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The rapid adoption of smart devices, both in the workplace and outside, has raised expectations about accessibility and user experience in the workforce.
At the same time, device capabilities are multiplying and changing how individuals and organisations collaborate. It is critical that IT organisations harness these trends to improve staff productivity and teamwork, as there are risks in not doing so.
The risks of not embracing IT consumerisation and mobile collaboration are twofold. On the one hand, a business that enables its workforce to collaborate better will have an efficiency and innovation advantage over one that does not. But on the other hand, levels of collaboration can actively deteriorate in organisations that make poor attempts to modernise their systems.
Collaboration tools without effective mobile components seem obsolete to modern users and may fall into disuse, while employees without mobile devices or the wrong device can get excluded from important interchanges.
Gartner has identified three key impacts related to mobility and consumerisation that business and IT leaders should assess to ensure that the collaboration solutions employed in their organisations have the best chance of success.
Mobile access to collaborative tools
Mobile devices enable improved access to existing desktop tools. The most common examples of mobile versions are email access on smartphones, instant messaging (IM) and Web conferencing tools.
The tools and capabilities are generally familiar to users, who quickly adapt to the new possibilities with little need for explicit direction. This can manifest itself in various ways, but some common areas include using smartphones in an email "triage" capacity, deleting unimportant messages and saving important communications for action at the desktop.
Employees can also use mobile devices to work more flexibly at locations and times that suit them. In this situation, they use the instant-on and fast access attributes of mobile devices to enable fast interactions and short postings and comments on the move.
Harnessing this impact can be as simple as enabling mobile access to corporate systems such as email and IM tools. With very little IT intervention, employees can now make use of small amounts of time that would otherwise be unproductive, like waiting for meetings to start and queuing at airports. Many organisations are at this level, but those that are not should urgently examine ways to make basic collaboration functions available on employee devices.
This goes beyond extending access to what is already available on the desktop. The unique capabilities of mobile devices enable new ways of working that were not possible previously. Consumer applications should be a rich source of inspiration for capitalising on the new features mobile devices offer.
For example, tablets are ideal devices for drawing and sketching out ideas and concepts for quickly sharing with other users. Dashboards and analytical tools make it easier to visualise data, while swiping and manipulating data with touch interfaces is more engaging than traditional business information tools on a desktop.
Long documents combining text with rich media (like sales brochures or technical documentation) can be read and annotated more conveniently on a tablet device than from printouts or a conventional PC.
The key to harnessing the productivity benefits of a mobile-enabled workforce is to make sure that mobile devices can access the content they are best suited to consume and that the new functionality available in these devices is properly used in collaboration applications.
However, it's important that the IT team avoids creating silos where people using apps made for an iPad, for example, become isolated from those using other devices. Bring your own device initiatives should include cross-device common app frameworks for the most important functionality, especially where the IT team has limited control over the types of devices chosen by end-users.
New ways to collaborate
This impact builds on the new collaborative possibilities of smartphones and tablets to create entirely new ways of working. When combined with other trends of cloud and enhanced information access - mobility and social collaboration can transform existing business models. For example, the first and second-level impacts mean that field service workers can use mobile devices to reach data stores or support personnel at the office.
They can also reach one another using a mobile social network to quickly engage other experienced experts or engineers to solve problems or coordinate activities on the fly, using the rich media and location capabilities of mobile devices. This third-level impact not only makes field workers more effective, it also requires fewer support personnel in the office.
Organisations have an opportunity to build collaboration apps with features that have not been seen before. Workers on factory, restaurant or retail floors can gain access to information and colleagues they previously had little contact with in real time, enhancing their ability to perform their jobs.
While not all impacts are relevant to all types of business, it's certainly important to begin assessing the level to which it may be fruitful to harness an increasingly tech-savvy, mobile-enabled workforce. For those organisations that get their mix of devices and collaboration tools right for their business goals, there are huge opportunities to be exploited.
Jeff Mann is a Gartner research director focusing on collaboration and social software. The Gartner Portals, Content & Collaboration Summit 2013 is taking place from 16 to 17 September in London.
This was first published in September 2013