The digital employee is not new it’s just the latest evolutionary phase

Anyone with even a passing interest in trends in the technology sector can't have missed the recent adoption of the word ‘digital’ in relation to business technology and strategy. There was digital marketing, digital customer experience and digital business – and now ‘the digital employee’.

It doesn't mean robots, and it doesn't mean employees with fingers – it means employees who are comfortable with the use of technology to aid them in their working lives, and not waiting for the IT department to come to them with solutions.

It’s a natural progression from the ‘bring your own’ fad of a few years back. What started with the iPhone and iPad (bring your own device) then moved to applications like Evernote, OneNote and GoogleDocs (bring your own app) and then to storage and infrastructure services such as DropBox, OneDrive and GoogleDrive.

The availability of high-speed 4G networks has even led to people using their own connectivity, tethering laptops personal phones to get a better internet experience than a company’s managed Wi-Fi.

>See also: What is a true digital enterprise?

It's been many years since the technology provided to employees at work was better than the tools they have at home. Home PC processing power, personal shiny mobility gadgets and high-speed residential internet services make the IT equipment in the office seem slow, limiting and, frankly, boring to use. It's no wonder that employees are reaching for their own personal technology solutions.

What is surprising is that people consider this to be something new. Do they forget that the ‘P’ in ‘PC’ stands for ‘personal’? The PC displaced the mainframe because managers were able to buy it themselves, bung Lotus 1-2-3 on it, and solve the problem they'd been asking the data processing manager to help them with for months in about 20 minutes.

By the time the mainframe manager had woken up to what was going on, he'd been usurped. Up sprang a plethora of tech businesses in its wake – Novell, Microsoft and WordPerfect – all bypassing the traditional business computing purchasing route, and going direct to line-of-business managers.

Granted, much of that spending wasn't carried out by people dipping into their own pockets, but it was the start of the self-sufficient employee.

IT departments grew from the remains of the data processing departments and some control was wrested back: PCs were managed and secured, software was ‘standardised’ and marvellous productivity tools like email and PowerPoint entered the mainstream. Incidentally, the inventors of those two particular technologies are definitely first against the wall come the revolution.

The next wave came with the early mobility devices. The Psion organiser, the Palm Pilot, the iPaq – the ball was definitely back in the court of the employee, who would say things like "Can I get my email on this?" and "I want to put my contacts on that". The genie (and with it corporate data) was yet again out of the bottle.

This time it was the BlackBerry that came to the rescue of the IT department – a controlled, secure environment that was that rare beast: a tool welcomed by and managed by IT, and beloved by its users.

Anyone who managed a help desk in 2008 will remember how quickly the dashboard would light up if the BlackBerry service went down. They were even called CrackBerrys because people become so addicted to them.

Then came the iPhone and the spell was broken – IT and the business users were yet again locked in a battle for the device of choice.

Businesses have pretty much got that under control – although it took a while. Mobile device management, enterprise app stores and data leakage protection have all solved problems, and a new category of vendors has sprung up.

Good, MobileIron, Airwatch and Maas360 sprung into life and, with the exception of MobileIron, have since been subsumed up into larger players. That means organisations are now in a position to tackle the next phase of ‘personal’ technology and computing together, and with the benefit of having learned the lessons of history.

>See also: Cloud strategies for digital transformation

Rather than blocking the use of consumer and user-owned technology from employees, enlightened CIOs are encouraging it. They have the tools to protect data and their networks so should embrace the enthusiasm and technical knowledge of their staff, and combine it with the ease of use, speed of development and inter-operability of next-generation apps, platforms and services, to enable employee-led productivity tools and projects to help improve their businesses.

It's not all or nothing. Organisations don’t need to let the new marketing exec provide a replacement to the enterprise SAP deployment with an open-source finance package running on a Raspberry Pi. But they also don't need to commission an 18-month proof of concept to trial a data collection tool that can speed up the job-to-cash process using a low-cost smartphone.

This is a fascinating time to be in technology but IT pros just need to agree that things are going to change a bit; that the balance of power, the distribution of budgets and the IT vendor landscape is not what it once was.

As long as they make sure they have always got their eyes fixed on the prize of improving things for the company, its customers and its employees, there's no reason why everyone can’t the digital ride.


Sourced from Rufus Grig, CTO, Azzurri Communications

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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