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UK firms' wireless investments ‘short-sighted’

Businesses keen on tech, but lack strategic plan

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British businesses may be jolly keen on wireless computing and mobile data - they are expected to spend £9.9bn on it this year - but many companies take a have done little or nothing to build a strategy that allows them to exploit WLAN technology to the full.

So claimed mobile phone network O2 and computer maker Toshiba today on the back of research exploring British business' attitude to wireless. Both companies conducted their surveys separately and revealed their findings independently. Both come up with similar conclusions.

The Toshiba research was conducted in partnership with UK CEOs' club, the Institute of Directors (IoD), which polled its membership. It received some 294 responses, 82 per cent of them in top-level managerial roles, most of them working in small to medium-sized organisations.

Understanding of the benefits to business offered by wireless computing is pretty high among this constituency, with 86 per cent of respondents believing that wireless conveys business advantage over the competition - primarily by allowing them to exploit business opportunities more quickly. Just under half believe wireless technology can increase employee productivity. Almost 30 per cent say that more than three-quarters of their workforce need to access data remotely.

That follows through to implementation: 53 per cent have a wireless solution in place - not necessarily Wi-Fi; GSM, GPRS or even 3G mobile-based solutions were counted too - and 88 per cent plan to make or increase their existing investment in wireless technology. And 97 per cent will have done so within the next five years.

Yet, only 21 per cent said they actually had some form of strategy in place to govern that roll-out. Some 13 per cent have no plans to put one in place.

O2's survey puts the figure in a better light: 37 per cent of the 600 UK business it surveyed revealed they have a wireless strategy. While Toshiba and the IoD spoke to CEOs and the like, O2's survey, conducted by Network Research, focused on IT directors and CIOs. So it's clear that some company bosses need to have a chat with their IT teams.

'Oh, we do have a wireless plan. I just told Toshiba we didn't...'

Indeed, O2 found that only 12 per cent of senior managers take a role in the development of a mobile strategy. However, 41 per cent of Toshiba/IoD respondents said acknowledged that such a strategy was important.

Not that the IT department comes out smelling of roses. O2's figures show 35 per cent of companies are allowing individual departments to buy and install wireless equipment without having to refer it to the IT department and thus potentially outside the scope of any strategy the company may have in place. The Toshiba/IoD survey also uncovered wireless - particularly Wi-Fi - is being implemented outside the IT department, though the partners noted that many smaller businesses don't have IT personal as such.

Such an unstructured, uncontrolled approach leaves such companies open to security risks. According to O2, 18 per cent of IT directors can't say what mobile devices are being used within their companies, and on average, seven per cent of employees are using their own PDAs at work unbeknownst to the IT department.

Based on Toshiba's and the IoD's numbers, 51 per cent of firms have not considered security when making their wireless investments. Again, that highlights the separation of wireless roll-outs from IT departments' oversight.

Security concerns were only the second most mentioned inhibitor to the adoption of wireless technology, behind the perceived cost of implementation.

All three survey sponsors suggest that the solution is to develop a coherent strategy to wireless, one based on better understanding of what the various technologies on offer can and can't do for a given business, and one that incorporates sufficient security provision.

Toshiba Small-to-Medium Business Manager Neil Bramley also called on the Channel to improve the support it offers to businesses rolling out wireless technology - though given the higher margin in services over selling hardware, we'd have hoped that they would be on the case already.

For its part, the IoD said it would promote a more strategic approach to wireless and to encourage a better understanding of the benefits - and the risks - the technology yields through a series of free seminars, workshops and guides for its members. ®

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