Meeting the technology and business challenges of managing mobile workers

Mobile devices have become a standard part of today's multinational organisations - most companies would struggle to operate without them. According to researcher IDC, 35% of the workforce will be mobile by 2013.

Mobile devices have become a standard part of today's multinational organisations - most companies would struggle to operate without them. According to researcher IDC, 35% of the workforce will be mobile by 2013.

But many IT leaders are realising they can no longer enforce corporate standards for mobile devices and networks and must embrace the popularity of consumer-driven handsets. Gartner research suggests that as many as 25% of employees will soon be using their personal mobile for work activities. But how do you maintain security, minimise costs, and integrate such a multitude of technologies into the IT infrastructure?

At a recent Computer Weekly roundtable, in association with Verizon, a panel of IT leaders heard from Steve Sacho, global director of mobile computing and unified communications at General Motors (GM). Sacho talked about how the car giant has met the challenge of introducing mobile technology and delivering IT services across mobile networks, while tackling management issues associated with the increasing prevalence of consumer technology as users bring the devices they have at home into their working environment.

GM spends about $2bn a year on IT and has a 1,500-strong IT team. The company decided to take an open and innovative approach to user-owned mobiles.

"With such a large IT organisation around the world, there is a huge amount of diversity and the challenge for mobility is integration. You can put your head in the sand and say, 'Blackberry only because it's the safest and most secure device', but our approach was to ride the consumer wave and extract value as you can't resist it," said Sacho.

Device ban

All organisations are facing increasing pressure from consumers who want to bring devices such as iPhones and iPads into work and don't understand why the IT department can't give support.

"You can't stop people bringing in powerful devices. They have applications such as Google Talk and Microsoft Live capability on their smartphones, but many come up against the geniuses in the IT department who can't give them access to corporate systems. Alternatively, organisations can embrace, ride and optimise the wave which is what we've done," said Sacho.

The first decision for IT departments to make is distinguishing between web-enabled applications accessed through browsers on mobile devices and native mobile phone applications, said Sacho. Allowing devices onto the corporate network but restricting them to browser access only, does not solve all the problems.

"What data is on the device is key, and a road that heads of IT will have to cross," said Sacho.

"Full native mobile application development is desirable because that is what is unique about mobility and you will want native code on the device if you have good business ideas."

Neutral apps

GM's goal is to allow application development on mobile platforms that is device- and carrier-neutral, global, and secure.

"We used to wait for technology to develop before it was deployed, but after GM's bankruptcy we became faster and decided to ride the consumer wave and listen to users. Mobility epitomises the new philosophy," said Sacho.

GM's old mobile strategy allowed Blackberrys, with 2,500 used only by senior executives, creating a them-and-us scenario with staff, said Sacho.

"There was a giant gap and a class system between those who had the Cadillac devices and the rest who had dumb 'Fisher Price' phones, and this disenfranchisement was resented," he said.

GM wanted a strategy that allowed self-supporting devices so IT only had to give light support.

A two-tier system was introduced, giving e-mail and messaging capability and access to collaborative systems for all, with some users having native applications, an approach that "leverages the consumer wave and controls it", said Sacho.

GM partnered with telecoms company Verizon, which was brought in with device management software specialist Sybase, to provide a carrier-independent enterprise mobility system.

"The big challenge is the global nature of the service and the diversity across the globe. We would never tell someone to use a particular mobile network operator as different regions want to optimise on cost and use local providers," said Sacho.

The next decision was about device management. If you allow corporate data and applications onto the phone handset, the economics of remotely managing every device doesn't work, said Sacho. The alternative is consumer-owned devices where employees sign an acceptable use agreement so the device can be remotely wiped if it is lost.

"Lots of employees accept that willingly in the US, but it might not be so simple across the globe," he said.

GM employees use a variety of devices including iPhones and iPads which are all personally owned, with Android devices growing fast and Symbian used often outside the US.

His advice to companies that think they can resist the consumer wave is simple: "You can't."

"The analogy I give is the internet. Some companies didn't want to give access to employees and mobility will be like that. IT chiefs will one day say, 'Imagine that we stopped people bringing in iPhones'."

Security challenge

The security challenge is similar to using laptops.

"If an iPad user downloads an attachment with confidential information and is careless about the password on the device, my premise is the danger is the same as losing a laptop," he said.

"You can be backward-leaning, security-oriented and liability-concerned or forward-thinking," said Sacho.

Being forward-thinking is appreciated by staff.

"Previously the feedback we had was that technology was always better at home than work. Now we are delighting users because they can actually bring their own devices in and we can provision it," said Sacho.

"Coming next is applications and the infrastructure for device management. We will exploit unified communications technologies on devices which is a thrilling prospect of capability for the workforce."

For more on the challenges of managing mobiles and networks, visit Think Forward - a special Verizon blog at

Q&A: Questions for GM's Steve Sacho from roundtable delegates

For mobile applications, the business priority is latency, but most mobile networks focus on bandwidth to deliver consumer content. How can you overcome that?

Sacho: The technology requirements are different, but you must decide where you want to focus. Initially we wanted to bring in intranet applications to devices for employees and were not worried about the consumer side, but the sales people are very interested in consumer applications. Latency accessing our Lotus Notes is good for GM, but using the mobile version of Lotus Notes from China is a horrendous experience. If you put servers in the region and have a well-designed latency infrastructure and mobility sits on top of that, it should work.

It is not easy to get software suppliers to recognise the unique set of skills mobile developers must have and how mobility differs from client-server. Latency is a key example of that.

Giving employees mobile access to e-mail and calendar is an obvious move, but what other applications can exploit the potential for mobility?

Sacho: Approvals and workflow are relatively easy business cases to make. For GM, mobile applications can be used for blue-collar workers - for example, manufacturing staff walking around with clipboards in the plant is labour-intensive; most of ours have smartphones, so imagine if you got them to use those devices to check inventories. Business-to-consumer is a different concept with lots of possibilities. For example, customers could walk around a car, scan in the vehicle ID and get a specification so they didn't have to talk to a dealer. There are opportunities for lots of interactivity and eventually the light bulb will go on and you'll get creative ideas.

What are the possible benefits of wider use of mobile applications?

Sacho: The most common applications are around CRM. There's a huge benefit for job scheduling - getting the right people to the right home on time. Mobile payments are taking off. A lot of multimedia and richer collaboration devices are being exploited, for example, training videos. There are also the intangible benefits, such as higher retention of workers because they'd rather have a Blackberry than a bonus. How can you use devices to attract the right employee?

What about security?

Sacho: A survey suggested that 30% of Apple applications are sending back data to the writer of applications, but commonly this will be non-sensitive information such as the highest score on a game. This may be alarming for CIOs, but you ignore mobility at your peril. There is always a reason to hide under the bed, but if you go sensibly and assertively based on the knowledge value to your organisation, the benefits are immeasurable.

Data accessed on mobile devices is cached, creating a downloading issue and a ticking time bomb if they can't be managed - are they for everyone?

Sacho: I don't think it's for everyone, but then again you wouldn't want your chief designer to have blueprints on their laptop and forget it at the airport. Device management covers 80% to 90% of the problem - the ability to wipe iPads and Androids is proven. With Lotus Notes Traveler, you can limit the size of the mail put on the device. There are ways of fine tuning and being granular, such as prohibiting attachments and wiping caches. You can tailor what different roles have according to their needs. There will always be some cases where mobility is not appropriate, but that doesn't mean you mess it up for users.

Will mobility remove the need for the corporate desktop?

Sacho: The gap between the phone and the desktop is merging and there is a race to the middle which will be filled by a device that will negate the need for a desktop. Perhaps 10% of workers can get away with only needing an iPad. There are limitations, such as with printing, but we are getting there. Within the next few years there will be a device that will cover 80% of working needs, but the devices are not smart enough yet to replace the laptop. For CAD (computer-aided design) people, for example, no smartphone will ever be sufficient, but for users who want key office productivity software and calendar, we are close.

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