In a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, Google CIO Ben Fried penned an ode to letting go.
That may sound a bit "Zen Buddhist," but it's becoming a critical message for the modern CIO. With the workplace being invaded by workers armed with personal tablets, laptops and smartphones demanding to rule their own tech destiny, what is a CIO to do to prevent chaos?
Step one, according to Google's Fried, is not to fight it. He admits up front that most CIOs are cautious by nature. They are typically in charge of the largest cost center in the company, and most of the technology budget is for hardware and software that was bought last year or the year before.
"The CIO ends up moving slowly, while being the face of technology — one of the fastest-moving industries in the world," writes Fried. Yet CIOs also must contend with "cosmic pressures like cloud computing services and the rise of consumer technology that are forcing change in the landscape."
Learning how to harness all that change, instead of fighting it, is what will separate the successful CIOs of the future, writes Fried. However, he does concede that it is difficult for CIOs to give up control because for so many years they have written the checks and determined what technology employees would use. When workers bring their iPhones to IT and demand that they be connected to the corporate network, CIOs may feel that their authority is being undermined.
"They tend to see that as, 'Oh my God, they are imposing on me,'" writes Fried. But on the other hand, that's one device that the company won't have to pay for.
"It's one less thing you have to buy and one less carrier contract you have to maintain," he writes. "It is one problem off your organization's back." Fried did not always believe in allowing employees to choose what technologies they want to use for work. He thought it would be very costly, but was surprised to discover that "when you give people the choice of their toolset, they end up supporting themselves much more."
It's worth noting that this kind of do-it-yourself policy would work better at Google, a place brimming with tech-savvy employees. Try it at an insurance company and you're likely to get different results.
But one thing holds true in this new era of consumer IT: You have to trust your users, but you also have to know what makes them tick in order to know the limits of that trust.
Forrester Research backs up Fried's notion of relinquishing some control to the user, but not before studiously observing workforce behavior. Only then can you give them what they want.
In a recent report entitled "The State of Workforce Technology Adoption: U.S. Benchmark 2011", Forrester analysts surveyed 4,985 information workers at U.S. organizations and outlined the productivity increases and reduced costs that can result from a thorough assessment of the technology wants and needs of workers.
One survey result that shows a transformation in personal devices in the workplace: When asked, "How did you choose the primary smartphone you use for work?" 48 percent answered that they picked the phone they want without considering what their company supports.
"To increase workforce productivity at the lowest possible cost, you need a baseline understanding of how and why your company's employees use the technology you provide and also the technology they adopt on their own," the report states.
"Without these objective facts, IT decisions are too easily swayed by technology hype cycles, corporate politics, or simply the squeaky wheel executive with a personal fetish for iPad apps."
This workforce behavior analysis extends to everything from determining which of your employees need an enterprise license for Microsoft Office to which mobile workers using their own personal smartphones have access to the most confidential data on their devices.
A key aspect of the consumerization of IT, according to the Forrester report, is knowing your workforce better than they know themselves, and always communicating with them.
"Don't jump to conclusions about how best to protect and support employees: Ask them first," states the Forrester report.
To know the workforce is to trust the workforce, and Google CIO Fried has been surprised at how something he once thought was counterintuitive (letting workers choose their own technology) has improved productivity at Google.
"The reason users choose a particular technology is probably because they knew it or liked it or wanted to know it," Fried writes. "All those things will lead to a better situation than if you just told them what they had to do."
Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Shane at email@example.com