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The consumerization of IT: Everything new is old again

Of thumbs, knives and smartphones, Harvey Koeppel traces the roots of the consumerization of IT and how IT translates into table stakes.

In the beginning . . .

Most people attribute the beginning of the "consumerization" of IT to the rise of the smartphone. This would track roughly to the year 2000 when Ericsson Inc. introduced the R380 mobile phone, most often credited with the first use of the term "smartphone." According to a 2012 Intel Corp. study, "Insights on the Current State of BYOD," it was, after all, the smartphone that began the bring your own device (BYOD) phenomenon that is often used synonymously with the consumerization of IT. The Intel study provides us with further perspective as it asserts that "… consumerization goes way beyond devices. It's about creating a seamless at-home and at-work computing experience to improve the way we work."

OK, wait a minute…

Given this understanding, I would suggest that consumerization finds its roots in a technology much, much, much older than the year 2000. Consider the human thumb: "Unlike other fingers, [it] is opposable, in that it is the only digit on the human hand which is able to oppose or turn back against the other four fingers, and thus enables the hand to refine its grip to hold objects which it would be unable to do otherwise. The opposable thumb has helped the human species develop more accurate fine motor skills. It is also thought to have directly led to the development of tools." [Source:, "thumb."]

The evolution of the fully opposable thumb is the result of evolution, generally traced back to Homo erectus, around 1 million years ago.

To put this further into perspective (in case you may not agree with characterizing your thumb as a "tool"), here is a list of the "20 Most Important Tools Ever" compiled by in 2006. I have taken the liberty of sorting the list by the age of each tool.

Notice anything significant about this list? Consider the following:

  • The knife, the oldest item on the list (which was also #1 on the list of "20 most important tools ever") dates back approximately 2.5 million years, even older than the opposable thumb;
  • All items on the list, regardless of age, could have easily been originated for "home" (cave?) use and could have certainly been used equally well at "work" (hunting and gathering?), contributing to a seamless at-home and at-work experience to improve life for our ancestors;
  • There is no smartphone on the list.

Analyze this. . .

Much of what we hear about consumerization and BYOD emphasizes the obstacles that CIOs must overcome on behalf of their enterprise while controlling the "foreign invaders." A Forrester survey of more than 300 IT decision makers identified 13 mobile device management challenges cited by at least 20% of the respondents. Here are the top four:

As a former CIO, I can personally relate to the challenges of adopting and institutionalizing new technologies while ensuring their safe and sound use. The four challenges described above are certainly real; some clearly come with considerable "hair" (geek speak for complexity).

Based upon roads traveled so far, here are some important questions for your thought and continued consideration:

Whether you believe that consumerization is a sea change or a somewhat less dramatic next routine step in our multi-million-year evolution, the conclusion must be the same: Adapt, survive and thrive.


  • Isn't dealing with new technologies, some more complex than others, what the IT department does for a living?
  • Did I miss an important email?
  • What would have happened if the caveman who invented the knife decided that, despite its obvious efficiencies and competitive advantages while feeding and protecting his family, the security risks associated with its use outweighed the advantages?
  • Did you ever try to cut a thick juicy piece of steak with a fork and a dull rock?

Focus on enabling business value . . .

Please don't misunderstand. I am not saying that the challenges posed by consumerization are not real, because they are. I would like to encourage you to recognize that dealing with obstacles and overcoming challenges are your table stakes. Don't earn yourself the title of Chief Impediment Officer (CIO). Instead, focus on the opportunity value of what some call a sea change and what I call the natural evolution of the complex relationship between people and their machines.

Here are a few opportunities to explore along your consumerization journey:

  • Enhanced productivity driven by the enablement of communication and collaboration among customers, business partners and workers any time and located anywhere. Work-life balance is considerably enhanced.
  • Business process efficiencies, especially for outside sales and field service workers. Provides significant support for migrating labor-intense processes to self-service, often creating increased customer satisfaction.
  • Increased revenue by making sales staff more efficient and allowing them to spend more productive time with customers and developing relationships.
  • Improved help desk productivity potentially achieved through decreasing numbers of inquiries and trouble reports.
  • Reduced expenses for corporate devices and data services by eliminating the costs associated with ongoing device upgrades, maintenance and the need to manage hardware inventories.
  • Improved IT department productivity, allowing staff to focus less on lower value-added infrastructure programs and more on value-added time focused upon working with internal and external partners to enable new business opportunities.

[Source: "Building The Business Case For A Bring Your-Own-Device (BYOD) Program", Forrester Research, November 15, 2012.]

More Harvey Koeppel CIO Matters

Whether you believe that consumerization is, in fact, a sea change or a somewhat less dramatic next routine step in our multi-million-year evolution, the conclusion must be the same: Adapt, survive and thrive, or become the Chief Impediment Officer and start dusting off your resume.

Let me know what you think. Post a comment or drop me a note at Discuss, debate or even argue -- let's continue the conversation.

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