By Paula Klein, TechWeb

Now that your sales force is accessing files on tablets, your retail customers are tweeting about products on your website, and executives are arranging meetings on their smartphones, how are you managing? Better yet, if your IT department has embraced consumer technologies in the workplace — as you’ve been advised it should do — are you reaping productivity gains?

Questions about managing consumer technologies with regard to standards, security, productivity and ROI are front and center for CIOs today — and the answers are still evolving.

With new devices appearing almost overnight, many IT shops are reeling under the new pressures and demands that consumer-driven IT brings. Nathan Clevenger, author of the recently published book, iPad in the Enterprise (Wiley, 2011), and chief software architect at ITR Mobility, says he knew that introducing iPads in the enterprise was controversial, but “I didn’t realize it was because consumerization of IT is all about control and power.” One CIO interviewed for the book — who requested anonymity -- had “spent 20 years building a monopoly over IT, and now faces competition from anyone in the enterprise who can purchase devices with an Amex [credit card] and phone,” Clevenger says. “Control is a big issue,” for IT, he adds.

Traditional purchasing procedures and ROI determination have been upended, along with the status quo. It’s not unusual for low-cost mobile devices to bypass the typical RFP process as well as the financial scrutiny given to larger systems, and true ROI can be elusive, Clevenger says. Business units or departments may order the devices ad hoc or individuals may bring them in from home — what’s becoming known as bring-your-own-PC (BYOPC) — and the short-term results can be dramatic.

Health Care’s Blitz

In the book, Clevenger quotes Michael Hedges, CIO of the medical device company Medtronic, as saying that tablets may soon replace laptops for salespeople and other customer-facing employees. “If a clinician only has five minutes to talk, a salesperson can use it to quickly display valuable data or do a demo. These devices have a huge gain on speed, clarity and ease of use,” according to Hedges. In the future, the CIO says, “We foresee a highly connected world where patients, care-givers, and physicians interact through their mobile devices.”

At the same time, Lisa Caplan, VP and Business Information Officer of Care Delivery, part of Kaiser Permanente, makes the point in the book that in a highly regulated industry such as health care, “where technology is life-critical” and privacy is key, consumerization also means that systems must have “enterprise-level security, be priced to scale, and be stable enough to support decision making at the point of care. These are table stakes, before the ROI discussion can really even begin,” she says.

Clevenger believes that in the medical device field, the ROI for apps such as sales, is solid. “A rep can maximize the precious time he has with a physician” just by going from paper-based to digital illustrations and presentations. Everything from FDA regulations to marketing collateral can be created, stored, tracked and shared on tablets.

In the hospitality industry, giants such as Hyatt hotels and Royal Caribbean are adding apps every day through which guests can access services and restaurant wine lists, for example. Retailers are using them to track what products need restocking and where to place them in the store. “These are not just cools apps; they are helping to attract and retain employees and customers,” Clevenger says, and that will result in financial gains. Still, he admits that making a business case for the devices today can be more emotional and anecdotal than quantitative.

Forget Mandates

Jerry Bishop, former CIO at SunGard’s Higher Education division, knows firsthand that the “ability to mandate choices is limited.” Professors are accustomed to academic freedom, and now they want to choose what devices they use as well. Students are leading the way, too, he says, which means that the CIO has to develop strategies that are both top-down and bottom-up. “We should be able to protect university data and wipe it [from a tablet] when someone leaves.” At the same time, he trusts that user education and awareness will reduce ­— though not eliminate — risks.

Bishop says that proving ROI and productivity gains from consumer devices is difficult in any enterprise environment, and in the public sector, where deep discounts are common, it’s even tougher. He believes that whoever purchases the device should “own the ROI” and evaluate whether low-cost devices offset the longer-term costs of help desks and support.

Allowing employees to purchase their own devices might be the most economical approach right now. “Acquisition is just the tip of the iceberg,” according to Bishop, and the real costs will kick in with virtualization, support, data integration, authentication, print services and upgrades to your mobile infrastructure. “How do you easily integrate Google Docs and Microsoft’s Live@Edu without losing the price advantage you got when you bought the devices?” he asks. You also need to renegotiate licenses and contracts and cost out services.

According to executives at Microsoft, the level of access consumer IT devices should have to enterprise resources — including email, documents and business applications —depends on how well the device meets overall organizational criteria. The more the organization trusts the device, the greater the access. In turn, the level of access to information dictates how productive a user can be. There are many different ways to enable access, so even a completely unmanaged device can have some level of access to keep users productive.

Most consumer device productivity benefits are measured in “soft dollars” right now — as a way to retain customers and attract talent. “The impression is that an organization is leading-edge if new technologies are used,” Bishop says, and that leads to competitive advantages. But the reality is less clear. Happy employees may seem to be more productive, but an “always-on workforce might be taking more time to do the same work. We’re still figuring that out,” he says.