IT managers must provide clear usage policies and address issues of infrastructure, training and support if mobile operations are to run smoothly. John Kavanagh reports.
Bolivia is a long way from home for scientists at BG Group, a division of British Gas involved in the development, management and supply of gas around the world. As they explore for new gas sources, they need mobile technology that works efficiently and is easy to use.
Not many companies have staff as far flung as BG Group, but its needs will be recognised by any organisation with mobile staff. BG Group identified constant access to e-mail, intranets and the internet as an essential minimum. The company says, "It would be a risk to the business if users became stranded."
BGGroup's 1,200 mobile users, ranging from scientists to sales people, have a choice of devices and types of connection. For example, some developing countries where its staff are based are leapfrogging fixed-line upgrades and going to wireless.
Security is unobtrusive and based on a standard package from iPass. Training on mobile working is available via an intranet, and the whole package is easy to use, BG Group says.
Addressing ease of use and training issues - and having usage policies that are recognised and enforced - makes life easier for IT departments and keeps things running smoothly.
"It is essential that companies implement mobile policies and procedures, and enforce them consistently, so that users understand what they can and cannot do when using company-owned kit," says Chris Minchin, manager at the Federation Against Software Theft.
"For example, businesses must include all remote devices in their software audits to ensure they are legally compliant and not presenting any risk to the company with unlicensed software or illegally downloaded files."
Minchin says policies should ideally cover issues such as who uses a mobile laptop, otherwise family members might download viruses or illegally copied software or music, making the company liable.
Users should be aware of other people watching their screens as they use their laptops on planes and trains or in public places. They must also be drilled in making sure they do not leave their mobile devices in taxis or bars, for example.
Policies also need to cover appropriate and inappropriate use, says James Carmody, employment specialist at law firm Sprecher Grier and Halberstam. "It is imperative to make clear what is or is not acceptable use of mobile technology," he says. "An exchange of text messages could be evidence of a binding agreement; a message sent as a joke could land a business in serious trouble."
In one of Carmody's cases a gay man obtained the mobile phone number of a male colleague from staff records and anonymously sent flirtatious text messages. He was sacked for breaking the company's data protection policy and for sexually harassing a colleague, and then claimed sexual orientation discrimination.
Carmody says, "It is as important to apply standards and policies to mobile communications as to any form of business communication. Make sure staff are aware that if they are working offsite they must still comply with the organisation's normal policies and procedures."
This last point is underlined by Rajesh Sinha, technical director at systems integrator Bailey Teswaine. "Policies may need revisiting and communicating again, because staff who are mobile and perhaps working outside office hours may feel that normal policies do not apply," he says.
Creating company-wide policies and procedures, rather than letting people drift into mobile working, is important for making employees aware of their responsibilities, says Conrad Simpson, managing director of consultancy Newell and Budge Security.
"Effectively managing mobile computing means understanding where and how information is stored in your organisation, and making sure that people, processes and policies are all working together to protect it," he says.
"Issue all mobile users with a policy covering the handling of company information on both their own and company-owned equipment. Make sure you include guidelines on wireless access, user-owned devices and personal use. Also, give security awareness training, implement data classification, and ensure sensitive information is strictly controlled.
"All mobile access should be logged, with enough detail to identify the user, the access time, connection duration and what systems were accessed. Enforce the authentication of users before they access mobile devices or connect to the network. Scan all information for malicious software before it is stored on a mobile device or the corporate network.
"You should also configure devices to automatically update their anti-virus software before connecting to the network. Data held on mobile devices should be regularly backed up in case of equipment failure or theft. And software running on mobile computers should be centrally managed."
Staff going mobile need to be prepared in other ways too, according to a survey of UK mobile workers by IBM and the Economist Intelligence Unit.
A key finding of the research was the need for skills in working independently: 79% of those surveyed said this was the most important aspect of mobile working. Then came organising work tasks (77%), collaborating remotely (69%) and setting personal goals and sticking to them (61%).
Twenty-five per cent of people cited training as one of the top three ways that companies could help mobile staff; and 33% said training for their managers back at the office would be useful too.
Trust was a big issue: nearly 50% of mobile workers felt their colleagues questioned their effort and contribution. Related issues included a feeling of being left out of key meetings and decisions (30%); few opportunities for impromptu but useful meetings, such as at the coffee machine; and difficulty in separating home and work life (61%).
"Working remotely requires an extended set of personal skills to compensate for the lack of a traditional office structure," says IBM researcher Eric Lesser. He also highlights the finding that 52% of people said the ability to fix technical problems with their mobile systems was important.
"Being technologically savvy was often viewed as a practical necessity, given the state of mobile working technology in many organisations, and appears to pay dividends," says Lesser. "One person commented, 'Polish the technical package to the last detail so that employees do not have to worry about the technical set-up or things like security'."
Lesser adds, "Without a reliable, easy-to-use infrastructure, mobile technology quickly becomes an impediment rather than a driver of enhanced productivity."
Support certainly becomes an issue, which companies need to sort out urgently - and not by leaving it to their network operator, says Phil Whitlock, head of service management at IT skills supplier Plan-Net.
"From a user perspective, mobile devices are simply an extension of the existing corporate infrastructure," says Whitlock. "They expect their mobile devices to be supported in the same way as wired equipment, with an equivalent level of service, by the in-house support team. But few support staff have mobile data expertise and, with the rapid pace of this technology change, there is a lack of real experience of these new mobile devices.
"As a result, it is estimated that 75% of mobile data problems reported to the in-house team are escalated to the mobile network operator, yet fewer than 20% relate to network problems. Most are user issues with the device itself, with synchronisation or configuration, or problems with the user organisation's IT infrastructure created by the introduction of mobile computing.
"Should it really be the network operator's responsibility to undo problems caused to laptop settings by the addition of a wireless card, or explain why synchronisation between a Blackberry and a PC has failed? Mobile computing is an extension of the IT infrastructure, not the mobile telephone boom.
"Offering a 25% first-line fix rate, when the traditional benchmark is 60% or more, seems extraordinary, especially as mobile users are likely to be senior management or client-facing field staff, who risk being left without vital technology."
If companies lack mobile support skills, Plan-Net suggests using a "co-sourcer", which provides its own permanent staff to carry out support. This could be a long-term arrangement or a short-term solution to get mobile computing set up and provide support until the organisation builds up its own skills.
Support and security both depend to an extent on knowing how many devices are out there, what sort they are and who is using them for what applications, says systems management specialist Altiris.
"The recent surge in mobile devices connecting to the network adds yet another layer of complexity to enterprises' architectures," says Altiris principal consultant Paul Butler.
"Mobile management software will track, manage and secure the growing number of mobile devices, making it a vital part of any company's mobile operations. Such software often allows IT directors, managing a heterogeneous computing environment, to remotely manage handheld devices from the same console as is used for desktop, laptop and IT asset management, providing a holistic view of all IT assets and their status. This can dramatically reduce the security risk."
Getting all the technical and other policies, training and support in place might look like a challenge, but the rewards are great, according to a study of total ownership costs commissioned by Research In Motion, supplier of Blackberry handheld devices. It says, "Every working day each Blackberry user recovers over twice the monthly IT time investment through personal productivity alone."
Case study: headhunters benefit from a standardised approach
A standardised approach to mobile computing has made life easier for users and enabled the IT department to gain control, says executive headhunting company Whitehead Mann Group.
"The 235 consultants had a variety of mobile phones and laptops, which put a strain on the network," says operations and IT director Rob Andrew. "We needed a standardised approach."
Whitehead Mann settled on Palm Treo 600 smartphones linking via the Orange network and using Good Technology's Goodlink software for managing mobile e-mail and other tasks: it synchronises with Microsoft Outlook.
The mobile package is being rolled out in phases: 90 staff in the UK have been equipped and the company's French operation is next.
Whitehead Mann's consultants are much more responsive to client requests and have increased efficiency, the firm says. With contact details and diaries on their mobile devices they can make appointments and react to requests immediately, portraying an efficient image.
Consultants also enjoy a stronger sense of freedom and flexibility, without added pressure, the company says. Having access to e-mails at all times does not necessarily mean working out of hours; it is about having access to information instantly, when needed.
The standard approach has cut costs. Most consultants no longer need laptops: they just need to keep on top of things while out of the office. An office PC coupled with a wireless device is enough.
Andrew says the IT department has more control over the network. "The system can be deployed and upgraded wirelessly, and security standards are high, thanks to features such as erase and restore for lost or stolen devices.
"Employees really enjoy using the system: as well as improving service to clients it is incredibly easy to use and is modern and trendy to boot."