Mobility should be strategic, not tactical

Enterprise mobility demands organisational change, but it also offers cost-saving opportunities

Wireless networking and mobile technologies have the potential to fire-up your organisation, increase business agility and improve customer service. But to reap these benefits requires new approaches and new ways of thinking.

First off, your organisation will have to change to embrace true mobility. A growing number of companies are moving beyond or even ignoring mobile email in favour of mobilising line-of-business applications.

“When you start rolling out these applications over a wider expanse, the questions become: ‘How can I lower costs of existing operations?’ or ‘how can I provide new opportunities to grow revenue?’” says Bob Egan, chief analyst with TowerGroup, a Massachusetts consulting company. “These questions force you into thinking in a strategic mode versus an ad-hoc mode.”

In a 2006 TechRepublic survey, 370 US IT and business professionals said they were targeting the following applications for mobilisation (respondents could pick more than one answer): intranet access (chosen by 23%); field service/data entry/data collection (21%); personal information management (19%); customer relationship management or sales force automation (16%); supply chain management (12%), and ERP (nearly 10%).

The justification for making these applications mobile is increased worker productivity and efficiency, which was cited as “extremely significant” by 35% of the same respondents. The two other top justifications (“extremely significant”) were reduced costs, cited by nearly 30%, and improved data collection and accuracy, cited by 28%. In all three cases, larger percentages cited these justifications as “significant.”

Successfully exploiting such applications and achieving these goals requires changes in such diverse areas as employee and manager responsibilities and accountability, network access and authentication, mobile device management, end user and wireless networking tech support, and security and data-protection policies and enforcement.

“If you don’t actively manage [mobile] workforce issues, including human resources and psychological issues as well as technology, you don’t get the full value,” says John Girard, vice president for Gartner. “In the end, the most important parts are the human parts: how do you monitor work, how do you assign responsibility, and do you understand what your team is doing?”

To make this possible, Gartner recommends consolidating an array of mobile provisioning, management and security functions (such as vulnerability assessment, security configuration, standard software image control, security and performance monitoring), shifting routine functions from the security group to the operations group, and forging joint policy development between those groups.

“If you have different policies for different platforms [desktops, notebooks, smartphones], how do you maintain consistency?” Girard asks. “Most companies have a software distribution plan that works well for the desktop but less well for notebooks, and even less well for smartphones.” Or a well-developed method for backing up desktop PCs may ignore mobile devices completely, despite the growing amount of corporate data on them and the greater likelihood of loss, theft or hacks.

“[Organisational changes] are all about controlling the flow of the company’s intellectual property — how to provision and protect the data on the net and on the devices — and all the responsibilities that go along with that,” says TowerGroup’s Egan.

Mobility becomes a system, or a system of systems that has to be viewed and treated as a whole. “With more and more users being mobile every day, we are paying a lot of attention not only to the uptime but also to the health of the system,” says Daver Malik, telecom engineer at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. “Careful watch on the system usage, capacity and trends is kept, so as to prevent any undue disruption to the users.”

One related aspect in preventing undue user disruption is tech support and the enterprise help desk. “Very few companies do a good job in supporting mobile workers,” says Jack Gold, principal of J Gold Associates. “Their support infrastructure today is for desktop support. You can’t send a technician into the field to fix a [mobile] problem.” The tech support team needs new training, new tools, and new policies and procedures, to be able to effectively and quickly respond to mobility problems.

One emerging alternative is to outsource some or all of these tasks to a new breed of managed services supplier. One example is Movero Technology, an Austin company that handles all aspects of cellular-based device and application deployments for an enterprise.

Another common concern about enterprise mobility is cost. How can IT control all the extra costs required to support a mobile workforce?

There are indeed lots of costs in mobility: wireless and wired infrastructures; cellular voice and data plans, including roaming charges; the usage patterns of those plans; mobile device purchases; applications; software for device management; training and tech support.

“Viewing this from a strategic perspective means these costs become more visible,” says Egan. A strategic mobility plan for the enterprise uncovers, identifies and quantifies the true costs of the typical piecemeal approach to enterprise mobility, and creates the possibility for systematically controlling and minimising them, he says.

This can be a shock to organisations that have handled mobility in an ad hoc way, Egan says. “Viewed from a strategic viewpoint, costs become more visible, so it seems like they’re much greater,” he says. “But the ad hoc approach to mobility hid the real costs, and those costs are much greater in my view than they are for a strategic approach.”

A strategic plan can also make more visible the potential benefits of mobility, in terms of saving money or increasing revenues, an essential element in evaluating the needed investments.

Egan says one of his biggest surprises was talking with auto rental giant Avis, which was one of the first to have employees equipped with wireless handhelds, to meet customers in the parking lot as they returned their automobiles. “I said: ‘What a great thing for customer service,’” Egan says. “The Avis guy started laughing.” The real benefit of the system was that it let Avis make an instant, on-the-spot decision about whether to keep the car for servicing, which costs money, or send it to auction. It was about where not to spend Avis’ cash.

With a strategic plan, centralised and standardised device and software purchases are possible, a key element in rationalising and reducing mobility costs. At the same time, changes in network infrastructure and in business processes can be budgeted and planned for. A mobile deployment can be frustrating and investments wasted if, say, an increase in data or transactions overwhelms back-end systems.

“Utilise your fixed infrastructure to its maximum potential to support the expanding wireless/mobile environment,” says Hartsfield-Jackson Airport’s Malik. “A carefully developed plan for the fixed portion of the network (for example, fibre) that is capable of supporting future expansions, both in terms of size and technology, is the key component of controlling the cost related to such expansions, as and when they happen.”

Acquisition costs have to be managed for mobility just as they are for corporate desktops. “It’s very important to know the cost and ownership implications of everything you buy [for a mobile deployment],” says Gartner’s Girard. “Figure out what platforms you’re willing to support, and provide business groups and users the incentives for adopting those.”

Girard recommends a thorough inventory of the relevant tools, systems and services you already have, including software licences. “Where have you already spent money?” he says. “Then apply Occam’s Razor: simplify. Ask yourself, ‘How do I reach fewer products, both to reduce complexity and reduce costs?’ “

A hidden element in cost calculations, according to Venture Development (VDC), is the impact of downtime and tech support if the mobile device, or some other part of the mobile system, fails. In an October 2006 report, VDC estimated that the failure rates of some consumer-grade mobile devices can exceed 20% per month. “In fact, the overall cost of downtime/lost productivity can represent up to 30% of the TCO (total cost of ownership) of a mobile device,” according to the report.

VDC notes that device vendors are introducing new features to boost the durability of laptops and handhelds.

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