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Business communications have never been better, so we are told. The combination of pervasive, high speed connectivity and a variety of portable devices untethers the workforce and enables real time communication, higher levels of responsiveness and better collaboration. In theory.

With over 80 per cent of organizations having a mobile workforce which consists of most users on laptops, such communications mechanisms are simply a necessity to ensure work gets done. What capabilities are chosen, how the technologies are managed, and who gains access to what, is another matter.

Since there are so many different ways of communicating, it can be difficult to choose what is relevant, and to define a communications strategy that is easy to roll out, maintain, and use. Beyond web browsing and email, we have web conferencing, voice over IP, instant messaging, blogging and social networking applications to add to the mix.

So what good are such capabilities to the laptop-enabled masses, and how should the corporation exploit their full potential without being hampered by the limitations of such devices? What applications make sense – and when might they not?

Just because a user can work anywhere, any time doesn’t mean they should, and this needs to be taken into account. To kick off the discussion, the following table looks at the pros and cons of communications mechanisms available to the laptop-enabled mobile workforce.

Capability Pros Cons
Email Email is an easy and efficient way for users to keep track of project news, communicate needs to team members, stay abreast of company new and happenings
Email access on laptops is readily available, and securely deployable
Always available email can be seen as obtrusive, cutting in on time away from work
Just because a worker can access email on a laptop doesnt mean he has the time to respond or act; limited battery and uncertain bandwidth when on the go magnifies the issue
Web-based applications Good web connectivity on portable devices can allow access to intranet and Internet-based information, serving as an on-the-go research tool
Internet access on the go allows employees to input data, such as expenses, or sales leads, while on the road
itself, web access does not ensure communications, let alone efficient processes
Laptops are dependent on a data connection, which may not be available
Web conferencing Web conferencing gives far-flung teams a chance to virtually work together
Web conferencing with video can (nearly) give the perception of actually having met and interacted in person
Deploying web conferencing is still a challenge across multiple platforms; uncertain bandwidth, different devices and not always available data connections create hassle
Voice over IP VoIP allows for cost-effective global voice communications, and is widely available VoIP quality can be an issue, especially for the laptop user with substandard speakers and microphone
Instant messaging IM allows for real time "conversations" which may be more efficient than back and forth emails IM conversations, especially detailed ones, can take much longer than the same conversation carried out on voice
Blogging Engages participants in informal conversations about important topics, in near real time, getting information to people when it's fresh and actionable
Can level the playing field by encouraging active contributions by all parties, either by posting or commenting
Often is taken over by executives or PR, losing the voice of the people
Employees might need training to learn appropriate content and blogging etiquette, and be encouraged to start and maintain use of the tool

The usability of such mechanisms can vary considerably, depending on both platform and connection. The features that typically differentiate one laptop from another are factors that can limit communications: no matter how tricked out a laptop is in terms of product specs and programs, all communications tools can be hampered by limitations in battery life or screen size.

Meanwhile, factors such as consistent connectivity with networks (think airplanes, subway tunnels, hotspot-free hotels and meeting rooms) can make or break large-scale file transfers or videoconferencing.

In the end, it will be the reality of the user's situation – which may vary daily – that ultimately limits the ability to deploy certain communications capabilities. This may be obvious in hindsight, but it can be too easy for an office-based decision maker to insist on IM as a communications tool for example, without considering how unreliable this can be on the road. Figuring out what to deploy to laptop users and what to expect in return can be a challenge, and needs to be planned carefully.

As a final point, communication in and of itself is not good; in fact, too much or bad communication can be a productivity destroyer. Tools for communication also take time to deploy and become part of the user routine, and in some cases, may make communicating more time consuming (do I call, email, IM or twitter this news to you so you definitely see it? I’d better use all four to make sure). Getting the balance right is often as much about formalising the tools that people want to use, or indeed are already using, as imposing some stricture from on high.

Since each enterprise will have a unique story, we'd be very interested in your experiences in choosing and deploying communications capabilities in general, and communications tools in particular – what benefits were you hoping for, and what was achieved? We'd also be curious if you have had varying deployment experiences in different parts of the organisation, and the lessons learned from that. ®

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