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Bring your own cloud: The movement companies can't and shouldn't stop

'Bring your own cloud' practices are on the climb. Tom Nolle explains how companies can apply governance practices to protect themselves.

There is absolutely no question that the industry craze over the term "bring your own…" has been taken so far that the concept is almost useless as a descriptor of a trend. However, it's also true that what we are seeing in worker support and cloud computing is a critical shift from supporting applications to supporting workers. One natural result of that shift is to try to harness the tools a worker is already familiar with to help the worker be more productive. The "bring your own cloud" (BYOC) movement is really about that, and it's especially relevant as workers move to "always with me" mobile devices for their social interactions and entertainment.

If you ask companies whether they leverage a worker's own apps and cloud services to support company activity, less than 10% say there's a policy to do that and less than one in four say it's done at all. If you ask workers who use computer or network technology regularly whether they fulfill company assignments using their own apps or cloud services, better than five out of six say they do. This contradiction is the primary reason for confusion in the "bring your own cloud" space. Companies don't understand how ubiquitous the BYOC notion has become.

By far the most popular use of BYOC is personal cloud storage to hold data the worker needs, either as a reference or as work in progress. This BYOC application is driven largely by what workers see as restrictive policies on data storage on company devices. It is also driven by workers' desire to use familiar tools and mobile devices (BYOD) to do their jobs. Workers who travel or who are in supervisory/professional job categories that often require working outside normal hours are almost certain to use their own cloud storage.

Companies don't understand how ubiquitous the BYOC notion has become.

BYOC apps have taken off for the same reason. A worker who is comfortable with a tablet and cloud document tools may prefer to do his or her document development and editing with these tools. Where companies don't support their choice, the worker simply moves a copy of data to a personal cloud storage service and then uses his or her own apps for editing.

The worker-driven nature of BYOC has created a subtle shift in how cloud providers market storage and applications. They are beginning to target individual workers rather than the company at large. Google gets as much promotion of its cloud services from workers who have adopted Google Drive -- as well as Docs or Apps tools -- as they do from trying to sell to enterprises directly. It has also put pressure on those same providers, though, because most personal cloud storage and apps are free, where the company version would be a license-for-fee proposition. Providers can lose money if a company encourages workers to adopt free consumer services. Over time, this may cause changes in terms of use for personal cloud services.

For the companies whose workers are embracing BYOC, the concept presents several major challenges, the most obvious being the security and compliance risks generated by having company data stored on personal cloud storage and edited by cloud tools that aren't subject to company governance practices. Nearly all the companies who have found workers using BYOC have set guidelines to limit the exposure of critical information, but in most cases these guidelines protect customer or employee personal information rather than corporate secrets. Half of workers surveyed who used BYOC in some form admitted to having stored confidential information on their personal cloud and a third have used personal apps to access or edit the data. For all the concern in this space, companies report little success in stamping out the practice.

A broader and perhaps more insidious problem with BYOC is the fragmentation of data and loss of version control and auditability. BYOC experience shows that workers rarely utilize personal cloud storage and apps for collaborative tasks, so every work activity supported through BYOC runs the risk of creating multiple versions of documents and data, versions that can never be harmonized effectively. Where collaboration is needed, both BYOC workers and their employers say that there is a serious loss of security and even a risk to workers' own personal information created by attempting to open BYOC tools to a community.

For all the risk and problems associated with BYOC, there are steps that can introduce order and governance to the chaos:

  • Encourage workers to use a single cloud storage offering for any work-related activity, and not to store any personal information on that particular cloud. A different password for this storage is recommended.
  • When work is copied to a personal cloud drive, adopt version-control sign-out processes on the data to insure that multiple copies don't exist, or at least ensure that there is a record of everyone who has a personal copy of a file.
  • Document development (word processor, spreadsheet, presentation program) should be standardized on a file format that's widely supported, and workers should be encouraged to do only drafts with minimal formatting or special effects. Final-form documents should be produced only when all the BYOC drafts are harmonized.
  • Consider adopting detailed BYOD policies and wrapping BYOC practices into those policies. Companies who find themselves using BYOC because of worker reliance on personal tools are far more likely to be able to control use if they have firm but not overly restrictive BYOD policies in place.
  • Collaboration should be supported by sharing access to a company-controlled cloud storage service, and, if possible, apps used for collaboration should be drawn from the same source.

"Bring your own cloud" is the classic example of "tiger by the tail," because companies and workers alike report that companies have had virtually no success in trying to stamp out BYOC practices. It's smarter to accept that workers will rely on the tools they know best, and to accommodate worker choices and apply governance practices that offer an adequate level of protection.

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