Technology

KLM: Letting Outside Tech In


The Dutch airline is weaving software and hardware designed for consumers into the fabric of its corporate systems

Like many corporations, KLM found itself in a consumer-tech Catch-22. Tech-handy employees wanted to use their own gear and software at work—a tendency that can compromise network security. But the encroachment of consumer tech in the workplace can also foster innovation and productivity.

So rather than fight the trend, KLM (AKH) Chief Information Officer Boet Kreiken spearheaded a program called IT4ME to explore how the airline could benefit from consumer technology without compromising security by giving employees more responsibility for the products they use. The outside products that KLM often finds competing with its corporate systems include cell phones and laptops.

There are also potentially nettlesome Web-based services, such as those offered by Google (GOOG), Amazon.com (AMZN), Salesforce.com (CRM), and WebEx, the provider of online collaboration tools recently bought by Cisco Systems (CSCO). While not specifically aimed at consumers, these services nevertheless find their way into corporations via individuals or small groups of employees. Kreiken refers to these resources as "extra structure" that's quickly "becoming more and more business-grade or at least good enough in many, many cases."

Mobile-Phone Flexibility

Kreiken's proposition is unconventional. He's had to do some convincing of naysayers. But if his program works, the experimentation could provide a blueprint for other big corporations wrestling with how to combine outside tech with internal systems.

In the pilot version of IT4ME, begun last year, KLM gives employees flexibility in the mobile phones they use for work. KLM's standard issue is the Nokia (NOK) 6021, which it calls "the workhorse" because the device works on five continents, is equipped with corporate-grade security, and boasts e-mail and instant messaging. But it's not terribly sexy and some employees wanted higher-end devices with such features as a camera or music player. So KLM lets workers in the pilot use their own money, in addition to the company allowance of €150 ($207), to spend on a phone of their choosing, explains Martien van Deth, a senior technology officer who oversaw the mobile-phone program. In exchange for providing IT support for the nonstandard phones, KLM expects employees to be responsible for repairing or replacing the phone if it's broken or lost.

The IT department is proposing an expansion of that pilot to include laptops. Of 4,000 laptop users, the company has identified a group of about 1,000 it deems sufficiently tech-savvy to take part. Kreiken likens this proposed pilot to the way some companies give employees a car allowance while expecting workers will be responsible for the car's repairs. Most people wouldn't think of calling the company if their car won't start, but that's the first place they call when their computers crash. "Basically, we say this is the amount we pay you for your computers and your systems, but you better be sure you're on time to work and to meetings and that you perform," Kreiken says.

Enhancing Security to Compensate

The executive is keen to find other ways to mesh outside tools with the company's existing systems. Already, it has incorporated Google Earth, which captures satellite images of the planet, into its public Web site, KLM.com. Last year, in another trial, the company gave 30 workers in the IT department laptops and decided to let them put whatever software they wanted on it.

Of course, that degree of freedom also means beefed-up security. KLM put the laptops in the trial outside the firewall and let employees connect to necessary corporate software, such as KLM's intranet and e-mail via the Web, using upgraded security. This included the use of a device made by the security division of EMC (EMC) that requires two different types of identity authentication.

Other steps the company plans to take include requiring employees to use corporate-governed e-mail and Web file storage. The company will also prohibit access when virus or firewall systems are not active or up-to-date.

Kreiken has had to convince some colleagues that embracing a wider range of technologies and giving employees more freedom is a good idea. Ultimately, he says these pilot programs are a way to deal with the ever-increasing speed of business and the need for employees to continually innovate. Younger workers, especially, are demanding flexibility when it comes to the IT products and services they use. "If we don't do this in the end, we are assured that either we don't get the best people working for our company or people will bypass us. They'll start using [Microsoft's (MSFT)] Hotmail, there will be undetected situations, and corporate data will be everywhere," says Kreiken. "You better be very realistic about what's happening in 2007-2008."

King is a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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