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Taking It Personally

As the line blurs between consumer and corporate technology, companies may have to rethink how they equip mobile workers.

When Tom Goodmanson suddenly jumps up and begins waving his iPhone around — in the middle of a restaurant, say, or from the stands at a hockey game — make sure not to bother him. The CFO of Calabrio is being productive. After all, he’s familiarizing himself with the trendy smartphone because he considers it “a solid productivity tool” that may benefit employees at Calabrio, which makes software for managing call centers.

But Goodmanson also cops to a keen personal interest in the device. He’s a big fan of Shazam, an iPhone application that can identify any song it hears and then connect him to iTunes so he can buy the ditty. Goodmanson, 40, has reunited with the hair bands of his youth, including such architects of anthem as Styx and Kansas. Doesn’t he worry about how his own wayward employees will carry on when faced with the iPhone’s many distractions? “I believe that if people are treated like adults, 99% of the time they act like adults,” he says. “I try not to live in the world of locking down machines.”

As employees become more mobile, locking down machines — or restricting IT usage in any way — is becoming vastly more difficult. Workers’ enthusiasm for the latest technologies has pros and cons; their comfort with newer devices boosts their productivity, but also makes them more likely to protest, or ignore, corporate policies that dictate what can and can’t be used.

Just a few years ago, companies worried about employees using personal USB drives to transport company data to their home PCs; some employers went so far as to pour glue into every USB port on desktop computers. But as mobility has increased — by year end, IDC estimates, fully 70% of the U.S. workforce will qualify as “mobile” at least part of the time — the emphasis has shifted from inhibiting mobility to facilitating it.

Two technology trends in particular are enabling almost any worker to pack a technology arsenal at very little cost. Netbooks, cheaper and lighter mini-notebook computers that can tuck into any briefcase and more than a few pocketbooks, are racking up sales by the millions. Meanwhile, smartphones have evolved into pocket computers that can meet a huge range of IT needs.

CFOs understand gadget-mania, which makes it difficult for them to take a hard line. Bud Robertson, CFO of Progress Software, says that when employees have asked about using the technology they prefer rather than following the company’s standards, “we tell them we won’t support any of that stuff.” So how does he explain the fact that Progress now supports both the Palm Treo and Research in Motion’s BlackBerry products? “We try to keep out as much consumer technology as we can,” says Robertson, “but sometimes it sneaks in.” Come next year, Progress will save money by standardizing on the BlackBerry — which was not, incidentally, Robertson’s top choice. “Our power users like them,” he explains.

According to research firm Creative Strategies, within the next two years more than three quarters of all cell phones sold will be smartphones, devices that merge voice capabilities with Internet access. Employees are undergoing a similar convergence, as their consumer desires and workplace needs meld, or try to.

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