How to make mobility work

On-the-hoof communication is everywhere, yet organisations installing remote working systems still face awkward issues, says Mark Vernon.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

These days, mobile working is old hat - anybody who wants one can have a wireless-capable laptop and a smart phone - but the ubiquity of access to e-mail, diary and order books on the move disguises the fact that the truly mobile corporation is about much more than just flashy front-end kit.

Mobility tends to take root in organisations in one of two ways. The first is 'official' and thorough: management makes a decision; laptops, mobiles, PDAs are bought, as well as the vital associated in-house organisational and security systems; the people to be mobilised are trained and equipped to work out of the office. Often, the move is accompanied by utopian visions of corporate productivity rising alongside employee freedom, and individual effectiveness growing with a better work/life balance. There is also the potential to save money and streamline processes by improving the surrounding management systems.

The second is not so much unofficial as ad hoc. It might be that the office geek gets a smart gizmo for Christmas that others then desire and deploy. Or it might be that management goes off at half-cock: it buys into the mobility vision insofar as it deploys some wireless kit, but then baulks at the cost and complexity of the back-office systems and the training required to make the vision work. Faced with the prospect of no longer being able to see an office full of industrious underlings each morning, managers can get cold feet and decide that mobility must be kept on a tight leash.

The ad hoc route is more common than the official, and this is a cause for concern. Few would doubt the theoretical benefits of equipping people for the work-anywhere culture (not that this is without its dangers: according to research from Avaya, nearly a third of mobile workers have lost money as a result of missing a message, and more than half have missed a meeting). The concern is that the move to true mobility isn't trivial; it requires everything from secure, always-available IT connectivity to the transformation of our work culture and management processes. And it's unclear that the former can be relied on or the latter achieved.

Consider, first, the technological aspects. What kind of mobility systems are companies implementing? Take the work that Siemens Communications is undertaking for the UK civil service. It is equipping 110,000 civil servants in Whitehall with an IP profile - that is, a mobile computer identity that moves effortlessly around the organisation with them. So, if they are working at home, or in a different office, or move to another department, the individual can immediately log in without having to gain special access or be allocated a new ID by the IT department.

'The selection of a technology partner that understood the changing dynamic requirements of a modern flexible civil service was vital for us,' says Ray Suttle, head of managed telecommunications services at the Office of Government Commerce. 'We were pleased to have a solution provider that acknowledged the need to ensure that legacy investment decisions could be used to complement our new service requirements without the need for substantial disruption to a service used 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.'

Consider the work at Continental Airlines to mobilise cabin crews and pilots with wireless PDAs to help them share, say, flight information more effectively. The worry here, after 9/11, is security, particularity in relation to employees with access to operational data, passenger details and flight plans. 'Some of our employees had three or four different icons on their desktops to use for different remote access and security scenarios - it was extremely confusing,' explains Stacey Thomas, senior manager of communications technology. 'Our goal was a one-click remote access solution that was secure and easy for us to manage.' Continental found this in a mobile-data service from Fiberlink.

Or take imaging and copier technology distributor Ikon, a company that has more than 600 field-service technicians making 2,500-plus service visits a day throughout the UK. An application from Dexterra means that data on products, customers and trouble-shooting can follow these roving technicians as they move around the country making their calls. And slick systems integration means that the average parts order now takes only seconds instead of five minutes, saving 15,700 man-minutes each day and more than £40,000 per year in telephony costs.

A different kind of workforce flexibility is found at Kleinwort Benson's Channel Islands division. The bank has many high-net-worth individual clients, wanting 'home visits' from fiduciary managers, investment staff and client advisers. Again, the issue is how to connect them to central banking systems flexibly (staff use a variety of mobile devices), globally (they may be travelling around the world) and securely. This last requirement is particularly important. Indeed, banks tend to be risk-averse and are, in large part, waiting on mobile technology because they perceive it as too great a security threat.

For this operation, Andre Gorvel, head of information security, opted for a system from OpenHand. 'We are very aware of our exposure in this area,' he says, explaining that the bank cannot risk customer data loss resulting from device theft or hacking - the issue that stopped the bank buying BlackBerry PDAs. 'OpenHand prevents information being stored on devices and keeps it secure centrally.' And OpenHand's mobile e-mail function can operate with different networking standards, so all the bank's globe-trotting staff are contactable via e-mail without any compromise in the level of service that their wealthy clients expect.

So companies are going mobile, but to achieve specific ends. Depending on which research you believe, perhaps half of UK businesses have mobile workers. A second point is that mobile technology is certain to improve in terms of devices, connectivity and manageability. Indeed, the technology of mobile is, if anything, at least one step ahead of organisations' ability, or willingness, to use it. But this is where the concerns begin.

Security is the most obvious one. 'Security vulnerabilities are increasing in number and severity,' says Andrew Brown, programme manager at IDC, 'and the continuing rise of mobile devices only exacerbates the situation.'

The mobile security threat can take many forms. Devices can be lost or stolen; they are vulnerable to Peeping Toms, who can listen on the radio exchange of data traffic; the plethora of devices connecting ad hoc can compromise corporate infrastructures with bugs; and software patches and virus upgrades are hard to instal, since network managers often simply do not know that devices are there.

When the Netsky virus erupted last year, it rapidly overloaded the mobile network at pharmaceutical technology company Colorcon, because laptops could not be locked down. 'It caused disruption to one of our mail servers for about four or five hours while we tracked down the infected machines,' says Russ Ryan, the firm's global Windows administrator.

Little wonder that research from Citrix found that 42% of senior executives see data security as a major drawback to flexible working. 'It does affect adoption,' says Paul Burke, senior product manager for mobility, adding that often there is a trade-off to be made between usability and security: the more security you add, the more connection speeds slow.

Says Peter Cochrane, CEO of Concept Lab: 'You need a security partner who comes in through the front door and takes your organisation apart.' His point is that the greatest security risks are internal and little to do with mobility: the employee with a pass who leaks information, say, or the software engineer who builds back doors into an application. But mobility will force companies to address them.

Security, then, leads naturally to the question of management. This is a far-ranging issue, but the fundamental point is that mobility changes the nature of the organisation. Says Dr Carsten Sorensen of the London School of Economics: 'New networking services provided by, for example, mobile phone conversation, e-mails and SMS cut through old organisational structures like a hot knife through butter.'

Netonomy, which sponsored a recent report by Dr Sorensen, argues that businesses should implement an effective wireless asset management (WAM) strategy and treat wireless assets like any other valuable business resource.

However, management is also about people - managers and employees. Take employees first. Although it seems true that mobility heals many working ills, it comes with side-effects. For example, the Economist Intelligence Unit and IBM recently spoke to more than 350 remote workers in 29 European countries. They found that nearly half feel they lack access to what might be called corporate social capital - that is, 'coffee machine conversations' and the informal networks of the office.

Explains Eric Lesser, IBM human capital management leader: 'This informal collaboration is vital to get ahead and to form relationships with colleagues. In addition, workers can feel alienated and under-appreciated when working away from the office because of a lack of appropriate managerial support, technologies, skills and performance measurements necessary to work effectively and productively.'

Mobile technology can mitigate some of these problems. Cochrane of Concept Lab believes that hi-fi telephony - a product of the broadband revolution that facilitates phone conversations in pin-sharp CD quality stereo - helps people connect more effectively because they can communicate emotionally as well as factually. Other companies are using technology such as instant messaging and video conferencing to have virtual coffee breaks - regular times when mobile workers can meet online to exchange news and gossip.

The deeper, cultural problems, though, are the ones that management must solve. It is, in part, a question of the work environment, explains Peter Thomson, director of the Future Work Forum at Henley Management College. If employees think that what counts for their bosses is simply being at work, then they will grow anxious about more flexible work practices; the work/life readjustments and productivity benefits may never be realised. On the other hand, if managers can learn to trust and empower employees, relinquishing micro-management control over them and be seen to do so, mobility can begin to take off.

So mobility makes managers - bad managers, that is - sweat too. 'When knowledge workers become more flexible, it shows up bad management,' says Thomson. The productive knowledge workers who thrive on mobile ways of working will gravitate towards better managed, better mobilised companies. 'Mobility challenges the board to think through the kind of work culture they want. Dickensian management will be exposed and results-oriented management will be rewarded,' he concludes.

Now, if mobility made for better management, that really would be a revolution.


Do ...

- Make it easy for your employees: hide mobile applications behind a single and usable interface.

- Put flexible working into HR policies: mobility needs managing, and it is also a selling point when recruiting.

- Work out how to measure the productivity of home-working employees (the key is to focus on outputs).

- Educate employees: they need to know everything from how to use the technology to where and when they should use it.

- Turn your BlackBerry off, sometimes.

Don't ...

- Believe that wireless connections are invariably easy to use and always on: like the weather, connectivity can be changeable and you need to adapt quickly.

- Think that mobile is a no-brainer: some technology, like voice-over IP, can save thousands; but some can involve significant extra costs.

- See mobility as just a work/life balance issue; it can also boost productivity, staff retention, service flexibility and management effectiveness.

- Assume that deploying firewalls and anti-virus software fixes the security threat; detailed policies covering use are required.

- Leave your laptop in a taxi.


Technology for the mobile organisation

Convergence A cluster of technologies that aim to integrate voice and data services: it allows anything from accessing an ERP system as easily as e-mail to redirecting voice messages to a PDA.

Dial-up The slow way of connecting to the office, dependent on opening a dedicated phone line between the remote site and the office. Apart from being slow, it is also difficult to make secure. For emergency back-up only.

Encryption Essential security technology that scrambles data over wireless networks, though the tougher the encryption, the slower will be the transmission rates.

IM Instant messaging: you type a message into one window, and it will appear simultaneously in a window on your interlocutor's PC.

Voice over IP (VoIP) - voice and data transmission that goes over telephone wires but, like the internet, sends the information in packets. This makes for all kinds of benefits from cost-reduction (like the web, it is telephony 'always on') and mobile identities (logging in becomes a matter of just plug-and-play) to call quality (so-called hi-fi telephony).

PDA Personal Digital Assistant or a handheld computer; anything from a BlackBerry to a Palm Pilot.

SMS Text messages - not just for the kids but used by anyone from traders wanting prices to procurement managers closing purchases.

WiFi/3G/GSM/ GPRS/xDSL These are different forms of broadband connectivity suited to a variety of environments and applications. Check a search engine such as Google to find out more.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime