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Challenging the mobile clichés

An analyst rants

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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.

Freeform Dynamics Ltd

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