Guest blog post from Gerald Haigh, freelance writer. Gerald writes regularly for the Microsoft education blogs.

‘Bring your own device’ (BYOD) is capturing a lot of attention at the moment. Mark Reynolds blogged about it earlier this year, with particular reference to the success of the policy at Saltash.net community school. Mark also drew attention to the way Microsoft’s ‘System Centre 2012’ technology will support schools wanting to move to BYOD and also to our publication ‘Embracing Consumerisation of IT in Education’. More recently, Tim Bush added a further blog on System Centre 2012, drawing attention to a webcast overview of the subject by Gordon McKenna of Inframon.

At the same time, I’ve been looking around to see if we can learn lessons from business, where BYOD is also a hot topic.

There are multiple BYOD headaches for businesses. Upward pressure from employees is almost irresistible, for example, and yet the community of users is likely to be diverse, geographically dispersed, and not particularly amenable to regulation. At the same time, illicit invasion or passing on of business intelligence can put at risk major deals, or even the viability of the whole business.

The online edition of CIO (Chief Information Officer) magazine recently ran a story about a business executive whose smartphone, loaded with sensitive data on customers, fell into the hands of a man who rang the firm offering not to use the information in exchange for $50,000. The same publication reports on a survey of 600 businesses which shows that over half have had security breaches as a result of BYOD.

At the same time, it’s true to say that the prospect of letting end users pick up the hardware bill themselves is just as attractive for businesses as it is for schools. That’s why a company like Cisco, for example, has seen its BYOD count grow 52 percent in one year and now has well over 50,000 personal devices on its network. Cost savings have been around 20percent.

"We don't pay for it, and our users are happier," says Lance Perry, Cisco’s vice president of IT. "Isn't that a beautiful thing?"

My pursuit of information on BYOD in business began with a blog on the subject by Brandon Faber on the IDG Connect site. Like all good blogs, it’s replete with links and references, including the ones I’ve already quoted, and all of which are worth following up. Just in case you haven’t time, however, here are some of the points I picked up along the way, together with my thoughts on what lessons there might be for schools.

The bottom line is that BYOD can work well for schools. The Saltash experience shows that. In fact you can argue that it’s almost perverse to ignore the devices owned by students and teachers and then spend precious money on similar equipment. At the same time, though, you have to be realistic about the practicalities. So, for example, although BYOD can save money, (As Cisco finds) it’s certainly not a free lunch.

Another CIO article quotes a survey which says that in the business setting, BYOD can end up more expensive than equipping people with company devices. By no means all of the hidden costs are applicable to schools, but some of which include ensuring security, dealing with data loss, managing multiple platforms (including constant attention to the devices of people joining and leaving) It all adds up to being careful to understand real costs and not gloss over them.

Then, it’s probably true to say that out there in the big wide world, business leaders and managers like BYOD much more than do IT professionals for the following reasons:

1. BYOD can mean that IT takes on an apparently limitless ‘help’ burden. The same article http://www.cio.com/article/print/703511 says, ‘With BYOD, IT departments are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place: IT doesn't control the actions of the carrier or the devices, yet is still being held responsible to support BYOD employees, even if IT isn't getting additional resources to do so.’

2. In business at least, IT people worry much more about security than the users do. Brandon Faber’s blog reports a survey of lawyers which found that 78percent of them weren’t seriously concerned about the consequences of losing a device loaded with client data. Brandon puts it more colourfully,

‘BYOD puts control into the hands of employees who could not care less about data security – until the proverbial **** hits the fan, followed by lots of begging at IT’s feet to somehow make the pain go away.’

All in all, there’s a strong sense of caution out there in the business world. Should schools be just as cagy, even pessimistic about BYOD?

To be fair, there are some differences. A school is a closer knit community. Controls and policies should be easier to define and enforce. It ought to be possible to educate adults and students to the point where all are security-conscious. And on top of that, a straight, ‘Behave, or you lose your access’, ought to be enough. As Mark Reynolds writes, on Saltash.net

‘They give wireless access to devices they know about and they block anything they don’t. It is then down to the teaching staff to manage the way students use those devices when they are in school.’

That’s clearly different from business where a sales manager, for example, certainly isn’t going to welcome the task, on top of everything else, of policing the team’s use of their smartphones. Which means, of course, that IT really will be firefighting when things go wrong, and the damage is done.

There’s still a lesson for schools, though, about vigilance, not taking anything for granted, and making sure that policies are kept up to date and consistently followed through over time.

Then there’s the question of the dislocation, in business, of perceptions between IT and end users. That sometimes happens in schools, but our experience is that schools which are ICT leaders and innovators have network managers and technicians who are fully signed up to the vision of learning.

If that’s not the case, then it’s likely that BYOD is not their only problem.

Which reminds me that, of course, it’s the vision of learning that counts. It’s not just about getting hardware for free after all.

For more thoughts on BYOD, view/download our Consumerisation of IT in Education paper.