High-Performing Customer-Facing Workforce and BYOD (HBR)


…… Originally published in May 2016 in the Harvard Business Review under the title “Tracking the Trends in Bringing Our Own Devices to Work ……

For the last five years or so, one of the major discussions in the corporate IT world has been around the related issues of the consumerization of IT and employees who bring their personal devices to work (the so-called BYO movement, for “bring your own”). I explored the BYO movement, looking at official policies and real-life practices for BYOD (bring your own device), BYOPC (bring your own computer) and BYOA (bring your own application, including using the public cloud).

I discovered that while the BYO movement has plateaued overall, it has risen significantly in one part of the workforce — client-facing employees. It’s also more common among the high performers in that category.

The general BYO landscape.

In 2014 and 2015 for two years running, BYOD existed in over half the 300 companies surveyed: 35% of organizations officially allowed it and 20% did not officially allow it but acknowledged its existence. In the same period, BYOPC, although less common, was present in a third of the companies, but in only 15% was it officially permitted.

BYOA showed a different pattern. It existed in over half the companies in 2013 with 20% officially allowing it, but both these numbers dropped a year later; by 2014, just over one-third said it existed, and only 7% officially allowed it. So companies seem increasingly willing to let people provide their own hardware, but are beginning to resist their use of non-corporate applications and publicly available cloud services. Part of this shift may be due to alternative corporate cloud storage solutions now becoming available.

At the customer-facing edge of the organization, my surveys show that conditions are different.

Many customer-facing employees often feel closer to the clients than to their own organization: they spend most of their day with clients and serving them is their mission. They’re under pressure to provide good, efficient service. They need to be both fast and effective, and are willing to use whatever information and resources are at their disposal. If they find shortcuts, ways around official policy that let them provide better service, they will take them.

Moreover, some customer-facing employees are more BYO than others. Only 4% of organizations said that it was “very easy” for customer-facing people to find the information they need, provide rapid service, collaborate with their customers and colleagues, and in general have a smooth and efficient work experience. And BYO practices, sky-high in this group, increased even more over the past two years.

Interestingly, the “officially allowed” went down, but the increase in unofficial use resulted in higher overall totals:

  • BYOD increased from 80% to 90% overall although the “officially allowed” dropped by 18 percentage points.
  • BYOPC truly exploded, nearly doubling from 44% to 80% between 2013 and 2014, with a jump in unofficial use making the big difference.
  • BYOA dropped from 70% to 60% overall, but with unofficial use representing nearly all the 60% whereas one year earlier unofficial use was a very small part.

Seeing the extreme differences between the overall figures and those for the top customer-facing workforces, you may well wonder whether the latter is made up of smaller organizations in unregulated sectors where people are freer to choose how they work. They’re not. The companies in that group range in age from 5 years to 100 years, have workforces from 500 to 100,000 people, and are headquartered in Australia, Denmark, the U.S., the UK and New Zealand. They operate in different sectors including banking, construction/engineering, consumer/retail, government, professional services, scientific and technical equipment and TMT (telecommunications, media and technology).

One thing these organizations have in common is their attitude toward collaboration and social networking, both inside and outside the company. The elite 4% is more collaborative, including with customers, and more at ease in social networking both internally and externally.

The differences were so extreme between this group and the full survey population that I decided to look at an intermediate group —the companies that said working with customers was simply “easy” rather than “very easy.” In fact, companies in this intermediate group are more collaborative and social than the survey average, but significantly less so than the elite group.

Collaboration is “embedded in the way we work” in 30% of the top group (vs. 15% in the second group). This difference extends to customer collaboration: 90% of the first group (vs. 60%) have shared collaboration spaces with customers. This also applies to the corporate attitude to external social networking: 50% (vs. 30%) say they encourage employees to use their relationships to trigger potential commercial relations and 60% (vs. 40%) encourage employees to be active in public social media platforms.

People need to work with others fluidly, both inside and outside the firewall

The correlation between a high degree of collaboration and social networking, and the high proportion of BYO activity seen in our top customer-facing group is not surprising, in particular for BYOA, which is usually practiced as a team or within a community, even if it starts out with only one person. Others join in for the very reason that the BYOA choice is first made – because of the need to work with others fluidly, both inside and outside the firewall. The day will come when this will be possible for everyone, and the sooner the better for companies and their customers.

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