TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: 'Bring your own app' fever

The bring your own device trend has evolved to the next logical stage – bring your own apps – spawning a whole new set to challenges for business.

Technology Spectator

The consumerisation of IT trend that made bring your own device a pressing matter for CIOs everywhere has inevitably evolved to the next logical stage – bring your own apps. This progression, while not unexpected, has spawned a whole new set to challenges for organisations.

For many of the recent converts to the BYOD mantra, the idea of employees accessing third party apps over the corporate network is one of those complications that has seemingly snuck out of nowhere. But the fact is that a business that embraces BYOD inevitably, often unwittingly, ends up embracing an avalanche of third party apps that are not managed by any corporate policy.

Mobility and BYOD might be less of a mystery as a concept for many organisations but there is evidently some room for improvement when it comes to practical application. The latest survey by Ovum on BYOD presents a rather sobering illustration of the situation. According to the survey, 70 per cent of all smartphone-owning professionals are now using their personal device to access corporate data however, almost 80 per cent of the BYOD activity remains inadequately managed by IT departments. Not the sort of statistic that inspires confidence when one thinks about the complexity associated with BYOA.

The IT landscape for today’s employees is one characterised by multiple platforms with their unique ecosystems and inhabited by a plethora of apps. Apple has over 600,000 apps in the App Store, Google Play has 400,000 and rising, while Microsoft’s Windows Phone Marketplace has close to 70,000 apps. With employees spoilt for choice how does an average IT department cope with the trend?

Recognising the benefits

Well, the first step lies in recognising the benefits of employees making the choice to bring in their own apps, which in turn allows them to be more productive and collaborative. In fact the promise of greater productivity and efficiency is a major driver of the trend as file managers like DropBox and communication platforms like Skype and GoToMeeting make their presence felt in the enterprise landscape.

Another aspect underpinning the prevalence of BYOA is that employees are keen to share the benefits of the apps with their colleagues. According to expense management software solution provider Concur Technology’s senior director Marten Jagers, this collaborative element is ramping up adoption in the enterprise space.

"A majority of employees are bringing in apps that their colleagues have shared with them. It’s a trend that we are seeing and it is being spread by people’s success,” Jagers says.

The BYOA trend extends the theme of disintermediation which is seeing employees bypass the traditional IT channels and pursue their own course, whether it is through devices or applications. Quite often BYOA provides answers to the perceived gaps within an organisation and when combined with the falling cost of applications forms a potent justification for broader use.

 While the tangible benefits of services like DropBox and Skype are hard to dispute organisations do have ample reason for concern when it comes to security. One dodgy download from an unwitting staffer could potentially prove to be fatal for an organisation and for many of them the real challenge is deducing a policy that provides security while addressing the needs of employees.

A heavy-handed approach of cracking down on non-approved apps is liable to do more harm than good and the good news, according to Jagers, is that most organisations are keener to listen to their employees, who are driving the trend, rather than shut them down.

"Everyone is willing to ask and answer different questions. We have more choice, more accessibility to technology as a consumer and as an employee. Organisations recognise that,” Jagers says.

"Decision makers aren’t blind to the benefits of BYOA however, what they are after is a level of control that still lets them protect sensitive information.”

Devising the right policy

So how do they make that happen?  Well, listening to your employees is important but organisations also need to be agile enough to keep pace with the changes in technologies. The policy design process must also be directly linked to the benefits the trend brings for both employees and the organisation. These benefits need to be tangible and the policy needs to have clearly stated business continuity measures.  

"An organisation needs to ensure that it is ready for the challenges – what happens if an employee brings in a rogue app- an organisation needs to have an answer to this question,” Jager says.

One approach that has found some traction of late is the deployment of a corporate app store, a managed applications platform however, Accenture’s interactive lead Jason Juma-Ross says that the strategy still runs the risk of locking in IT teams and employees into another fixed structure. A static approach to policy is a recipe for disaster for organisations because app ecosystems have a tendency to evolve quickly and the rapidity means that it is inside the decision cycles of most CIOs.

"What that means is that a lot of organisations are in situation where they are playing catch-up to, a bit similar to what happened with social media,” Ross says.

Playing catch-up on policy doesn’t augur well for an organisation given the potential security implications that the loss of control entail. However, the truth is that the control dynamic has already shifted and with employees increasingly hungry for apps that work better for them than the prescribed software.

According to Ross, one aspect often overlooked is the development of worthwhile partnerships between app developers and corporates.

"There is a greater potential here for partnerships where corporate and app development communities work together – similarly to how Apple has worked with app developers to give end users a vibrant ecosystem - to deliver a solution for employees,” Ross says.

What that also means is that every corporate won’t have to devote the time to build its own app store.

BYOD and now BYOA look to be the harbingers of an agile, social workplace and turning this potential into reality requires a shift in the way traditional IT works. The emphasis now is on becoming an enabler and integrator rather than a gatekeeper. And the BYOA trend is primed to test the capabilities of an organisation to make that necessary transition.

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