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There was a widely circulated news item recently that tried to explain the mindset of this year’s college freshmen, noting that, for them, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Kurt Cobain have always been dead. (Message to this generation: please do yourself a favor and delete a few LMFAO and Lady Gaga tunes from your iPod in favor of selections off Nirvana’s Bleach or In Utero). The article provided a list of other cultural touchstones for today’s young adults, highlighting how much has changed in the past 20 years. Yes, this generation has never known a world without cellphones or laptops and has lived with social media since elementary school.
The surging BYOD (“bring your own device”) trend and overall consumerization of IT have profoundly impacted the enterprise. When I started my first post-college job at Arthur Andersen in the early 1990’s (don’t blame me, I had nothing to do with Enron), the IT department mandated what, if any, hardware and software you could use within the workplace. You were considered fortunate to be issued a “portable” Compaq computer, affectionately known as “the lunchbox.” Even then, this computer was underpowered, overweight and awful. Most of us had comparatively elegant Apple computers for personal use at home, as holdovers from our college years. It would have been preposterous, however, for us to bring these computers to work and expect support from the IT department. In the Arthur Andersen jargon of the day, that would have been a CLM (“career limiting move”).
Many enterprises now enable employees to use their own computers and smartphones. Today’s younger employee just installed the latest version of Dropbox on his or her phone in the time it took you to read the previous paragraph. In this area, IT has largely lost the battle of command and control. Very few IT organizations mandate a single hardware platform and software configuration. This development has accelerated the pace of enterprise IT innovation, but at a cost of management complexity and increased exposure to new vulnerabilities.
The introduction of social networks to the enterprise – Salesforce Chatter, Jive, and Yammer, for example – is further proof of companies adapting consumer technology for business purposes. These enterprise solutions were clearly inspired by their consumer focused forerunners. Initially, most enterprises attempted to eliminate, or at least restrict, access to social media within the workplace. Today’s innovative enterprises understand social networking solutions are the preferred mode of communication between younger employees. Additionally, these solutions have been used to foster stronger connections with external constituents, such as partners and customers. The use of Twitter for customer support is just one such example. Once again, the IT organization has evolved by responding to the preferences and computing habits of younger employees.
The generational paradigm shift has created a significant opportunity for innovative companies that can adapt the best of the consumer technology to the standards of enterprise computing. Ascent’s portfolio company Verivo, for example, supports BYOD by enabling businesses to build, manage, and deploy mobile apps across heterogeneous platforms. The transition to cloud apps and collaboration (pioneered by individuals and increasingly embraced by enterprises) has created a need for new models of security and governance, an area where companies like CloudLock have thrived. As a final example within the Ascent portfolio, ClickFox helps major enterprises monitor customer interactions in the social media arena.
Young people aren’t the sole cause of the consumerization of IT, but they have played the driving role in the democratization of corporate IT policies. Changing workforce demographics present lucrative opportunities for companies that can anticipate how employees will work in the next decade. My partners and I will enjoy the challenge of predicting which new markets may emerge with the generational shift. I’ll stick with my outdated music, thank you, but eagerly anticipate the arrival of the Class of 2016.