Yes, the tech titans among us have figured out that employees use their own personal devices to get work done. And yes, enterprises need to keep their data locked down a bit more than the average person’s iPhone. But while we’ve been posturing about security and control, and wondering if “consumerisation” is really a word, we’ve taken our eye off the ball. 

IT departments need to optimise their systems and support for content delivery – not devices. Information workers live and die by content. But IT departments still seem worried about hardware. Security and control are usually the primary concern when provisioning devices in the enterprise, but ensuring that employees can access their content – and only their content – is, at best, a very distant second.

Content is the lifeblood of any business in the information economy – indeed, content is usually the very output of the analysis and synthesis of knowledge workers. IT departments across the globe need to do a better job of enabling better, more agile content collaboration across workers, geographies and systems.

Users have unleashed their consumer devices onto the enterprise and they now have to unleash content so that users can be productive and grow the business, while still protecting the corporate IP.

What matters is what is on those devices – what passes through them, and that particular alchemy that we perform every day called ‘knowledge work’. Content always has been, and always will be, king. Devices run on content, not batteries, or bandwidth.

How to stop worrying and learn to love the content

It’s admittedly very difficult to move from a device-centric view in the IT department, to a more content-centric view of the business. The enterprise is undergoing a massive explosion of devices. The days of provisioning a laptop and moving on are over.

Information workers have created unique systems for the work styles that transcend laptops, smartphones and tablets. Devices are everywhere, and their exponential growth is hard to grasp, let alone manage.

Enterprises must enable these workers to get things done on each device, depending on the various tasks that make sense for each machine. If they can profoundly and even radically enable employees to create, share and collaborate on content in whatever manner suits them best, they’re going to shape a more efficient and agile workforce.

In contrast, it’s surprising how many hoops the common worker has to jump through just to manifest their intellectual capital for business, and profit. In so doing we not only pay a material price in productivity, but we also send the wrong message to the most important resource.

Measuring up

Okay – so you want to start optimising IT for content? First you have to figure out what the heck your employees are using. Survey the company to find out what devices and software they use the most – and make it clear that there’s no penalty for using personal devices or apps. Businesses need to know so that they can support them adequately.

The days of being a “Microsoft Shop” or an “IBM Shop” are over. There will be a mix of Apple and Android and Blackberry phones, as well as a very diverse mix of software from a broad sampling of vendors.

Focus on the majority, and start looking for systems that can help manage content across the most-used device platforms (iOS, Windows, Android, etc.) and the top 10-15 pieces of critical software (Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite, Google Apps, etc.).

Call it document management, or file sharing, or collaboration. It doesn’t matter – the point is that businesses need to enable people to create, edit and share content, in a way that is appropriate to what device they’re on. The less jargon the better.

Once it’s clear what devices and software employees want to use to do their job, businesses can take action to support their preferences and work styles. Monolithic, top-down mandates about what devices and software employees can use simply don’t work anymore. Why fight it when there’s so much upside to a more open approach?

Avoid vendor lock-in

This is the big elephant in the room. It’s sounds so cuddly and nice to just let employees use the tools they want. Doesn’t it? The big challenge is that a lot of software vendors out there don’t play nice with other vendors and platforms. You need only look at the relationship between Apple and Adobe to see how bad it can get.

In the past – these vendor tricks and games resulted in reduced choice for IT departments. Legacy systems dictated future purchases, and there was no way around it. But the times are changing. Cloud-based offerings provide some freedom from these platform wars (although, even they present new lock-in scenarios).

HTML5 is gaining speed, and technologies like SproutCore and Sensia will prove to be a great way for IT departments to build home-grown apps that workers can access from a browser on virtually any device they own.

It’s easy to jump on the iPhone bandwagon, or Android, or Blackberry. It’s tempting, for sure. But its important to remember that all three of these options have been “on top” at one point or another in the past 5-10 years. IT shops that went all-in on Blackberry in year’s past are now stuck with (let’s admit it) devices that don’t provide nearly as much functionality or as many applications as Android or the iPhone.

Don’t make the same mistake twice. Businesses must do what they can now to make their content fabric platform-agnostic. Unless, of course, you like the idea of provisioning technology that’s 10 years behind the consumer tech your workers are already using.

What’s the key to avoiding lock-in? Open Standards. Put simply – collaboration and file sharing solutions that play nice with other systems and speak open content standards, like CMIS or WebDAV, are an easy way to make sure IT politics stay the heck out of the way of workers.

At the end of the day – consumerisation and collaboration are about staying out of the user’s way, and letting them getting things done on their own terms, in the manner that works best for them.

Understand your workforce personas

We talked about finding out what employees are already using, and about supporting as much of that as possible with flexible and open systems. But that’s not enough.

IT departments need to understand the nature of the work and people in their organisations, and prioritise investments accordingly. With large sales teams that travel a lot, businesses need to consider investing in tablet apps that allow for quick editing of presentations and visuals.

In a creative agency, it’s worth thinking more about how mobile content capture tools can interface with desktop content creation tools, through a standards-based content collaboration platform. While desktop software is the primary tool for heavy-duty content creation, mobile phones help creative’s capture and share images and visuals that might inspire the next big idea.

In law firms, it might be worth doubling down on document editing and securing sharing across devices. You get the point. Every business and department is different, and needs to be able to support the use cases that are the most critical and most common.

The relationship between people and the content they create and share is the whole ballgame. We’ve been focusing far too much on people and their devices, and it’s wasting time and money. The devices are irrelevant in the endgame. Content and people are what makes business run, and win.