With the deluge of devices entering the market from PDAs to smart phones and iPhones, combined with the expansion of high speed cellular and Wi-Fi networks, it makes increasing sense to allow workers in the field to connect directly with business applications in the office.
Encouraged by managers who see the value of mobilizing business processes for greater company efficiency, and by staff whose frequent travel means mobile communication lets them enjoy the freedom of completing their daily tasks on the move, MIS departments are introducing initiatives to deliver the mobile enterprise.
However, to ensure that business goals are kept clearly in mind, a carefully structured plan is required. In larger organizations, this requires serious consideration from the CIO working together with company directors. For small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), there is a growing array of options that do not require specialist knowledge or heavy investment in infrastructure-standardized applications can be accessed online to access the benefits of wireless communications.
The mobile device is coming of age for businesses across the spectrum, but not without some growing pains.
According to Robin Simpson, Gartner's research director for open source, mobile and wireless, there is a convergence of key trends driving adoption of mobile devices within the enterprise: 'Young employees are a major force for innovation because they bring to an organization the experience of using the latest consumer technology - internet 2.0 applications like Facebook, YouTube and MySpace - wireless home networking, smart phones and other consumer devices.'
Fan Ye, Microsoft's business group lead for mobile communications business, added that people want to combine their business and personal lives, giving them an extra sense of freedom and efficiency. 'Mobile applications are becoming pervasive and very soon all 'road warriors' will receive a mobile device along with laptop when they start a new job,' said Ye. 'Access to office activities is what they want on the road: mobile messaging and email are already commonplace.'
He said that traveling employees want to access company files and meeting schedules. They also want to view Powerpoint presentations and surf the net in a format that is compatible with a small screen format.'
Sounding a note of caution, Gartner's Simpson explained that individuals are keen to use mobile devices at work in a similar way as they do in their personal lives and consequently pressure is placed on MIS departments to provide support. 'However, MIS frequently lacks both a clear way to handle such requests and a roadmap for a complete mobile strategy,' Simpson added.
The risk then arises that a quick-fix policy may be introduced to respond to each individual request. While mobility is a key growth trend, careful consideration needs to be given to security, standardization, and to the suitability of devices in different roles within the organization. Simpson also stressed the need to establish a clear understanding of the underlying cost/benefit analysis.'
'MIS departments need to be very proactive and not allow a similar scenario to the introduction of the Palm Pilot, when staff independently synchronized their devices with office PCs,' said Simpson. 'Consequently CIOs must work with company directors to build consensus and a shared commitment to business goals.'
'There is frequently a significant gap in expectation about mobile devices between MIS managers and business owners,' said Chris Lau, SmarTone's director of future services.
After five years in which we have seen manpower and budget cuts, MIS managers are naturally preoccupied with the need to standardize their systems and control the rate of adoption of new technologies, so that their limited resources are not overwhelmed. 'It is important that the differing perspective between IT and business managers is clearly understood so that steps can be taken to bridge the gap effectively,' said Lau.
A trend is developing toward the adoption of more sophisticated mobile applications that increase business efficiency and provide a driver for IT growth.
'Enterprise IT-spend is now mostly mobile,' said Microsoft's Ye. This trend is driven by intense competition that is pushing companies to leverage every possible efficiency advantage such as instant reporting (inventory/purchase orders/sales reports). According to Norm Lo, VP of Asia Pacific at Research in Motion (RIM), innovative applications for the BlackBerry are already available now in Hong Kong. For example client information can be securely called up from a CRM system in a detailed dashboard, allowing sales and field technicians to instantly take care of customer support, cutting paperwork errors and increasing efficiency, he noted.
GPS capability turns the BlackBerry into a navigational aid to track shipments or help the user find a new meeting venue. Following the recent acquisition of Ascendent Systems by RIM, the BlackBerry will soon be equipped with a mobile voice system that simplifies the process of managing conference calls by connecting to both external and internal company phone lines.
'Mobile applications are increasingly helping businesses to take on new challenges,' said SmarTone's Lau.
'Thanks to CRM data collected via mobile phones, banks can introduce the same quality of service in their mainland branches as in Hong Kong, retailers can increase stocks of best-selling products, and the local logistics industry can collaborate better with its subsidiaries in China to maintain its competitive edge.'
Right strategy and platform
While the benefits of mobility to the enterprise are clear, fine tuning the MIS strategy is critical. Simpson of Gartner said, 'CIOs must work with business managers to establish key goals, then the choice of mobile devices really comes down to job requirements. A detailed step-by-step process is used for analyzing company needs in the field and the result is a cost-effective recommendation that usually involves a maximum of four to five different user-profiles, matched with the appropriate mobile tools needed to accomplish each user's daily tasks. The resulting information serves as a rationale for a mobile strategy.'
A choice of platforms can also complicate the process of adopting mobile devices and MIS departments need to look carefully at their organizations current and future needs before choosing between Symbian, Windows Mobile, the J2EE platform, Unix, Linux or Apple's iPhone.
Microsoft's Ye said: 'Mobile devices need managing - very much like laptops - and this means that you need to have a structured management process.
Horace Chow, VP of Asia Pacific, Sybase, noted that with the growth of mobile workforces comes the widespread distribution of sensitive and proprietary data outside the secure walls of headquarters. 'Failure to manage and secure these nomadic devices can be catastrophic,' said Chow. 'The cost of failure includes legal liability, hard dollar losses, regulatory penalties, damaged reputations and reduced shareholder value.'
Consequently, an increasing number of companies are implementing applications like Sybase's Afaria, which defines security policy 'ensuring that passwords are set and, even more importantly, that data is encrypted so that - in case of a device being lost or stolen - critical business data can be remotely destroyed.'
What to expect in 2008
Lo at RIM explained that he expects to see many SMBs adopt mobile wireless technology because of software changes that now make it easier to use, with very limited IT support. 'To encourage SMBs to use the BlackBerry, we have significantly simplified the need for IT support. Simpler devices like the Pearl and the Curve have also been introduced which can run on a PC, while still maintaining 250-bit security and remote manageability,' said Lo.
'Now the small teams of staff at busy SMBs can keep moving, and significantly increase efficiency - sharing client and order details, appointment calendars, multimedia presentation material and contact information.'
For bigger companies, hosted the BlackBerry Enterprise Server enables them to mobilize a large part of the workforce, driving usage beyond director level, according to Lo. 'In 2008, we expect to see much more use of 'push' email and mobile presence on mobile devices, more innovative mobile applications and many more SMBs making the most of mobile phone efficiency,' he said.
'In many Asian countries, the building blocks are already in place for businesses to rollout a comprehensive mobile strategy,' said Gartner's Simpson. 'While Australia is still ahead, developing countries are leapfrogging technologies to move up to wireless and starting to catch up. For example, Thailand already has 3G on CDMA. We can expect to see much bigger growth in mobile enterprise applications for businesses beyond Hong Kong and Singapore across Asia in 2008.'