I Thought Clouds Were Supposed to Be White and Puffy?

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I Thought Clouds Were Supposed to Be White and Puffy?

I don’t often see Penelope, so I’m surprised when she has a few hours to meet me for a cup of coffee. She strides in the room, a giant, bulky tote over one shoulder, dwarfing her petite frame.

Jokingly, I ask if she’s a refugee. She laughs. “It’s all my gadgets, like my work laptop,” she says, pulling out a black HP. “And this,” while reaching for a MacBook Air. “It has all the Mac programs I use for work.” But the fun doesn’t end. Penelope pulls out a Surface tablet and then an iPad. “The Surface is for work, the iPad for me. I use some iOS apps for work, which aren’t available on Windows. That’s why I have to bring both with me.”

Then, she reaches into her coat pockets. “We can’t forget the phones,” she says, placing an old-school BlackBerry and iPhone on the table. We look at all the gadgets on the table, and she laughs. “I look like a gadget salesman.”

“Doesn’t it drive you crazy?” I ask.

“Not really, though my chiropractor says my shoulder is out of alignment,” she jokes. But then, she explains the school district she works for is moving everyone to a “bring your own device,” or BYOD, policy, which will allow her to use her own device for work, eliminating the need to lug everything everywhere. They were still working out the policies, security and complex set of permissions, though.

But the real headache, Penelope explains, isn’t the hardware itself. It’s finding a way to share files and information across those different platforms. She turned to the cloud as a solution — but she soon discovered working online came with a price.

Her mad jumble of devices is the physical embodiment of the growing pains companies face with today’s tech landscape. They’re eager to take advantage of the ease, convenience and speed of mobile devices, and the boons they promise for increased productivity, but the switch to a virtual environment isn’t easy or cheap. So to cut costs and satisfy employee demands, businesses are allowing workers to use the phones, tablets and computers they already have.

But the BYOD trend comes with its own nest of issues. Privacy and data security issues can be thorny, as employees resist the idea of being monitored or, in some way, altering their personal data. Companies, meanwhile, deal with the tangles of creating private networks to training employees on rules for apps to remotely tracking work-specific parts of gadgets without violating personal privacy. They also have to grapple with sharing documents and information across a variety of devices and platform.

In the past, businesses simply purchased a group license to run the same software on all workstations in the office. But it’s not that easy with mobile devices, which come with different apps and operating systems. Microsoft Office software, for example, only recently became available on iOS.

So companies have turned to yet another modern solution: the cloud. We already store music and videos online, so why not work on it as well? That’s the reason behind a trend that comes on the heels of BYOD: BYOC, or bring your own cloud.

Cloud computing is the key to a truly 21st century workplace, and even jobs that require separate devices for work look to the cloud to share, pool and store documents across their infrastructure.

Dropbox and Box.net makes it easy to share and store files across individuals and groups, while Google Drive runs word-processing, spreadsheet and database management software over the cloud, so it can be used by almost any device.

Integrating to cloud into a workplace also enables jobs to shift and change — it facilitates remote work situations like telecommuting, as well as a general sense of ease and convenience. Penelope’s department at her work was a prime example. “My workgroup at my office was able to work from home on Fridays, and that’s in no large part of all of us being to share information easily over something like Dropbox,” she says. “There was also a lot less e-mailing and calling, like, ‘Can you send me this or that file?’ Now we could just look in our shared Dropbox folder and, lo and behold, it’s there. Our communications were less logistical, and became more strategic, focused and productive. It was a bit less noise, but it made a big difference in overall productivity.”

The benefits extend beyond productivity, too. “I can’t tell you how many times Dropbox saved us in terms of backup data,” she says. “Just having a backup of our documents and data in the cloud was a big plus. I know we’re supposed to back everything up anyway, but the cloud automates that chore — and it’s often a godsend.”

Of course, the price and the ease are often unmatched. “It was easy to get everyone in my group on Dropbox because it was free and available on a lot of devices,” she says. “I can access things over my phone or iPad, while my colleague could use something on her desktop. You just can’t beat how simple it is. We weren’t forced into adapting ourselves into a particular productivity routine, either. We could work how we wanted, and sometimes where we wanted — but were still able to work together well.”

Penelope says her workgroup simply started using cloud services among themselves informally, simply pulling them in as they became popular among themselves. “Most of us were already using Docs and Dropbox and iCloud,” she adds. In her organization’s case, BYOC was a grassroots, employee-led practice that Penelope and her co-workers integrated into their workplace.

But companies are looking into cloud computing on their own, drawn in by the benefits. The promise of lower costs is intriguing, since overtaxed IT departments don’t have to worry about building their own infrastructure of servers and Web interfaces — they can simply use existing services on their own, often under an enterprise contract. Employees likely already use these services as well, which means they don’t need to be trained on the ins and outs. Cloud services also promises productivity benefits, making it easy to share information across all levels of any organization.

It helps that established tech giants are getting in on the cloud market, igniting price wars to make services cheaper for groups of any size. Google, of course, was one of the earliest entrants in cloud computing, with its suite of Google Apps like Drive and Docs. E-commerce giant Amazon, however, has become a leader as well, with its Web Services division, which allows businesses to host images, files and other bandwidth-intensive assets on its servers, as well as access advanced business services like tracking, scheduling and e-commerce.

Microsoft recently got in the cloud game as well. Not only did it release its Office suite for tablets, but the company has tied mobile Office to its Office 365 cloud storage service hoping to boost that area of its business. It’s also vowing to match its competitors in price for its enterprise-level cloud software, according to Information Week, hoping to appeal to the business and corporate customers that made its Windows and Office software so profitable and dominant. Businesses have more cloud options than ever to draw upon to transition their workplaces into the mobile age.

But the practical applications of moving a business operation to the cloud are thorny, and once again, the surface ease and convenience of the cloud solution has hidden costs. Many popular cloud services weren’t initially designed to be used at a corporate level, and the cost of moving hundreds or thousands of employees to them via enterprise contracts can get expensive.

The patchwork of cloud options, while great for individuals, can be difficult to manage at a group level, too, with some workers on one service and others on another and no real way to coordinate between them all. “There are instances when we’ve accidentally erased over someone’s file because someone was working on it in real-time, or updated the wrong version,” Penelope notes. “And sometimes, because everyone is using different tools, it can get complicated. Someone works in Word, another person works in Open Office, and it was a pain to keep converting. We all ended up agreeing to work in Google Drive for some documents, but that was something we had to coordinate and agree upon.”

Experts call Penelope’s work situation “cloud sprawl,” noting it can lead to the inefficiency that working in the cloud was meant to avoid in the first place. You can’t just “add cloud and mix” when it comes to business and work — employees looking to integrate it into their workflows have to coordinate with co-workers and existing systems.

Most cloud services are offered by third-parties and outside organizations, and workplaces therefore lack a level of control and customization when it comes to making them work for their groups. This can lead to tricky situations when it comes to troubleshooting, for instance. “We had a situation where we lost a file and tried to call our IT department to help,” Penelope remembers. “And the guy was basically like, ‘Sorry, we can’t help you, because we can’t dig in and look at the back-end because we don’t own that service.'”

And of course data security and privacy also remain difficult issues to resolve with BYOC. Since many cloud services are run outside the companies that use them, often sensitive data can be more difficult to protect and more vulnerable to attack. More than half of businesses surveyed have reported problems with terminated employees trying to access sensitive data, according to SailPoint, and 45 percent believe their employees would be prepared to sell company data if offered the right price. Yet the company is the one who will bear full responsibility in the event of a hack or a leak — an unfeasible situation, especially for sensitive industries like medicine and health, where data is governed by federal privacy regulations.

Experts in the data industry note BYOC can create a kind of “shadow IT,” an alternate set of computing and data systems, according to Information Week, that adds more burden to the business tasked with monitoring and coordinating it.

Some companies, in an attempt to avoid shadow IT altogether, are moving to private cloud services, building their own version of Dropbox, Google Drive and Docs that businesses can fully control and customize. This solution can get pricey and difficult, and is often out of reach for smaller and cash-strapped businesses and groups that have to do a lot with just a few resources. Employees, of course, may balk, since they already use public services and don’t want to another one to manage and check.

Mobile technology promises to bring more ease, convenience and speed to the modern workplace, and while BYOD and BYOC promise to fulfill these promises, they also open a whole new Pandora’s box of issues to solve. According to Dimension Data, only one-third of organizations actually conducted a security audit of applications touched by mobile devices — even though 70 percent of them named data security as their greatest mobility-related concern.

Beyond the tangle of logistics, however, the integration of mobile into the workplace has also changed the dynamics between employees and the organization when it comes to setting the pace of innovation. Large organizations like companies and universities once powered the adoption of technology at a mass level, with their purchasing power and ability to scale — and their workers often picked up experience and skill from their tech experiences at work, which led to integrating computing, Internet and e-mail in their homes.

But mobile innovation now begins on the personal and consumer level, with app developers, phone makers and other players offering a flood of free or inexpensive software and solutions to phone users everywhere. Workers naturally begin to bring these into their workplaces, especially when they fill a need that hasn’t yet been met by IT departments. Because they’re so compact, easy to use and simple, consumer- or mobile-based solutions like cloud services sneak their way into already established workflows and systems. The result are growing pains for groups trying to keep up with the pace of technology but aren’t quite agile enough to adapt quickly.

Penelope’s workgroup at her office is a case in point. Looking for find a way to share files among themselves, she and her co-workers cobbled together their own system using Dropbox and Google Drive. They experienced a few speed bumps, but were able to work out among themselves a new workflow to accommodate the new issues that arose.

But Penelope says her school district at the larger level intervened, worried that the third-party services weren’t secure enough and asking that Penelope and her co-workers refrain from using these for certain documents and information. “I get it,” Penelope allows. “They want all of us, not just my group, to be using the same thing and system. But in the meanwhile, it’s taking time for them to find something that works — and we’re sort of lagging in terms of productivity as a result.”

“It’s hard because the pace of the work hasn’t changed,” Penelope continues. “We’re still being asked to work faster and longer than ever, working from home, on the road and on the go. But the tech isn’t quite there in the school district at large to support that efficiently.”

So Penelope and her co-workers went back to a somewhat quaint solution. “Now we’ve gone back to just e-mailing everything back and forth,” she sighs. “It works, of course, but it’s not quite as efficient. It feels really old-school. But what can you do?” Then she packs up all her laptops, phones and tablets into her tote and slings it over her shoulder, getting ready to head back into work, where a pile of e-mail awaits her.

This post is sponsored by Dimension Data.

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