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Definition

consumerization of IT

What is consumerization of IT?

The consumerization of IT refers to how software and hardware products designed for personal use migrated into the enterprise and were used for work purposes. The influx of these user-friendly consumer devices, applications and platforms into enterprises fundamentally changed how work got done and how corporate IT services were provisioned.

A consumer product that exemplifies this trend is Apple's iPhone, introduced to the market in 2007. Apple's mobile device, lauded for its superior user experience, was preferred by many employees to the corporate-issued mobile phones controlled by enterprise IT departments. Mass adoption of the iPhone helped usher in corporate policies that supported the use of personal devices to access corporate networks. Enterprise IT departments also had to adopt similar policies around the use of consumer IT services like email, file sharing and social media for enterprise business.

The blending of personal and work technology marked a sharp departure from the pre-consumerization era, when corporate IT departments dictated the technology employees could use for work and the protocols required for ensuring the security and compliance of corporate IT assets. "Technology populism," as Forrester Research referred to the consumerization trend, would have an impact on every facet of the enterprise, not just CIOs and their IT departments. The adoption of consumer tech in the enterprise affected everything from how business decisions got made to customer interactions.

How does IT consumerization work?

The term consumerization of IT was coined in 2001 by the Leading Edge Forum and picked up steam in 2005 when Gartner declared that consumerization of IT was "the most significant trend affecting IT in the next 10 years."

Gartner and others traced the trend to the dot-com collapse when enterprise IT budgets shrank, and many IT vendors shifted their focus to the potentially bigger consumer IT markets. The result was a change in the way technology entered the marketplace. Instead of new technology flowing down from business to the consumer, as it did with the desktop computer, the flow was reversed. The consumer market often got new technology before it entered the enterprise.

In the early years, various advisory firms like Aberdeen Group and Nucleus Research reported how the loss of centralized governance and purchasing consolidation drove costs up and diminished productivity. At the same time, various surveys by vendors like Cisco reported that consumerization was lowering costs and increasing productivity.

It's worth mentioning that the consumerization of IT is connected to the phenomenon of shadow IT -- the implementation of technology by employees without the approval of the IT department. The two concepts sometimes overlap when individuals use their own devices or services for work. The confluence of shadow IT and consumer-type tech also stems from business department managers who bypass their IT departments when they procure enterprise services like Salesforce for CRM.

In both cases, the IT department needs to develop a strategy to secure corporate data over these services and enforce compliance. There have been some instances of rogue employees deliberately using these services to bypass security and compliance guardrails. For example, in 2014, the UK Financial Conduct Authority fined five banks $1.7 billion after discovering their employees were using unsanctioned tech to collude outside of regulated communication channels.

Consumerization of IT in the enterprise
Consumer-type devices were not always the norm in the workplace. Here are some reasons behind the trend.

Drivers of the consumerization of IT

The popularity of mobile devices, ubiquity of broadband and explosive growth in high-quality consumer applications, including new social media software, have all played a role in the consumerization and democratization of IT. Drivers of this trend include the following:

  • Consumer tech prioritized ease of use, whereas IT prioritized governance and security.
  • Employees grew frustrated with the slow pace of corporate innovation.
  • Employees were unwilling to settle for enterprise software that was harder to use and often less powerful than what they had at home.
  • Younger, more mobile workers are less inclined to draw a line between work and home technology.
  • Consumer tech empowered employees to solve customer problems and act resourcefully on their own.

What are the benefits of the consumerization of IT?

There are numerous benefits of the consumerization of IT, including the following:

  • The use of personal tech shifts the capital expenses of smartphones and other equipment to employees.
  • Consumer tech lowers the cost of basic training since employees learn about devices, operating systems and apps on their own.
  • Employees have easier access to business applications at home or on the road.
  • Employees can take advantage of the faster pace of innovation in consumer tech.
  • Employees can streamline workflows across their own mobile devices, computers and tablets.

What are some challenges of the consumerization of IT?

There are also numerous challenges that IT departments must address. Issues related to the consumerization of IT include the following:

  • increased costs associated with individual plans and reimbursement;
  • harder to troubleshoot IT problems because of greater variability in devices;
  • lack of visibility into device configurations that can negatively affect IT app behavior;
  • harder to enforce security and governance controls; and
  • erosion of work-life balance that could increase employee burnout.

BYOD: Policy and products

The unsanctioned use of consumer tech in the workplace gave rise to corporate programs that governed the use of employee-owned or corporate-issued consumer devices for work. Bring your own device (BYOD) policies take different forms.

Some BYOD policies cut back on corporate-issued PCs and laptops, instead giving employees a stipend to buy and maintain their preferred equipment. More commonly, organizations support personal mobile devices to some degree, in addition to their corporate-issued equipment. The rules in a BYOD policy also tend to vary depending on a user's role in the organization, the specific device they use and other factors. For example, when media tablets first came on the market, many IT organizations piloted them with field workers to assess their costs and benefits and supported them for CEO and other C-level executives, who were among the iPad's first enterprise users.

The explosive use of personally owned mobile devices and consumer applications for work purposes gave rise to a new line of enterprise software products to manage this consumer technology. They included mobile device management and mobile application management software. Next-generation unified endpoint management allows IT to manage laptops, mobile devices and mobile apps from a single console.

What are examples of the consumerization of IT?

The following are some examples of consumer-type IT commonly deployed in the workplace:

  • personal mobile devices including smartphones, tablets and computers for work;
  • social media services like Facebook or Twitter for enterprise publicity or customer outreach;
  • cloud services like Gmail or Dropbox for business communications;
  • voice-assisted computingtechnology like Amazon's Alexa-enabled Echo devices to access corporate apps;
  • personal video conferencing services for business; and
  • virtual reality and augmented reality devices for communication or training.

The future of IT consumerization

At this point, the adoption of consumer IT in the enterprise is a given. All IT departments need to develop strategies for managing costs, improving security and governance, and ensuring a work-life balance.

Cost. Every enterprise needs a plan to purchase mobile devices and services in bulk or reimburse employees for their expenses. Each approach comes with its own pluses and minuses. Enterprises might see greater savings by buying in bulk. However, giving each employee the flexibility to choose their own device could be perceived as an added perk. Some mobile services are even starting to offer device-as-a-service models that provide management, device and mobile service as a single offering.

Security and governance. Next up, teams need to develop a strategy to ensure security and governance across a range of corporate-issued or individually procured smartphones, tablets and laptops. Increasingly enterprises are turning to mobile device management and enterprise mobility management to enforce controls for mobile devices. Services for laptops known as unified endpoint management improve security and enforce governance controls on personally owned computers. Another strategy is to provide access to enterprise apps through virtual desktop infrastructure and desktop as a service.

The rise of consumerization of IT has dramatically increased the attack surface of enterprise infrastructure. Many enterprises are thus starting to explore how zero trust models might be an additional layer of security and governance around IT assets.

Work-life balance. There is a growing concern that the consumerization of IT is starting to erode the work-life balance -- a phenomenon that only accelerated in the work-from-home mode driven by COVID-19. Employees may feel reluctant to ignore even non-urgent messages from their boss or co-workers on weekends or evenings.

Indeed, companies are starting to face penalties when they don't enforce these boundaries. In 2017, France enacted a historic right-to-disconnect law that fines employers for failing to allow workers to turn off emails, phone calls and other communications during their time off. In 2019 Rentokil was fined €60,000 for breaching the new law. Other countries, including Spain, Italy, Canada and Slovakia, are starting to follow suit with similar laws.

Even in places where no laws are in effect, enterprises might want to consider ways to maintain work-life balance to improve employee wellbeing. This could include tools that make it easier to turn off all work-related notifications or educating employees to cultivate respect for team members' time off.

In the always-on, tech-driven workplaces of today, IT needs to work closely with employees to develop corporate policies that strike the right balance between increased flexibility and productivity with new concerns about security, governance and autonomy.

This was last updated in May 2022

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