Mobile computing is seeing history repeat itself. Twenty years after IT departments were turned upside down, as PCs gave users control, they are facing a similar challenge as mobile computing lets users take IT anywhere they like. As with the early days of PCs, when users started buying their own machines and software, companies need to get mobile computing under control quickly.
One problem is that mobile devices come in a variety of forms, from phones to laptops, and can be bought in the high street. The variety of devices is matched by the variety of issues for IT departments, including adapting applications, supporting mobile working and where to go for help as network operators, integrators, middleware specialists and device suppliers all bid for business.
"The supply side is fragmented and inadequate, and meeting demand is fraught with complexity," says research group Ovum. "There is a clear mismatch between what the industry has been prepared to supply and what enterprise customers want to buy. Enterprise mobility has often developed despite rather than through a central function, with purchases taking place at individual or departmental level rather than across the organisation."
Sharon Gilkes, European IT director at software company BEA Systems, says, "There are very few corporate policies or processes to support the new mobile workforce, and this has created a difficult challenge for IT departments. Devices are bought by individuals rather than companies, but they are used to store company information. The response to mobile requirements has to be proactive."
Companies therefore need a strategy based on a vision of the potential and what they want to achieve, but too often they look no further than e-mail.
"Our recent UK research found that 65% of IT decision makers think e-mail access while on the move is the major opportunity for mobile workers," says Alex Black, strategy director at communications integrator Affiniti.
"This is worrying: real increases in organisational flexibility, employee productivity and customer service are only likely if workers have access to key applications and information. IT decision makers must think more strategically."
IT directors' hesitancy here is understandable, says John O'Malley, European regional director at network access management specialist Fiberlink. "Advances in communications and personal computing have simplified the life of mobile workers while often complicating life for IT managers, who must now provide for employees and devices that are outside the corporate network.
"As one technology has replaced another most organisations have adopted a piecemeal approach to managing mobile workers, driven by short-term needs rather than long-term strategy. For mobile working to be useful, secure and cost-effective, a long-term service delivery platform is needed. Yet with so many competing mobility requirements and corresponding technologies there are many interpretations of what mobile working is and how it should be carried out."
Others agree that accurately identifying mobile needs is a key issue in defining strategy. Executives and professionals might need to carry all their work with them on laptops, connecting to the company network occasionally to access information and e-mails. Personal digital assistants might be enough for sales people and service engineers to keep their contact and diary details with them and look up product information stored centrally for their next call. Delivery drivers might just need to get details of their next visit and do simple data entry after a drop.
But this might just be the start. IBM research suggests that once executives go mobile, using laptops to work on local files while on the move, they find that instant messaging and web meetings, with access to shared documents, can be useful.
Even simple applications can lead to other things. The South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive worked with mobile specialist FlyingSpark to equip bus shelter inspectors with units to report vandalism and request maintenance. This is now being extended to enable staff to enter a passenger's journey details and provide information on the spot.
Different users might use different communication methods, from dial-up to Wi-Fi and GPRS. This raises various issues, not least security, which takes on another dimension as devices are taken out of the office. An office PC might not be so flexible but it does not get left in a bar.
Users must be involved with projects to introduce mobile IT, otherwise they could take matters into their own hands. Nearly 66% of office workers carry two or more devices, according to research by network specialist Avaya, and 25% have three or more. Analyst firm Gartner says 70% of office staff will have three mobile devices within two years.
Users are vital for success, says Martin Day, European business sales manager at handheld device supplier Palm. "Users' preferences and input can make or break a mobile strategy. Projects that try to sidestep this element rarely succeed."
Mobile users must be confident in the hardware and the overall system, says Day. "Desktop users sit at their machines, often with other users who can help them on features, best practices, workarounds and so on. Mobile staff do not have this: they must be able to turn their device on, access whatever they need and continue with the job."
This puts the onus on IT departments to get to grips with technology strategy, says Gilkes. "Support for mobile technology should be an integral part of overall IT architecture. The back-end infrastructure has to be managed in the same way, but bearing in mind the need to support more flexibility on the front-end, which could range from a smartphone to accessing company data in an internet cafe."
All this means that although mobile computing is not necessarily expensive for IT departments, it can be complicated, says Ovum analyst Elsa Lion. Enterprise software suppliers such as SAP and Oracle are increasingly supporting mobility in their products, but users might need to access other systems too. Large numbers of mobile application developers have launched products for specific groups, such as service engineers and sales people, and some have moved into middleware and made that their business.
Day underlines the role of middleware, which is especially important for enabling handheld devices to access company databases in the same way as PCs. "Selecting the user device is only the start: it is essential that the device fits existing IT architectures, that it can be managed and secured and easily integrated to existing systems," says Day.
"Selecting the most appropriate middleware is a distinct aspect of the most successful deployments. And that middleware should not only be for a single project: it ideally provides benefits of secure data, robust device management and simple integration into the most disparate back-end sources, including SAP, Oracle and DB2."
Mobile network operators including Orange and Vodafone are offering mobile connection cards for PCs and services that forward e-mails to mobile phones. Microsoft and Sun provide applications, operating systems and software development products for smartphones and other mobile devices.
"The challenge businesses face is how to select and implement the optimum solutions within an acceptable timeframe and budget," says Jeremy Roth, director of mobile systems specialist Crimson Tide. "The problem is accentuated as the number of middleware solutions grows. It will be increasingly important to be able to select the most appropriate and robust applications. At the same time, there is more noise from mobile network operators, which want their users to increase data traffic and are pushing sales of 3G data cards to synchronise laptops back to the office."
Market fragmentation is a problem, says Lion. "There is not really one place you can go to source all the products effectively."
IT departments new to mobile have tended to start by asking their existing suppliers, typically their network company or main software supplier, Lion says. However, some observers urge caution because of vested interests, such as a mobile network operator's desire to increase traffic or the need for access to data in different systems. If existing suppliers cannot meet the need, the next stop might be an integrator or specialist consultancy.
Whatever the complications, IT departments need to get on with it, says Gilkes. "The bottom line is that people want to be mobile, and if we do not drive the mobile strategy, employees will find a way to do it anyway."
Mobile users achieve return on investment
Just 40 minutes' extra work a month from each mobile laptop user is enough for accounting group BDO Stoy Hayward to break even on its £2m spending on Orange 3G Mobile Office Cards and handheld devices for 2,500 staff.
Staff with Blackberries cover the cost in just 20 minutes' work a month. BDO says actual use outstrips these figures, and its staff are happier, because they can use travelling and other dead time productively.
Indeed, BDO can lget an average of 55 minutes' extra work a day from its Blackberry users, according to a study by Blackberry manufacturer Research In Motion. Wireless notebooks give returns in six to 12 months in staff productivity and overall business efficiency, according to research company Meta Group. Increased productivity is highlighted by several studies as a key benefit of mobile working.
Different benefits have been gained by building services company Response Maintenance, which replaced a combination of paper, pagers and CB radios with a system from Impact Applications based on rugged PDAs. Contractors have direct access to information about jobs and materials. They save time and answer emergency calls 25% faster. Extra services are being added, such as digital photography for insurance assessors. Information analysis now allows the company to cherry-pick the best contracts, enabling it to double profits without adding staff.
Staff support costs have been halved and empty office space rented out since business and IT services company Coventry University Enterprises started encouraging staff to work away from the office. The company says an office worker costs it £6,000 a year in overheads; for flexible staff the cost is £3,000. It is also seeing higher productivity, less sick leave, higher staff retention and better morale.
Steps to success
- Define a strong strategy that is well thought through and includes the business case, processes, support, security and training
- Involve all stakeholders and win their support. They range from business units to the human resources department. HR, for example, will want to look at the potential impact of mobile technology on employees' work/life balance
- Set expectations so that the potential and restrictions are fully understood
- Match devices to roles so users get the device that best meets their job requirements
- Trial first to validate the business case and build the enthusiasm necessary to ensure take-up
- Take one step at a time: strategy, trial, implementation. Users could reject mobile devices for reasons including lack of support, especially during initial set-up; poor training; expectations being set wrongly; lack of integration into existing processes; and systems being too difficult to use. Source: Atos Origin