CIOs are quickly losing control of the applications and platforms their employees choose to use at work. Personal preferences for cloud-based apps from Google, Box and Slack, among others, have spilled into the workforce at an astonishing rate during the past 18 months. Unsanctioned apps and services can negatively impact workflow, productivity and the general health of a company, but the potential damage can be offset with the right IT mindset, support and flexibility.
Consumers have virtually endless choice when it comes to cloud tools, but there are different dynamics at play in the workplace. Employee expectations don't always blend well with IT's goals, so many workers simply use the tools they want. In many cases, nothing stops the average employee from storing all kinds of corporate data in personal storage accounts.
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"We've been tackling personal preference for quite a while," says Michael Hites, CIO of the University of Illinois. "If we're slow to get an enterprise solution out, the problem proliferates pretty quickly."
Hites says CIOs and their IT staffs need to stay ahead of these challenges if they hope to resolve worker expectations and corporate technology requirements.
For CIOs, resistance to consumer cloud can be futile
Finding the right data and information is still a complex and convoluted proposition for many employees, so they look to external tools for help, according to Vanessa Thompson, research director of enterprise social networks and collaborative technologies, IDC. Thompson says IDC's latest research indicates that inefficient access to data from remote locations is undermining productivity, and she says it's getting worse. For example, Thompson still hears from executives who email their work as attachments to personal accounts because they can't easily share work files or take them home from work.
It's not always a bad thing for employees to use multiple collaboration platforms at work, but disparate sets of tools can negatively affect workflow and productivity, and threaten a company's information assets. NetScout CIO Ken Boyd says he doesn't mind his employees using different collaboration tools as long as the services meet IT requirements for security, compliance and auditing.
"Within the IT world, we don't have much of a choice," Boyd says. "One [set of tools] is always preferred but that's just not the world we live in … employees have the ability to store anywhere they choose."
Collaboration complexity increases IT complications
The University of Illinois's Hites says a proper understanding of corporate projects, the scale of collaboration involved and the capabilities of IT's sanctioned tools can help offset the risk associated with employee use of consumer cloud tools. The more complex the project, the more resources CIOs need to assign to manage the collaboration, according to Hites.
"If I'm in an individual department, and I'm collaborating with my staff members there then having redundant collaboration systems doesn't really harm the enterprise that much," he says. However, it can get confusing when employees use multiple platforms on projects that require campus-wide collaboration.
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"If I've got one person using SharePoint, one doing Google Docs and one doing Box, that's going to mess up the collaboration," Hites says. "As long as you know how these things are nested within each other and which tool to use for which type of collaboration everything's fine. It's really when you try to use something that wasn't designed for that scale that you get into trouble."
The range of employee choice has grown considerably, but the use of more than one platform in the enterprise isn't new by any means. Large enterprises with sales, marketing, HR and customer support teams regularly use different applications to get work done, but there are a number of processes between the lines of business that don't always get taken into account by IT, according to IDC's Thompson.
The more cloud tools, the more IT challenges
Without a proper collaboration management framework, company data within employees' personal accounts can be at risk if staffers leave the company. The disposal of junk files and redundant or outdated work stored in the consumer cloud can also be a burden for IT if left unmanaged.
"You start treating the cloud environment and the virtual world like the same file cabinet full of garbage that you had in the past," Hites says. "It makes it hard to find it, it makes it easy to lose and you run a risk because you can't get to those documents when you need them."
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The last thing IT wants is to lose control, but CIOs such as Hites and Boyd choose to embrace more flexible environments in order to meet the predominantly mobile-oriented needs of their employees.
"The fiduciary responsibility of IT is to protect the information assets of the company," says Boyd. "That responsibility really requires us to lay down some standards and not to be burdensome. There are areas of flexibility, and where we can be flexible I think we are."