As internet connections get faster and devices get smaller and more portable, we have seen a sea-change in the definition of a “mobile” workforce. The size and importance of this workforce was brought starkly into focus by the two recent BlackBerry failures. Previously such an outage would have simply been deemed an inconvenience to most workers - this time, it was on the evening news as hundreds of thousands of mobile workers were unable to access e-mail and other business applications.
As the mobile workforce grows, so workers are demanding faster and more reliable access to their applications on the move. Whether on a smartphone, tablet or laptop, organisations are increasingly under pressure to ensure business applications such as SAP are accessible to workers wherever they are located.
The cloud: preventing a stormy approach to mobile?
Cloud computing is one solution that allows organisations to maintain this flexible, mobile workforce. In a recent survey of SAP User Group members, 56% of organisations say they will be using software as a service (SaaS) or cloud-based services by the end of 2012, while 27% stated that they are already using SaaS for business-critical applications. Indeed, while 64% thought that the cloud was currently over-hyped, 67% saw greater mobility as a direct benefit of SaaS and cloud services. Essentially, by using SaaS organisations can ensure that their workers have access to vital applications regardless of location and, to some extent, device.
To make the most of SaaS and the cloud to help mobility, as with any technology, organisations need to have a strategy in place. This has to answer a multitude of questions: Who needs to be mobile? Who will have access to applications over the cloud? What applications will those be? What devices will they use? How will the data involved be secured? What action will be taken in the event of a BlackBerry-style outage? Are there any applications that are simply too important or sensitive to be provided in any other way than in-house?
The need for strategy
Currently, while organisations are developing mobile strategies, it is still taking time. Only 29% of SAP users surveyed said they currently have a mobile strategy; 42% said they will take over 18 months to develop one, while 14% believe they will never have one. While some organisations will not want, or need, a mobile workforce, for the others a mobility strategy for applications such as SAP is a serious consideration. Without one in place, organisations could well fail to realise the full benefits of SaaS-based applications for their mobile workers.
There exists a stereotypical perception that any move to mobile and SaaS must be all or nothing. However, this is not the case - 80% of SAP users see that their future involves using a mix of on-premise, on-demand and on-device software. This approach makes perfect sense, and indeed is one encouraged by the likes of SAP - while some applications are simply too crucial to be fully trusted to the cloud, there are others that could well benefit from the increased flexibility and efficiency it can bring. For example, placing services on the cloud makes it much simpler for those working away from head office to access them as long as they have a network connection. Conversely, cloud-based services may be simply unnecessary for workers who will be permanently tethered to head office.
Is SaaS and mobility inevitable?
One thing is certain: the genie of cloud and SaaS is well and truly out of the bottle. As with any technology, there will be hype. Yet, as the example of mobile shows, there can also be clear benefits. By carefully developing a mobile strategy, examining the options and deciding where, when and how cloud and SaaS are appropriate, organisations can dodge the hype and instead assure that they are making the best use of what’s available.
Alan Bowling is chairman of the UK & Ireland SAP User Group
This was first published in November 2011