Home computing in the office

Darien Graham-Smith
30 Sep 2008

Last night I attended a round table discussion with Enrique Salem, COO of Symantec. The theme was the encroachment of consumer technologies into business environments.

Of course, that’s a huge topic. “Consumer technologies” covers everything from Facebook to the iPhone, and different types of business are affected in very different ways. Unsurprisingly, the discussion started out uncertain and unfocused, and I admit at first I found myself wondering it was supposed to achieve.

But as the evening went on it dawned on me that these difficulties were precisely what had drawn Mr Salem towards the topic. It’s a fascinating challenge to try to devise even broad principles for accepting new technology into a business without simultaneously opening up untold risks and challenges. Our ultimate inability to make a useful dent in the problem was in a way an eloquent conclusion.

You can't keep the gadgets out

But there was one point that particularly stuck with me. John Brigden, Symantec’s senior VP for EMEA, pointed out that, regardless of the policies businesses may lay down, individuals will always try to use their favourite gadgets and websites at work.

That’s something I saw for myself ten years ago, when I worked at the sharp end of IT support. No matter how many times we told users they weren’t allowed to install ICQ, or to connect their personal laptops to the corporate network, they insisted on doing it. Frequently they even asked us to help them do it.

And surely that tendency will grow as the work force is gradually filled out by a generation for whom instant messaging, mobile gadgets and social networking have always been facts of everyday life. Inevitably, then, this intractable problem is only going to become more pressing. 

More and faster

Unless companies are prepared to lock down their systems in unprecedented ways – or otherwise radically reconceive their computing operations – this accelerating, unmanaged influx of new devices and services is going to force IT departments into a reactive role.

That's hardly an encouraging prognosis, but as I say, we couldn't come up with a solution last night. In truth, I don’t think there is a single solution: every company will have to hammer out its own compromises, and revisit them frequently to keep pace with the situation on the ground.

But through all our deliberations we did keep coming back to one inescapable fact, which I think holds true for almost all businesses: maintaining network and data security in this anarchic new ecosystem is going to be one of the biggest business challenges of the next decade.

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