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Global CIO: You Do Allow Work E-mail On iPhones, Right?

Vanguard's the latest company to let employees use personal smartphones for work. Time to put this on your IT agenda.
Consider it a litmus test for IT departments: Can employees get work e-mail on their personal iPhones?

The takeaway for you from this week's Apple iPhone 4 unveiling isn't whether Steve Jobs delivered a world-changing new product or merely a bit more of the same magic. What matters is that personal computing will increasingly revolve around the mobile Internet, and if you think employees' cries for mobile applications are loud now, they'll soon be deafening.

It's as simple as this: If you want to be a great place to work, you'll need to offer employees mobility. You don't necessarily have to buy them a phone, but you need to let them use theirs. Imagine it's 1996, and you come to a new job and don't get an e-mail account. Soon, that's how it'll feel to people who join and can't get mobile work e-mail.

You have compliance worries, right?

That's not a simple problem. But there is a simple, if cruel, reality. Give people mobile e-mail access, or they'll create it themselves. Let them access work e-mail on their iPhones--and other smartphones of their choosing--or they'll start doing work things from their Gmail, Hotmail, or Yahoo e-mail accounts that they can access via mobile.

Which is worse, in terms of compliance?

If compliance is your trump card against this whole idea, you're not going to like this.

Vanguard, the mutual fund giant that has about $1.4 trillion in assets under management, in just the past few weeks began letting employees (crew members, in company parlance) access Vanguard work e-mail from their personal iPhones and Android-based phones. It relies on Good Technology for encryption, with smart token authentication.

"Everyone was carrying around two devices," says Abha Kumar, a principal in Vanguard's IT group. "When you think of being green, and being efficient, that doesn’t make a lot of sense."

Vanguard assesses such initiatives with compliance in mind right from the start, through a committee that includes people responsible for areas including technology, human resources, legal, compliance, and data security. Vanguard faces extensive e-mail retention and audit regulations, ones that come with very real fines for not complying. "For us technology is the smaller of the hurdles," Kumar says. "Compliance and security are the bigger hurdles."

Vanguard is improving employees' mobility experience beyond personal smartphones. It's making company-issued BlackBerrys more useful as well. The strategy had been to lock down every feature that wasn't expressly needed for work--so disable GPS and the camera, for example. Pretty much disable everything but e-mail, in fact.

That led to some awkward conversations for IT. Like when a top Vanguard exec in the U.K., lost in a city in Ireland, called Kumar to ask "Abha, why don't I have GPS?"

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Every feature still goes through that compliance and security screen, but the goal now is to give employees more of those tools that they expect on a mobile device. GPS and the camera are now enabled.

Looking farther down the road, Vanguard expects a completely device independent computing strategy, using desktop virtualization. "Our objective is very much 'How do we make Vanguard one of the best place to work?'" Kumar says.

Improving mobility for your workforce has to be high on IT's agenda. A starting point is giving employees access to their work e-mail from their personal smartphones.

You need some caveats, right? You have huge compliance concerns. Security concerns. IT asset management worries. Understood, and these are all fair points. I would cut you slack for all those factors.

But your colleagues won't.

It's time to do this.

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