Bring Your Own App – Digital Flexibility Is Being Exercised

Jobeth Pilcher first became acquainted with the concept of Bring Your Own App (BYOA) in 2013, shortly after being exposed to the practice of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) while at a conference.

Soon after, Pilcher, nurse professional development specialist at Baylor Scott & White Health in Dallas, Texas, and educator for Capella University’s Ph.D. of Nursing Education program, began finding a large number of apps that she believed would work well for educational purposes. She shared some of the apps with her colleagues in the health and educational fields and a domino effect ensued.

BYOA encourages users to use their preferred app or software in the workplace much in the same way BYOD allows practitioners to work from their preferred laptop, tablet or other device. Pilcher, speaking from her personal experience and not on behalf of either of her employers, said via an email that several peers asked her how to find additional apps for the workplace.

The request led her to crowdsourcing apps at national conferences. Pilcher presented roundtable BYOA sessions at the Transformative Learning Conference in Oklahoma City, Okla., this past March and then again at the Association of Nurses in Professional Development’s (ANPD) Aspire to Excel conference in Las Vegas, Nev., in July. Attendees identified and shared their favorite apps and how to use them.

More than 100 apps were identified at ANPD’s conference alone, according to Pilcher, most fitting in one of four categories:

• Educator support such as presentation tools and polling;

• Learner assistance like note taking, file sharing and eBook readers;

• Performance support including quick-reference tools; and,

• Learning activities such as games and case studies.

Pilcher said that she could see BYOA becoming a staple at conferences, opining that it is a strong method of sharing re­sources. One potential complication could be the quality of apps, but there are websites dedicated to evaluating apps for users’ benefit.

“I would think that there is potential in quite a few fields,” Pilcher said of BYOA’s future. “The concept of BYOA, from my perspective, is one of sharing resources, and mobile apps are great resources.”

BYOA might be making its mark on the conference circuit, but the concept is still new in the workplace, if formally practiced at all. How BYOA integrates with the nonprofit sector moving forward will likely depend on future shifts in technology and the ways organizational leaders adjust through policy.

Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in Washington D.C., is “a little BYOA,” according to Peter Campbell, chief information officer. LSC uses a combination of Salesforce and Box to manage files, Campbell said. Grant information is collected and stored in Salesforce while accompanying reports and documents are kept in Box. LSC staff members are permitted to use either Google Docs or Microsoft Word interchangeably as Box provides a centralized, searchable place for files.

Campbell predicted a huge increase in focus on mobile platforms in 2016, during which he anticipates users trading in their laptops for tablets. The more people using tablets, the more apps will be downloaded and more apps being downloaded likely means that users will want to use them at work. The question then arises, which apps are compatible with organizational systems?

Moving away from standardization is a big step in a sector that, as recently as a few years ago, thought it racy to give staff a choice of web browser. “If you read the tech trades and keep up with current acronyms, you know what it is,” Campbell said of BYOA. “I don’t think people know what it stands for.”

BYOA is not a current business driver, nor is it something that Campbell discusses much with his peers. “It’s not terribly on my radar,” Campbell said. “I think it’s the future. I don’t want to be unprepared.” Data is currently too tied to apps for BYOA to hit the big time, Campbell opined. Even for word processing, there is a greater chance of corruption should a document be written with one tool and edited with another.

The need for complex functionality being traded off for increased digital versatility could be a step toward the future. Blog posts, for instance, can be drafted in any number of apps with the same format. It is “more and more simple software getting more generic and less functional,” Campbell said. “Mobile is driving that. A lot of complexity doesn’t look good on mobile anyway. Smaller screens. Cluttered. The tradeoff is convenience.”

BYOA is most common among small and medium-sized organizations, according to Amy Sample Ward, CEO of the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN) in Portland, Ore. She attributed this to the fact that it is easier to track the different applications among a staff of 10 as compared to a staff of 500. BYOA was born out of other tech-diversity options such as BYOD and developed due to a prioritization of employee preference and the migration of data toward the cloud deemphasizing the need for common systems.

Increased understanding of basic technology has also opened the door for BYOA. Today, a new employee is generally expected to have prior knowledge of how to use a computer and manage an email account. As opposed to spending time teaching a new employee how to use an organization’s preferred tools, it is often easier to let the person stick with what they know and get to work, Ward said. A lack of standardization is an obvious downside to such a practice, Ward said, and staff training will have to become more flexible as BYOA increases in popularity to compensate for different platforms.

Text-based and social-media platforms lend themselves best to BYOA, according to Ward. For example, two staffers of the same organization might use Google Docs or Word, Tweetdeck or Buffer. More sophisticated platforms, such as accounting software, are less easily translatable from one system to another.

Ward recommended setting clear parameters before implementing a BYOA policy. For instance, what sort of investment will the organization make in a platform or device such as a laptop? If the organization chooses not to provide employees with funds to spend on work-specific tools, staffers are likely to purchase cheap alternatives, Ward said.

Policy considerations extend beyond who is paying for what. Other potential issues range from information security to employee conduct, according to Armand Zottola, partner at Venable LLP in Washington, D.C. Such potential complications stem from a lack of control the employer has of the employee’s use of tools.

“If the nonprofit purchases a phone and hands it to an employee, the nonprofit is in position to dictate use. If the nonprofit says ‘We will use these apps,’ then presumably those apps will be usable across the board,” said Zottola. “Leaving it up to the employee, you don’t really know what the employee will do. You’re not sure if it will function well with the organization or how it integrates with other systems.” Such an example can be cited as why BYOD has taken off with more prevalence than BYOA.

Most nonprofits will have to think about BYOA at some level eventually, Zottola said. While a large organization might be able to procure devices or apps for employees and control their use, many smaller nonprofits have to allow staffers to use their own tools due to strapped budgets. Steps must be taken accordingly to make sure that sensitive information is only used for permitted uses, malware doesn’t get into systems and information is secured from outside threats.

“Generally, you’d want conduct to be the same if somebody was working within the office,” Zottola said. “There will be some tension with personally owned devices, because at a point conduct no longer relates to work…This is a developing area. No one size fits all. I think this is a decision that there are variabilities in approach.”    E