mitigate the risk.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

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