Enable mobile workers by enabling digital business: Eight tips for CIOs

From 33,000 feet up, traveling 420 miles per hour, expert contributor Harvey Koeppel offers CIOs eight tips for keeping pace with mobile workers.

When Apple brought the iPhone to market almost seven years ago, one has to wonder if anyone foresaw what the eventual impact upon consumers and businesses would become. Steve Jobs had an inkling. At the iPhone's public debut on June 29, 2007, he boldly proclaimed:

"An iPod, a phone, an internet mobile communicator... these are NOT three separate devices. And we are calling it iPhone! Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone. And here it is."

My point is not to extoll the virtues of Apple or its technologies, laudable as they may or may not be depending upon your techno-religious beliefs. The introduction of laptops, tablets and smartphones can, however, collectively be thought of as a turning point in the way we work and play; these technologies have ushered in the present-day phenomenon that we commonly refer to as "the mobile workforce." Really?

Allow me a brief digression on mobile workers. Those of you who have read my past columns know by now that I like to use historical perspective as a means of better understanding current states and future trends with the ultimate goal of helping our IT community ask the good questions and leverage the right technologies to enable meaningful business value.

Please consider that the word peddler (perhaps the first mobile worker), which entered the English language in 1225, likely derived from the Latin word "pedis" referring to a petty trader traveling on foot. Other early synonyms for "peddler" included words like canvasser, cheapjack, monger, higler, tinker, gypsy and solicitor and were used to describe a travelling seller of goods across the countryside to people living in small towns and villages. Of additional note, these pre-Industrial-Age mobile workers, generally acting as individual agents selling artisanal-based products, were often associated with dishonest and/or petty criminal activities. (Source: Peddler, Wikipedia)

The "traveling salesman" (the Industrial Age equivalent of the mobile worker) emerged as a popular profession in the United States during the late 1700s and flourished throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, very much aligned with the evolution and growth of large manufacturing firms like National Cash Register, Eastman Kodak, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Carnegie Steel and Burroughs. These companies developed modern sales and sales management methodologies and techniques that paralleled those of the newly emerging disciplines of mass production -- the state-of-the-art business process model of its time. (Source: Excerpted and adapted from Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America, Walter A. Friedman, Harvard University Press, 2004.)

In the world of digital business, mobile workers are not just peddlers or traveling salespeople -- they can be anyone, any groups or in many cases everyone who works for the enterprise.

As the Internet, broadband communications and mobile devices became ubiquitous and further fueled by social media, cloud, big data and real-time analytics, the Industrial Age has morphed into the Information Age; some would even say we are in the post-Information Age. Regardless of what label we apply, during the past 25 years we have seen a radical transformation of technologies, of the enterprises that those technologies enable and, importantly, of the workforce that leverages those technologies in ways no one over the age of 30 could have learned about in kindergarten. Industrialized enterprises are evolving into digital businesses.

Let's look at what all this means.

  • Supply chains are becoming supply webs.
  • Vendors are becoming partners.
  • Customers are becoming collaborators.
  • Human resources are acquired and often do their jobs from where they live or play as opposed to where the office happens to be located.
  • Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is not just about using your personal phone or laptop at work; it is also about bringing your personal network of co-workers, partners, friends and family to work with you.

In the world of digital businesses, mobile workers are not just peddlers or traveling salespeople -- mobile workers can be anyone, any groups or in many cases everyone who works for the enterprise. Advertising and marketing campaigns are not only focused on demographic segments but are targeted to specific individuals as well, who are located in a specific place at a specific point in time. (Yes, Virginia, they are watching you.) The accounting department need not be located on the 14th floor -- its members can work from anyplace that suits their needs at any particular point in time.

Build for digital businesses: Eight guidelines

For CIOs, these rapidly changing dynamics represent significant business and technology challenges -- and, of course, opportunities. IT executives should, if they are not already, begin to consider the following:

1. Digital businesses and the mobile workers who support them will require a re-thinking of core business processes. Many traditional processes were designed around implementing efficient transaction execution capabilities. Mobile applications are typically designed and implemented to enhance customer/user experience and build relationships that require different information and technology architectures.

2. Successful design and implementation of mobile apps calls for factors well beyond simply deploying another front-end device. Information provided through mobile devices needs to be made available across the full range of channels, e.g., Web, branch/store, call center, VRU [voice response unit], etc. and information processed by these channels must be made available to the mobile user, usually in real-time.

3. Most application architectures and supporting infrastructures were designed and implemented before mobile apps were commonplace. User identification, authentication, data security and entitlements to functions and data will generally need to be reviewed and enhanced to handle new types of users, new types of data, new networking and data management requirements.

4. People tend to lose mobile devices. Programs, data and entitlements stored on these devices must be secured from unintended access.

5. Provisioning and de-provisioning of devices, applications and data that are owned by either the enterprise or the user must be accommodated. This can be especially challenging when the same applications are handling both company and personal information, e.g., email accounts, calendars, contacts, bookmarks, file-sharing sites, etc.

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6. Mobile devices and apps routinely deliver on the promise of anything, anywhere at any time. For many enterprises, such broad accessibility and high availability can generate orders of magnitude increases in transaction and data volume that must be handled, stored and transmitted across internal and external networks. Increases in processing, storage and communications capabilities and associated costs must be carefully planned for.

7. Skills and competencies of IT and user staff required to design, code, test and deploy mobile apps are different than those required to support more traditional mainframe, client-server or Web-based development efforts. Hiring, training and professional development of people with the right skills is crucial.

8. Mobile apps are commonly provided by small third-party firms that are highly innovative but may not fit within typical enterprise procurement and vendor management standards and guidelines. A careful review of these important governance and risk management policies and procedures should be performed to ensure prudent use of appropriate resources while maintaining compliance with internal and external operating requirements.

Clearly a lot to be done -- but equally clear is the opportunity value of getting it right.

Let me know what you think. Post a comment or drop me a note at hrkoeppel@aol.com. Discuss, debate or even argue -- let's continue the conversation…

BTW, most of this column was researched and written on a laptop while traveling at about 420 miles per hour at an altitude of 33,000 feet.

This was first published in February 2014

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