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When executives of Colgate-Palmolive met last year to consider how the 205-year-old household products company could move more deeply into the digital age, they heard an earful from employees with smart phones.

“People were asking, ‘Why can’t I get my [work] e-mail on my own phone?’” recalls Linda Van de Wiele, director of collaboration for Colgate’s Global Information Technology organization.

Until recently, many companies viewed employees’ mobile phones less as productivity boosters than as security disasters waiting to happen. Workers might visit unsafe websites, lose phones packed with corporate secrets, or forward corporate e-mail to personal accounts.

But with 468 million smart phones and 70 million tablets expected to sell this year alone, according to market researcher Gartner, companies can no longer afford to ignore the tide of consumer devices that employees are already using to get work done. Indeed, according to one survey of office workers, some 37 percent already use consumer technologies for work without company permission.

“You had popular rebellion in the corporate world,” says Kevin Cavanaugh, vice president of business and technology at IBM Collaboration Solutions, a division in IBM’s software group.

The explosive spread of smart phones now has some large companies scrambling to keep up. Until early this year, for instance, Colgate was allowing only some 1,000 senior managers with company-issued BlackBerrys to access corporate e-mail servers from their phones. That figure represented just 4 percent of Colgate’s global workforce of 26,000. By comparison, about one in three American adults now owns a smart phone, according to a May survey by comScore.

Colgate recognized that “mobility is the wave of the future,” says Van de Wiele, and that tethering people to a desktop had become untenable. The challenge was how to replace a now-antiquated system where employees lugged laptops and used a cumbersome private network to read e-mail. Colgate needed to let those workers use personal phones to access key applications, like e-mail and calendars, but without incurring any extra tech-support costs.  

So this March, Colgate launched what’s known as a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) program. A self-service website enables employees to register their personal phone or tablet and download an IBM app called Traveler, which provides access to company e-mail and calendar software. (IBM offers the program for free to clients, such as Colgate, that already license its Lotus Notes software.) Colgate says that 400 people registered the first day and that 2,500 now access work e-mail using the IBM program.

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Tagged: Business, Business Impact, IBM, Case Study

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