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Malaysia still has hangups over mobility

Companies remain unwilling to support mobile workforce due to security concerns, lack of awareness and misgivings about underperforming employees.

More enterprises across the Asia-Pacific region are willing to support and offer the benefits of adopting a mobile workforce culture. However, several challenges are still holding back a wider take up in Malaysia, said industry watchers and players.

According to a recent IDC survey, 54.5 percent of enterprise respondents in the region said they allow employees to telecommute, and nearly half of these enterprises implemented telecommuting initiatives in 2008.

Shalini Verma, IDC's Asia-Pacific research manager of communications research, said in light of the current economic crisis, enterprise mobility is now more relevant as enterprises need to improve competitiveness with fewer resources.

"With large numbers of layoffs and headcount freeze, enterprises need to work with fewer employees, and therefore, ensure that their existing employee base is more productive and responsive," Verma told ZDNet Asia in an interview. "Enterprise mobility applications will make the employees more reachable, and allow employees to work remotely and save costs."

Vlasta Berka, general manager at Nokia Malaysia, noted that the benefits of mobility with regard to the "people aspect" of an organization, are numerous and far-reaching. "While most of these benefits tend to be non-financial and qualitative, investments in human capital are often the difference between success and failure," Berka said in an e-mail interview.

"Mobilizing business processes can result in benefits such as improved productivity, agility and responsiveness, as well as improved customer service and new service opportunities," he added.

Kevin Lee, head of enterprise business at DiGi Telecommunications, said the mobile operator has seen a jump in SMEs (small and midsize enterprises) adopting mobility tools in the last three years.

"The top three applications we provide to SMEs are mobile push e-mail, mobile Internet access and our employee-tracking application known as 'Worker Finder', while larger companies use our salesforce applications," Lee told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview.

He noted that two years ago, many of these SMEs did not even use e-mail, let alone mobile e-mail. This trend, he added, has changed over the last year as these businesses realize the benefits of mobility.

"Some SMEs are more inclined to use these solutions as they help save cost and improve productivity and sales cycles," he said.

Anil Karam Singh, CEO of local mobility services provider Intelligent Edge (IE), concurred, noting that the top three applications in the Malaysian market are push e-mail, SMS applications, and workforce and sales automation.

Still some ways to go
While anecdotal evidence suggests that many in the Malaysian workforce may want to embrace the mobile worker lifestyle, Frost & Sullivan analyst Jeff Teh, noted that Malaysia is not particularly savvy with developments in the mobile enterprise sector.

And while service providers have provided sufficient avenues to enable the implementation of mobile enterprise applications--and technology is not an issue--cost justifications, returns on investments (ROI) and security concerns are key challenges, Teh said in an e-mail interview.

"Much of the total cost of ownership (TCO) justification is for support services, such as maintaining devices‚ running operations in the field, and managing spare units," he said. "The ROI for an enterprise electing to go mobile depends on the number of users supported, devices required, airtime, and even the cost of maintaining the application."

Teh added that untrained employees present another stumbling block because they are not accustomed to making crucial decisions in the field, and this may end up costing the company more.

DiGi's Lee believes there still remains a serious lack of awareness among SME, and this is holding back further adoption. "Many of the SMEs we speak to are simply not aware of the total cost of savings and productivity that can be gained from mobility solutions," he said, adding that his company is trying to address this when they speak with SMEs.

In addition, IDC's Verma noted that companies in the country are still skeptical that employees can really perform well when given the flexibility. "Most of the employers in Malaysia still prefer to have their employees work within the office premises, instead of allowing them to work from home," she said. She added that there are also security issues regarding how confidential information is handled.

However, Verma noted, employers should be more receptive with the mobility workforce concept.

Companies should allow trusted employees to try out the mobility concept and assess whether this business model is beneficial to the organization. For example, enterprises could empower a small trial group, rather than the whole company, and evaluate the viability of deploying it on a wider scale, she suggested.

Anil added that to get the best of both worlds, there must be a balance between implementation and monitoring the workforce.

"At IE, my salesforce is entirely mobile," he said. "To ensure my people are performing, my management ensures that we get daily updates so that we may capture important information on the business and monitor their performance. This way, we can balance our resource allocation, productivity and mobility."

Nokia's Berka noted: "We believe the secret lies in recognizing and supporting emerging work practices. Combining the choice of place with available technology, mobile work policies, and team dynamics that embrace a 'work anywhere' culture will enable a new mobile work paradigm."

Edwin Yapp is a freelance IT writer based in Malaysia.