With all the problems CIOs face, along comes one that could be truly disruptive. According to a recent report from the Yankee Group, "consumerization threatens to shake a fundamental tenet of technology: central control." The report, Zen and the Art of Rogue Employee Management, is written by Josh Holbrook and was released by the Yankee Group in July.

Rogue employees with consumer technology and devices that enhance productivity - and balance work and family life - are inserting them into the organizational IT enterprise. The problems range from simple - business cell phones used for personal calls - to more aggressive - instant messaging software, Web-based phone services such as Skype, as well as cheap BlackBerry devices, applications and services that employees purchase through consumer channels, but then use for business purposes.

Yankee Group's research found that employees feel "empowered to introduce consumer services into the workplace, and they are making liberal use of the opportunity." A survey found 31 percent of users feel they have complete control as far as adding desktop applications. Only 13 percent said their IT department has complete control over the situation.

The trend appears to be growing, and could disrupt IT if not brought under control. "Consumerization creates a new burden that can potentially cripple already fragile IT organizations," Holbrook writes. "IT departments struggle to support and maintain an increasingly complex IT environment. Supporting and monitoring, or identifying and eliminating, consumer services and devices in the corporate environment will push IT departments over the brink."

The problem is that while 50 percent of CIOs and their IT departments want to spend more time optimizing IT, 25 percent actually spend far less time on this important strategy. Instead, CIOs and their staff spend more time maintaining the IT environment than any other activity, according to Holbrook.

The report contends that introducing consumer technology into the workplace will only make a complicated situation worse. At the same time, companies such as Google and Skype are innovating their consumer products and introducing services that "increasingly expose the corporation to greater integration and security threats."

The response of CIOs to this growing trend comes in three forms: 

  • Seek and destroy. The easiest reaction is to slap an outright ban on devices, such as USB thumb drives. But like Prohibition, bans are doomed to fail.
  • Solicit and support. Instead of banning, some IT departments try to embrace early adopters who bring consumer IT into the workplace. But this approach is also doomed to fail because IT staff will face a "torrent of support calls."
  • Acknowledge and ignore. This is the most widely adopted approach and possibly the most disruptive, according to the report.

But there is a fourth way, according to Holbrook. Deal with the problem by taking a "Zen-like acceptance of consumerization. In this model, end-users are not left to fend for themselves, but rather are provided tools by IT that strike a balance between end-user and IT-supported applications and devices."

The basic tenets of the Zen approach include:

  • don't dictate policy and enforce standards;
  • set guidelines and steer users in the "right" direction;
  • let the students become the teachers; and
  • use tools, such as social networks, wikis, blogs and tagging.

The result can be an environment where workers self-service their needs or support their colleagues, rather than put the expectations and responsibilities solely on the IT department. Not only can self-service save IT sanity, but also time and money for the organization. Examples cited include how an organization enabled employees and managers to do "virtually everything related to human resources on a self-service basis."

Private-sector companies that use a Zen approach include Verizon and IBM. In 2006, the phone service giant was to get 90 percent of its customers to self-install DSL additions, saving the company more than $324 million. At Big Blue, the company's 310,000 employees embraced IBM's social networking platform rather than using rogue versions of the popular software.

But self-service programs require good planning, otherwise the utilization of self-service tools - so-called "care co-op tools" - can be low, minimizing their impact on the organization. Another issue with running a self-service environment for employees is security. The best policy and approach require a mix of good rules and flexibility.

So how much of the Zen approach would work in government? Holbrook points out that many governments are hypersensitive about controlling their IT environment, adding that self-service and community-based applications are a radical change for many organizations.

Overall, the adoption of Zen techniques in government IT may take a while.

Tod Newcombe  |  Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology and a columnist at Governing magazine.