As more employees make requests to work on their own personal smartphones, laptops and tablets, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are being forced to devise policies for bring your own device (BYOD). This is no longer an issue that can be ignored - companies of all sizes are being forced to account for the use of consumer IT over their corporate networks.
Business leaders are becoming more aware of the key issue where BYOD is concerned - the balance between opportunity and risk. On the one hand, they recognise the potential to boost productivity by allowing employees to use personal devices, and understand the benefits this could have for their company's bottom line. But at the same time, they are aware of the dangers of supporting external devices on their networks - particularly where data security is concerned.
This creates something of a dilemma for SMB leaders, who may not be experts in the field of IT, nor employ anyone in their company who is. Ultimately, it is their choice whether to allow the use of consumer devices in the workplace or not, and the decision they reach may depend on a multitude of factors. This helps to explain the differing approaches being taken by companies within the sector, on an issue which is proving greatly divisive.
SMBs still undecided on BYOD
According to a recent study conducted by Spiceworks, almost three in five SMBs (59 per cent) have now developed a BYOD initiative in order to account for changing mobile working practices. This may mean they allow employees to use whichever devices they choose - with staff allowed to use any smartphone or tablet on the company network - or they permit the use of a range of particular devices.
The latter approach is perhaps more likely to be seen, as this allows SMBs to mitigate some of the risks associated with consumer IT. If they know which devices are being used to access corporate files, documents and online services, the company at least has a better understanding of the specific risks relating to that device. This knowledge can help to implement more effective defensive strategies, using anti-virus software, firewalls, password protection and encryption to ensure sensitive information remains away from prying eyes.
However, the Spiceworks study suggested that IT professionals remain split on supporting BYOD. Among those working for SMBs, 14 per cent fully welcome the trend, 32 per cent say it works well for some devices but not others, and 24 per cent say it poses problems for device management. Almost a third of those surveyed (30 per cent) said they were yet to form an opinion - highlighting the fact this is a fast-evolving and relatively immature area. As such, it is somewhat difficult for SMBs to act with full confidence, whichever BYOD approach they choose.
Micro businesses appear most receptive
Interestingly, SMBs with fewer than 20 employees appear most keen to take advantage of consumer IT within the workplace. Around three-quarters of these firms have a BYOD initiative at present, Spiceworks discovered. One of the main reasons for this may be that such companies have relatively small IT budgets compared to their larger rivals. For such companies, it may be more difficult to invest in a fleet of corporate-owned devices which can be issued to individual workers.
BYOD gives the smallest SMBs an opportunity to take advantage of technology solutions - particularly smartphones and media tablets - they otherwise would not have been able to afford. Budget holders may recognise the potential benefits of such solutions - in terms of facilitating mobile working and boosting productivity - but in many instances there are simply other more pressing needs and priorities. Mobile technology is viewed as being desirable but not an absolute must by budget holders.
Allowing employees to bring their own devices into work enables SMBs to enjoy productivity gains and potentially increased output without the need for capital expense. It is simply a case of giving paid staff the green light to connect their personal devices to the network - and then implementing additional security controls as required. This course of action may even boost the morale of employees, who have identified ways for mobile technology to assist with their daily workload. It is employees who are driving the BYOD trend, and where employers are willing to acquiesce, there is clear potential for improved engagement.
As the sophistication of mobile solutions increases, boosted by more powerful operating systems and applications, SMBs may come under even greater pressure to adopt BYOD. The launch of Windows 8 - which is designed to improve the mobile computing experience - Windows Phone 8 and Surface heighten the need for small businesses to make positive decisions on BYOD. If they are fully against the consumerisation of IT, employees need clear instruction that this is the case, and also an explanation as to why the use of personal devices is prohibited. If SMBs are willing to allow the use of personal devices, or wish to actively encourage it, they need to ensure appropriate security measures are taken and employees are informed of BYOD best practice.
With professional people able to do more with mobile technology, the pressure SMBs will come under to embrace BYOD is only likely to increase. And ultimately, there are plenty of incentives for them to allow personal device use if at all possible. With productivity and cost gains available to many companies, taking a proactive, but measured approach to mobile device use can quickly pay dividends.
Posted by Alex Boardman