Challenging the mobile clichés
An analyst rants
Opinion Let me begin with a warning that I am about to get on one of my hobby horses. This one has to do with the notion that modern wireless and mobile technology is largely about enabling people to become more mobile in the way they live and work, as if they were previously chained to one location and magically liberated by the latest gadgetry and connectivity. The notion seems to be that having access to email and other applications while mobile means that people are getting out and about more.
So many articles, reports, marketing pieces and commentary seem to lead into a discussion of mobility in this way, which, as a grumpy old pragmatist, irritates the hell out me.
Why? Well let’s do a quick sanity check on this cliché argument.
Did sales people with no remote and mobile connectivity previously sit around thinking “If only I had the right kit, I could go out and see customers and prospects”? No. Did service engineers and tradesmen previously sit around in depots all day rather than getting out there installing things, fixing things, measuring things and so on? Of course not. The reality is that managers, sales staff, service personnel, delivery people, health workers and many others have been working in the field for as long as such roles have existed.
So why all the fuss about mobile technology then?
Well, I have discussed this before, so rather than write it again, here is passage from an article I put together at the beginning of this year:
In order to understand [the trend towards increasing adoption of mobile technology], we need to consider some of the other changes that businesses have gone through over the past couple of decades. To begin with, for example, organisations today are now much more dependent on information technology, and access to IT systems has become either a mandatory part of many job functions or a key enabler of efficiency and effectiveness. Another trend that's had a huge impact is the degree to which everything is becoming connected electronically—people to people, businesses to businesses, markets to markets, etc.
The great thing about these trends is that people sitting at their desks or operating in some other location within the business are now much more plugged into both the immediate work environment and the wider world in which they and their business operate. Sending an email to query an order to a customer in the USA or a supplier in Korea from a desk in the UK is now something people take for granted.
Along the way, though, the mobile workforce has often been left out, as use of IT and communications has traditionally been dependent on being in a location that has physical access to the necessary systems. A big part of the discussion going on today therefore, is not so much to do with implementing mobile working per se, but getting existing mobile workforces properly connected so they can participate in business processes and communications as efficiently and effectively as their office and depot dwelling colleagues. The business logic for doing this is pretty much the same as it has been for automation in general—better business visibility, increased accuracy of information, more effective decision making, shorter process cycle times and a general lowering of operational costs and risks.
Given this, while there are undoubtedly some parts of the workforce in some companies that might become more mobile as a result of better field connectivity, that really isn’t the main point, so please let’s put aside all this woolly thinking to do with “liberation” and focus on the real business drivers.
And as part of this, I’ll take the opportunity to slide across to another of my hobby horses. I think many commentators in the industry are putting far too much emphasis on individual user views, preferences and personal requirements when advising on the implementation of mobile technology in a business context. Sure these are important, and any seasoned project manager will tell you that user acceptance can make or break the success of a new system. But let’s not get ourselves into a tail wagging the dog situation. The reality is that business and operational considerations must come first. The point of organisations implementing mobile technology, in most cases at least, is to generate business value, not to pander to user needs and wants.
My bottom line message here is not to let ourselves get too distracted by all of the trendy and romantic cliché ideas and arguments we hear so often. The best way of thinking about a mobile technology investment is to treat it exactly as you would any other IT investment.
I would be interested to hear any counter arguments to this.
so there you go, saying the emperor has no clothes, in defiance of managers and prima donnas everywhere. this is a sacred cow you are messing with. just who do you think you are?
you are, of course, exactly correct. IT and mobile technology is implemented so that site employees can work more effectively onsite, and offsite employees can work more effectively offsite. it is an enabler, but for most organizations (which lack the maturity to evolve), it is not a transformer.
your second point is probably the least popular and the most accurate description of the mobile tech state of affairs. employees of the organization, from IT tech, to clerk, to CEO, conveniently ignore one simple fact: they are paid to do a job, to serve the needs and interests of the organization.
to those people, i say this: your employer is not Santa Claus. if you want a particular tech toy, it is not in the interests of the company to buy it for you and to support it. you can buy it and support it, in your personal life and with your own money, where you get to make decisions for yourself, and deal with the consequences thereof.
the organization's primary interest in mobile technology is to enable offsite workers to meet the needs of the organization. to this end, the key determining factors in most mobile technology decisions are functionality, stability, reliability, security, manageability, and cost (scalability is significant for larger mobile groups). the order of priority varies according to the individual situation.
please note that the list does not include "shiny", "cool", "happiness", "mp3", "video", "camera" or "fashionable". most IT departments are neither staffed nor trained to support all the shiny objects people want, in addition to handling all the other IT project and support responsibilities; in fact, most IT departments are understaffed, under-trained, burned out (or close to it) and demoralized.
if the prima donnas really want all that wonderful stuff, they can get a separate budget and outsource their entire mobile tech infrastructure. the outsourcer will charge per hour on a best-effort basis, and that way everyone can see the real cost of this nonsense, but also please keep track of prima donna downtime and see how much that is costing the company.
i know what the cost and the impact is, as i have seen it at my last employer. that's why i'm starting my own business now, i got tired of working for idiots on an inadequate salary (no OT or comp time either), and getting abuse for it. once people pay hourly, they understand the real cost. saves me the ulcers.
I would imagine that your references in hobby horses could serve as the start for counter argument to your article. It is without a doubt a saying in english language but if you take the words into the modern world people might ask, what horse, why a horse? Are there many childern today that actually own a hobby horse, why not getting on a hobby console? My point is this, seeming fads or romantic notions can become hard reality if they get enough attension from people imo its a two way communication, they shape each other and time will tell the result.
The counter argument to your main point is that:
1. More productive when they are in the field - e.g. paperwork can be done onsite rather than having to spend one day a week doing it
2. As such, that's another day that the sales rep or field engineer can spend on-site - out of the office - isntead of spending every friday in the office filling in spreadsheets.
People use to work remotely before, but it was pretty rare. Now it's near common place!
Of course you're right in saying that if there is/was a ligitimate business requirement for an employee to work in the field / at home then they would - regardless if it's 2007 or 1997. However the lines are a lot more blurred and there doesn't have to be a STRONG ligitmate business case anymore - people are now (or can be) just as productive on the road in 2007 as they were in 1997.
People aren't magically 'able' to work outside of the office anymore, but there's much less of a barrier so when an employee thinks it could be useful - there's very little downside - the technology enables them to be as productive.
Our client liason team used to spend about 60% at clients, and 40% doing whatever it is that they do in the office. Since we've deployed WM6 handsets to all with Exchange 2007 ActiveSync (and the added 3G data card) it's closer to 85% of their time is spent with clients - they only come in for meetings, rather than coming in for admin/paperwork.