Recent research among European, US and Australian small businesses shows how far the trend to consumerisation of user access to IT has progressed. Over 70% of those interviewed said they allowed at least some of their employees to access certain data and applications from their personally own devices.

When I speak with chief information security officers (CISO) in larger businesses they admit that one of the reasons their organisations are also observing the same trend is that in practice it is hard to stop. Senior staff will insist on such access, junior ones will seek ways around controls, including the use of other communications channels if they are blocked from access to formal ones, such as corporate email, from the personal devices.

However, the research shows there are positive reasons for allowing such access. The use of smartphones is fundamental to enabling remote working. Over 90% of the small business managers interviewed had staff that worked out of the office at some point during the week and they were the ones most likely to be using such devices for remote IT access.

Of course, it is not just smartphones. Many of those employees will already have notebook and laptop computers and they are also rapidly turning to tablets. Over 40% of the respondents in the recent research said some of their employees were using such devices and another 20% expected this to be the case within 12 months.

In many cases, remote workers, for example field service engineers logging faults and social workers filing home visit reports, will be using company-issued mobile devices to participate in locked down business processes.

However, for a growing majority it is simply about more flexible working and access to information as and when it is needed – such information workers are behind the mobility revolution that is going on in the IT industry and readers of will mostly fit that category.

However, regardless of all the benefits, information workers present their employers with a problem. How do you keep control of the information itself? How do you benefit from mobility and consumerisation without losing control, becoming a victim of data loss and coming to the notice of regulators?

There is also a problem for the users themselves. As they switch from one device to another for convenience, how do they get a consistent view of their data?

There is no silver bullet for solving the employer’s problem, but there are ways of reducing the risks. First, a business must take as much control of its data as it can. It is possible to secure mobile devices themselves using encryption and host based end-point security, but there is the problem of device ownership; installing software on the users’ own devices creates licencing and management issues.

For many, a better way is to impose centralised controls; that is, to provide a means of accessing data which is easy to use and requires minimal modification of the user’s device. There are three basic approaches, to achieve its goals a given organisation may need to use one or more of them:

  1.  Virtual desktops. Here, data is not actually processed on the device, but the device is simply an access tool to a desktop that is available anywhere the user can get online. There are limitations with this approach when it comes to smartphones (due to screen and keyboard size), but software in this area is improving fast (for example Citrix Receiver). However, it may still require some locally installed software for some advanced functions.
  2.  Provide access to applications that allow data to be viewed and updated, but not copied. For example, just because you allow employees to read email remotely does not mean the actual content need be copied to a device. Such applications can be provided through the creation of corporate app-stores that support the range of devices employees want to use and the users can proactively download providing their consent for installation in the process. This is the best way to provide access to corporate applications (CRM, ERP etc.) for those on the move.
  3.  Provide direct access to central document stores. Here, with the right products, access can be provided to view files with appropriate caveats. Public domain documents (e.g. market materials) can be freely copied and used later offline, whilst restricted documents can only be viewed whilst online helping to protect an organisation’s digital rights. Some products require no local software be installed to provide such access. Offerings here include portals such as Microsoft SharePoint or specific file sharing/backup services such as Trend Micro SafeSync and Druva InSynch.

The last of these also helps solve the employee’s problem; if the central data store supports access from multiple operating systems (iOS, Windows, Android etc.) it gives them access to documents from whatever device they happen to be using. Providing this is a secure service it also helps prevent another insidious problem; if there is no easy to use a method for centrally storing documents then employees may synch their devices using other services – some secure, some less so – employers may then have no idea where their data is ending up.

Generally speaking, the benefits of embracing consumerisation outweigh the risks, providing those risks our mitigating in so far as is possible. Employers that are proactive in doing that will ultimately find they get more out of their employees, without taking unnecessary risks with their data.