An article in a recent HBR provides more evidence that employees are increasingly using external technology to support their work-related activities. More specifically, many information workers are using consumer technologies – whether they be social, mobile or cloud – to help solve their business and customer problems. A recent survey of 4,000 information workers in the U.S. found that almost 40% are using do-it-yourself technologies without IT’s permission. The author calls this the consumerization of IT, or technology populism.

This trend is an open secret in most companies – staff with rogue iPhones or iPads that aren’t “supported” by IT; teams using Skype or personal smartphones to conduct video calls; peer conversations occurring on networks like Facebook or Twitter; project collaboration on Google Docs and DropBox; recruitment through sites like LinkedIn…the list goes on. Watching the cat and mouse game is almost comical, though it often leads to frustration on all sides. The reasons for the tech workarounds are varied, but the ultimate rationale is that the newer technology works…and it’s often free and easy to use. Most staff want to do their jobs as efficiently as possible, and with IT often lagging or putting up roadblocks to many innovations, employees are increasingly going outside the firewall for solutions.

The interesting conversation is whether this development is positive – for customers, for employees and for CIOs? The author Ted Shadler suggests that well-intentioned, covert innovators can be very beneficial to the business. But he admits self-serve solutions can create chaos and risk for organizations: It’s all well and good to have employees solving customer problems. But chaos and rogue behavior is not okay. To identify the employee initiatives that are worth pursuing and figure out how to make them safe and enterprise-grade, your IT organization needs to get involved. Shadler says the solution is a new compact between employees, managers and IT where give-and-take replaces turf wars and inertia: Employees need to step up and behave responsibly (which means HR needs to be involved). Business managers need to roll up their sleeves and learn enough about the technology to understand the potential risks. (Managers also need to encourage and reward experimentation.) IT needs to assess and mitigate technology risk. And that means IT staff need to be much closer to business employees and activities so that they can help with technology platforms.

The point I take from this is that trying to stop employees from using innovative technology is a losing battle – even within firewalls. In the face of this trend, IT needs to take the initiative and find workable solutions that balance staff preferences, corporate priorities and IT risk policies. The cost of inaction is not just a lost opportunity to improve business efficiency and customer service, but a corrosive impact on employee morale and engagement.