The Reality of the Mobile Workforce

By Robert McGarvey

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Where are all the mobile data, long time coming? Just that question resonates throughout the universe of mobility providers and the stark reality is that, although seers and pundits have been talking about the mobilization of data for a decade, take-up seems to be unfolding in ways that were entirely unanticipated. The reason: IT just has not jumped on this movement and the stated reason is money, or rather the lack thereof.

“IT budgets just are very tightly managed,” said Clyde Foster, vice president, Services and Software at Nokia. IT managers repeatedly have told Foster that mobility is a high priority “ … but it has not turned out to be a top priority and, in many cases, it has gone unfunded.”

One upshot: “Enterprise-wide mobility is not happening. But business units are in fact mobilizing their workers because they see the ROI,” said Foster.

More on that in a second but, first, feast on this counterpoint: “The non-financial obstacles to mobilizing data in the enterprise have evaporated,” Foster flatly said. A decade ago when mobility first surfaced as a topic the discussion was genuinely hallucinatory. Devices were expensive, battery lives were short, and the input devices and screens were atrocious. Security was an after-thought and, frankly, even with better devices, the lack of reliable security would have ended any enterprise mobility push before it even got started.

Now, secure data networks and applications are reality and there also are robust device management tools that allow for fast and easy destruction of lost devices. Add all the progress up and, as Foster implies, the reasons to not go mobile have, one-by-one, been erased.

Now, chew on this: quietly mobile data is permeating the enterprise—despite IT’s indifference. Deployments of big apps to mobile devices may be stalled but there is other movement. “Email has become ubiquitous,” said Sal Tirabassi, a partner in MC Venture Partners in Boston who keeps close watch on the mobility space. “Mobile email has flourished in the enterprise because IT is well-equipped to deal with it.”

Costs have plummeted and that allows companies to inexpensively widen the range of employees who get mobile email solutions. Watch the number of such workers grow, as more of them demand mobile email. What makes this important, say the mobility seers, is email now stands as a proof that the enterprise can mobilize; and this just may pave the way for more initiatives.

Such As?

This is where Foster’s business unit adoption of mobile data comes in. Corporate IT may be dragging its feet, but individual business units are leaping forward. For instance, there has been increasingly strong adoption of “Blue-collar applications,” said Willie Jow, a vice president at Sybase, a company focused on mobilizing corporate data.

“Mobile field workers need mobile data,” said Jow who points out that when it comes to repair technicians or insurance claims adjusters, for instance, their business units swiftly embrace the benefits of mobile data. This has birthed a growing number of so-called field service applications that typically run on Windows Mobile devices, although some run on Blackberries or Nokia’s Symbian operating system. Persuasive ROI arguments are fueling this adoption.

The other big area for mobile data is the salesforce, said Nokia’s Foster, who indicates that ever growing numbers of large corporations are putting mobile CRM tools in the hands of field sales forces. Foster points, for instances, to CRM provider salesforce.com and its increasing support for mobile solutions.

“The need exists,” he said and, again, the ROI of mobile CRM apps which lets sales rep write and file sales call reports wherever they are is strong.

Will other business units jump aboard? That is beyond debate. The irony is the enterprise is mobilizing data and it is happening without headlines, without fanfare. Little-by-little it is coming together, said Foster. The 2008 reality—amidst a slowing economy—is that broad rollouts of huge swaths of enterprise data just are not likely to be in the cards.

But more workers are mobile and accessing enterprise data than ever before and every day there are still more. The revolution is here and there is no turning back. The real question now is: What’s IT’s role in this? That is the issue to watch in 2008 because mobility is not stopping, with or without IT’s leadership.