"Any time, any place, anywhere, any device" is the latest business mantra. But how do you reap the promised productivity benefits whilst keeping your information secure? Marc Beishon investigates.
To read the latest warnings about the challenges of the 'bring your own device' (BYOD) trend, it seems that companies are faced with an unstoppable flood of smartphones, tablets and other devices that could seriously compromise security in their organisations.
Rather, many have already responded to pressure from users to accommodate new devices such as iPhones, by at least allowing some connectivity to email. Many businesses have introduced a BYOD policy of sorts, even if only to say that no such devices will be allowed.
However, a growing number of forward-thinking organisations have recognised that, with the right security measures in place, BYOD can deliver tangible benefits.
Sainsbury's, for example, has recently opted for just such a system, which could cover many of its 150,000 employees, and reports that more than 60 per cent of its employees own a smartphone - and 75 per cent of those aged under 25. Initially, it will enable staff such as store managers to access corporate email, calendar and the intranet on their own devices, allowing them to stay on the shop floor and deliver better service to customers.
Meanwhile in the public sector, a forward-thinking state school, Beaconsfield High in Buckinghamshire, is using a secure wireless system that allows pupils to register their own mobile devices and access the school's 'virtual learning environment'. This saves on increasingly scarce IT resources and empowers students to take control of their own learning.
The business benefits
"The momentum behind BYOD is cultural and social," says Stuart Bryden, a business architect at BT, "and while issues such as security are paramount businesses need to look at the benefits that the power of the devices, coupled with new 'apps' and social media, can bring." By offering greater flexibility around how, where and when employees work, BYOD can increase job satisfaction and help organisations retain talent; by providing a platform that is always 'on', it can also help teams work more effectively.
A key point, Bryden stresses, is that the evidence shows that employee productivity goes up with flexible working and flexible mobile devices. According to the iPass Global Workforce Report, staff using their personal devices for work each put in an extra 240 work hours per year. However, users are unlikely to tolerate carrying separate phones or tablets for business and personal use, but this can be also be a business benefit, as employees shoulder the purchase cost and the ongoing maintenance costs of the device.
Overcoming the challenges
"The enablement of personal devices for business use can only improve productivity," observes Bryden, "but the first issue to address is securing the device." In his work with organisations considering introducing BYOD, he says the over-riding consideration is to ensure that devices already on the network are secure. This is driven by a widespread fear that the next viral threat will come from network-connected consumer devices.
A second, less prevalent trend is for a more dynamic security policy, which is gaining ground in settings such as universities, says Bryden. "Students no longer just use a laptop and wireless connected smartphone, they now use internet connected TVs, DVD players, movie subscription services (Netflix, LoveFilm, Sky Go, etc) and online gaming. Universities can't just block this behaviour but they can allow it, profile it and control it so that priority is given, for example, to a student researching over another playing online games."
Given just how swiftly consumers are updating their personal technology, it's hardly surprising that companies are struggling to keep up with the devices that their employees are using within the organisation. Smartphones, rather than laptops are the most commonly used device, but tablets are rapidly gaining popularity. By 2014, Gartner predicts that 90 per cent of organisations will support corporate applications on mobile devices.
Keeping track of employees with multiple devices connected to the business network in different modes, can be a headache for businesses and their IT departments. But with the right infrastructure and policies in place, these issues can be successfully managed. Here are some pointers for you to consider:
What devices you will allow?
It's worth considering what kind of devices your employees can use, and be able to identify and authenticate each user and device. A straightforward approach is to accept broad groups of devices, such as Android phones and to insist on security controls such as authentication tokens, data encryption, pin codes, device time-outs and anti-malware.
Access to applications
Once you've looked at the devices, you'll want to tackle what they can actually access. Will you limit it to email alone, or provide full access to all your business resources? As these needs will vary by role and business need, it's important to build in flexibility when developing a BYOD policy.
Visibility of devices
To implement and manage your BYOD policy, it's essential to know what devices are being used at any given time, and over what type of connectivity on the corporate network and beyond. Systems such as Cisco's Identity Services Engine (ISE) allow the IT manager to determine which device has access and to what, across all networks (whether that's wired, wireless, VPN or WAN).
Network suitability and security
The speed and performance of your network are also important for enabling BYOD. As part of your BYOD policy (whether that's developing one or reviewing what you have), you might want to consider doing a full audit on your network, looking at speed, resilience and at the same time, security.
Communicating your BYOD policy
Finally, there's no doubting that allowing employees to work remotely and flexibly helps recruit and retain talent. But for BYOD to be successful, your policy needs to be clearly communicated and the process straightforward.
BYOD has the potential to make companies more agile and competitive, and their staff more productive. But to make a policy work demands strategic thinking from the business and the IT department, supported by the right technology.
Marc Beishon is a freelance journalist, specialising in ICT and business