Travel on any train and you're likely to see people using a mobile computing device of some sort -- usually a notebook computer, but also handhelds and smartphones. There is often a certain cachet about having such devices, but companies don't generally hand them out to all and sundry, so there needs to be a strong business case for their use.
Some businesses -- those with large numbers of mobile salespeople or field service engineers, for example -- simply have to use mobile technology in order to remain competitive. For the rest, though, there will be a number of issues to consider.
Costs and benefits
Implementing a company-wide mobile working solution will involve significant expenses, which may include some or all of the following: the planning exercise itself; technology evaluation and selection; device acquisition and deployment; software acquisition and/or development; end-user training; support and security provision; and Internet connectivity purchase or upgrading.
A pilot phase involving partial rollouts to test elements like the chosen technologies, user training, support and security arrangements, and service contracts should be built into the cost forecasts. Any costs incurred in changing the full rollout plan in the light of the pilot scheme should also be allowed for. When a mobile working solution has been implemented there will be ongoing costs in areas such as software maintenance, user support and connectivity.
Cost savings to balance out and eventually obliterate these expenses are likely to accrue in the medium and long term. Savings could include reduced duplication of effort and therefore saved time, staff structure efficiencies achieved by self-servicing for some administrative functions, and improved work flows. You should take care not to aim too high as far as cost savings are concerned: employees who need to adapt to new mobile working practices will not thank a management that sets apparently unreachable targets.
As well as cost savings, there are, of course, tangible productivity benefits to be had from mobile working. For example, time spent commuting could be time spent working -- either while in transit, or by working at home instead. More specifically, field salespeople who can clinch deals by checking stock levels and submitting invoices during client meetings look efficient, enhance their company's reputation and accelerate cash flow.
Changed business processes
Some business processes may need to be reassessed following the introduction of mobile technology. For example, if you currently rely on paper for your records, you're unlikely to want your mobile workers to continue this practice. Therefore, you'll need to look at issues like data flows, document retention and retrieval systems, and staffing requirements. In fact, the implementation of mobile working can provide a good opportunity for companies to update a whole range of business processes.
No employee should be allowed to take a mobile device bearing company data into the field without adequate security provision, as loss or theft is all too common. Earlier this year, research from mobile security specialist Pointsec suggested that in a six-month period 63,135 mobile phones, 5,838 Pocket PCs and 4,973 notebooks were left in licensed taxi cabs in London. Obviously these devices were not all left by professional users, but the potential size of the problem is clear. Sensitive data falling into the wrong hands could compromise a company's competitive edge.
As well as guarding against physical data theft by encrypting the information held on mobile devices, policies need to be implemented to guard against unauthorised access to company networks. Smartcards and/or biometric devices like fingerprint readers may be required to supplement password-based logon procedures; OS patches, firewalls and anti-malware software must be installed and kept up to date; and users must be instructed in secure practices for using email and other applications when away from the office. All of these factors need to be considered when evaluating the costs and benefits of a mobile working solution.
At its most basic, mobile device selection involves choosing between a traditional clamshell notebook, a Tablet PC (either convertible or slate-style), a handheld or a smartphone. The decision largely depends on the use to which the device will be put. For example, document creation clearly requires access to a keyboard, which generally means selecting a tradtitional notebook; workers who mainly require access to email and/or calendar functions, on the other hand, may manage perfectly with a less expensive handheld or even a smartphone.
Obviously there are many other factors to consider in this area, and we examine these later in this guide.
Managed properly, mobile technology can improve employees' working lives. Mobile workers who have easy access to the data and applications they need to do their jobs will feel more empowered, and can be more flexible in their working practices. All this should improve productivity and boost staff retention levels.
On the other hand, there are several potential problem areas. Mobile workers can struggle to communicate and collaborate with colleagues -- especially via the informal networks that exist within most companies. Work-life balance can also be adversely affected, as many mobile and home-based workers actually put in more hours to compensate for any management perception that such office absentees are 'slacking' in some way.
In large part, the solution lies in choosing simple, reliable and secure mobile technologies, and supporting them efficiently.