WiFi networks and crowdsourcing an IT strategy

In a recent survey 1 in 3 British workers say they rely on WiFi to do their jobs effectively, and 61% of those believe their home WiFi to be better than their workplace WiFi. That survey of 2,004 randomly selected British wireless-reliant UK workers aged 18+ was commissioned by Aerohive Networks – a US based maker of premium business grade WiFi equipment. Their report contains a number of observations on productivity problems in the workplace, with unreliable connectivity considered the most disruptive, power cuts as second, and ‘wireless temporarily down’ as third. Aerohive report that “Up to 40% have missed deadlines and opportunities at work due to poor [wireless] connectivity”. This negative experience of WiFi in the workplace relative to the home supports the widely held view that WiFi use in the workplace is led by employees, not by IT department strategists. From this report one might infer that WiFi connectivity in the workplace is behind the expectations and needs of some employees to work as productively as they would like.

Modern mobile working practices are more typical in younger people. It is probably significant that they have a more technologically aware mind-set, along with higher expectations of their working environment developed in technologically rich educational environments. Recently we upgraded WiFi in some student accommodation. While investigating issues with networks, two students in a common area both using WiFi were asked if they also used a wired connection. Only one of the two did, even though a laptop with a port for a wired connection was being used by the one that only used WiFi. Obviously this is a vanishingly small sample, but this scenario is typical, and there are two important points to draw from it. Firstly, both students were spending some time working in a communal area using WiFi, but that was their choice, not a requirement. Secondly, one did not even take the trouble to use a wired connection when it was available and provided a better service – the reason we were there. Mobility is at least in part about a more social and collaborative style of working. It allows people to take what they are doing with them. They are controlling the technology rather than the technology controlling them. In science fiction movies nothing is ever plugged in, everything is wireless because that is how we like to see ourselves, with freedom to move and in control of powerful technology. In problem scenarios in science fiction technology takes control, even if it is wielded by other people. Wireless connectivity then is an essential enabler of expectations in working practices, and currently wireless connectivity is dominated by WiFi.

A recent webinar by LogMeIn reported on their survey of almost 1400 IT and non-IT professionals globally concerning modern trends in IT that could be collectively described as crowdsourcing an IT strategy. They simplify their findings into four macro-IT trends:

Firstly – use of personal devices for business; the so called bring your own device (BYOD) trend. Employees chose the technology and IT departments provided WiFi connectivity. This was the start of significant employee contributions to the IT strategy, i.e. crowdsourcing the IT strategy.

Secondly – an empowered, connected, and mobile workforce. These employees (who as discussed above are generally younger) expect mobility and ubiquitous wireless connectivity. This group are probably the strongest drivers of WiFi expectations in the Aerohive Networks survey above.

Thirdly – applications sourced and managed by employees; the so called bring your own application (BYOA) trend. Employees report they do not always feel the need to seek the approval of the IT department, particularly to address problems localised to their small groups and themselves. This has resulted in a strong move away from enterprise grade software to the cloud ‘app’ based approach (cloud based processing and storage) which has perceived advantages described in terms like convenience, ease of use, agility, speed, less hassle, and flexibility. However, this piecemeal approach has no overarching strategy and little or no appreciation of broader consequences.

Fourthly – business data is increasingly in the cloud. A major advantage of the cloud is location anonymity, but that can also be a concern for some data.

IT professionals see the consequence of these four macro trends as a less secure and controlled IT world, with 42% expecting this trend to continue, and 35% expecting it to remain at about the same level. The main concern of 54% of IT professionals is a lack of security of business data in the cloud. The survey also indicated that 29% of IT departments monitor and modulate use of apps, accepting its inevitability but trying to make use of its advantages; 39% broadly ignore it, not yet knowing how to react; and 30% are actively suppressing use of apps not sanctioned by the IT department. This last reaction is despite strong anecdotal evidence that employee productivity is improved by these four trends.

We can see from these two surveys that IT strategies in the workplace are now partially emerging from employee decisions. At this time no coherent response has been established among IT professionals to crowdsourcing of IT strategy. However it is accepted that a strong WiFi network is a key enabling technology for the modern mobile working practices expected by an empowered, connected, and mobile workforce. Likely the way forward will be found in technologies being developed to modulate these trends so as to gain the best from them while minimising problems. Certainly, while it still possible the old arrangement of IT departments totally controlling IT use and strategy in the workplace are looking increasingly outdated and likely to hold back productivity.

‘Bring your own access’ will accelerate the trend for IT strategy crowdsourcing. Personally controlled mobile Internet connectivity can circumvent corporate Internet connectivity, so IT departments will then be unaware of the data moving in and out of the business. As data prices fall, coverage and speeds improve, and employees become more technologically enabled, this trend will accelerate.