by Mark Settle

The 3 challenges of mobility

Oct 24, 20116 mins
IT StrategyMobileSmall and Medium Business

See also: Seven tablet PCs for business

Mobility invariably appears in any list of the top five challenges facing every IT organization, in good company with such topics as cloud computing, collaboration and information security.

Mobility generally refers to the proliferation of smartphones and tablet computers in the workplace. More specifically, it commonly refers to the widespread adoption of iPhones and iPads by members of a company’s workforce.

Some enlightened companies have sponsored formal mobility initiatives, equipping specific functional groups or their entire workforce with smartphones or tablets.

More typically, employees have purchased these devices on their own and now want to use them to perform work-related activities.

Consequently, the majority of IT organizations find themselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to catch up with their customers’ expectations regarding the use of mobility devices in the workplace, rather than leading the mobility innovation initiative themselves.

IT organizations face three key challenges in managing the proliferation of smartphones and tablets within the enterprise.

1 Establish financial and legal policies regarding the use of these devices Simply put, a company needs to determine the level of investment it can afford to make in the productivity of its employees.

Over time, employees have been equipped with various types of PCs, cell phones and Blackberry devices. In addition, many companies continue to reimburse their employees for home Internet connections and other home-based devices such as scanners and printers.

CFOs are becoming increasingly concerned that their IT organizations have become retail stores, furnishing employees with whatever gadgets they desire.

Smartphones and tablets are becoming the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, forcing some CFOs to question whether they should be limiting their IT expenditures by prescribing specific equipment for employees in specific roles, or simply establishing annual limits on IT device spending per employee.

The latter approach has been dubbed the Bring Your Own Device(BYOD) to work strategy, meaning that each employee receives some type of annual stipend and is at liberty to purchase whatever collection of devices he or she desires.

If their desires exceed the value of the stipend, the employee is left to self-fund any incremental costs they incur.

BYOD strategies are particularly popular within high tech companies that struggle to keep up with the diverse and ever-changing technology desires of their employees.

The legal issues associated with mobility devices revolve around employee privacy and the security of company information.

Since the devices are inevitably used for both work-related and personal purposes, employees are rightfully concerned about a company’s ability to intrude into their private lives.

In instances where devices are purchased and owned by the employee, companies become rightfully concerned about how their data is being stored and managed on the device.

Legal policies need to be established that clearly define responsibilities and liabilities on the part of the company and the employee related to device access and management.

Although business journals and the IT trade press focus almost exclusively on the business benefits that can be achieved through mobile applications, IT organizations continue to expend considerable time and effort behind the scenes to establish explicit procurement and legal policies concerning the acquisition and usage of mobility devices.

This is a necessary first step in any mobility initiative.

2 Securing and supporting the the devices once they have proliferated within a company’s workforce There’s a wide diversity of mobility operating systems, including iOS(Apple), Android, Windows Phone 7, Blackberry, Symbian(Nokia) and webOS(Palm).

Many of these operating systems lack fundamental management capabilities such as application version control and data backup/restore that IT groups historically rely upon to manage employee PCs.

In addition, device vendors are competing aggressively with one another, introducing new versions of their smartphones and tablets as rapidly as possible.

The proliferation of device models and operating systems coupled with the lack of rudimentary management tools considerably complicates an IT organization’s ability to support their mobile device users.

The small form factor of mobility devices also makes them more susceptible to loss, theft and breakage.

How do you restore full service to a Senior Vice President who inadvertently left her iPhone in a taxi in Shanghai?

What does the concept of the standard company PC image mean in the iPad world?

With regard to mobile device management, CIOs can be certain that the number of mobile-related calls to their service desks will increase dramatically and they will be given no additional staffing to support the demands of their mobile users.

3 Constructing and implementing mobile applications The good news on this front is that several companies are developing Mobile Enterprise Application Platforms (MEAP technologies) that will enable IT shops to build applications that can be deployed across multiple mobile operating systems.

Adobe, Antenna, Pyxis and MobileFrame all have emerging product offerings in this space. The bigger challenge is determining what business-related functionality should be exposed or accessed via a smartphone or tablet.

Because mobile technology is so new and the skills required to build and support mobile applications are so limited, most IT organizations establish very modest goals for their initial development efforts.

Initial development projects frequently focus on data look-up functions that can supply very granular information regarding customers, products and inventory levels on demand.

This is similar to the initial mobile offerings of retail firms such as airlines and hotels that are cannibalizing the most frequently used functions on their corporate websites, such as flight status or room availability and redeploying them as miniature stand-alone mobile applications.

More sophisticated development initiatives deconstruct established business intelligence reports within individual functional areas and serve up more dynamic information regarding customer traffic, individual store revenue, customer complaints or product returns via a mobile application.

The proliferation of mobility devices in the workplace has led many industry prognosticators to identify the consumerization of IT as a seismic shift in the way that business will be conducted in the future.

In my personal opinion, the more profound and insidious change that is occurring is the homogenization of work-related and non-work-related employee behaviors.

Our primeval ancestors in caveman times were continually on the lookout for food.

Finding, collecting and consuming anything that would promote human sustenance was an essential survival behavior.

In the 21st century, the desire to find, consume, exchange and act upon Internet-accessible information appears to have emerged as a similar obsessive behavior. Perhaps it’s an essential survival tactic in the information age.

Whatever the cause and whatever the long term consequences of this behavior, it’s clear that our employees want the ability to perform selective portions of their jobs at times and places of their choosing, not ours.

In addition, they want to interleave their work-related activities with other pursuits that have absolutely no relationship to their jobs.

Mobility technology is not consumerizing IT. It is just one small incremental step in the progressive homogenization of work and personal behaviors.

Corporate IT groups find themselves squarely in the middle of this homogenization trend and are assuming responsibilities to support technologies that enable job performance and a wide variety of personal pursuits.

That is the real challenge of mobility.

Mark Settle is CIO at BMC Software and a former CIO for Visa International

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