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For SMBs, mobility strategy spells business value, higher productivity

Is there a correlation between how much small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) use mobile applications for work and their productivity or business growth?

IDC surveyed 744 U.S. SMBs (the number of respondents was split evenly between the two groups that make up that sector) to get to the bottom of that question. According to the analyst firm’s 2015 U.S. SMB Mobile Application Usage Survey, conducted in August 2014, there does appear to be some correlation, at least in the small-business group: “Outperforming” small businesses (those with 1 to 99 employees), or those that reported net gains in revenue in the past year, were 6% more likely to use tablet apps and 13% more likely to use smartphone apps than the market average.

Interestingly, however, outperforming midmarket firms (100 to 999 employees) were only slightly more likely to use mobile apps than the average, indicating no correlation. One conclusion that can be drawn from this, according to Chris Chute, research vice president at IDC: Medium-sized firms are more similar to larger enterprises when it comes to how they consume mobile software and services.

But this apparent correlation between revenue growth and mobility has less to do with application usage than how these outperforming SMBs have positioned mobility and mobile development as a strategic priority, said Chute. “For U.S. SMBs, those that are growing the top line are more likely to have prioritized mobile strategy development in 2015 than the market average,” wrote Chute in a presentation on the survey. The stats: Outperforming small businesses are 58% more likely than the average to prioritize mobile support as a critical spending priority; midsized outperformers are 60% more likely to do so. This shows that SMBs’ attitude toward mobility as a strategic priority is evolving, said Chute. While in the past SMBs were viewed as lacking the need or means to deploy a companywide mobile infrastructure, the advent of smartphones and BYOD changed all that: “Enterprise mobility management vendors emerged, offering customers a cloud-delivered service that could provide basic MDM capabilities for Android or iOS devices,” he wrote.

The survey homed in on SMBs’ tablet app usage between 2013 and 2014, because IDC considers the tablet the most disruptive end-user computing device. The following are key findings in the firm’s analysis of the fastest-growing apps:

  • While midsized businesses tend to use tablet apps more than small businesses (average usage rate of 35% versus 17% for the latter), the number of these apps used by small firms has risen from 3 to 4 in the past year.
  • Besides email and personal productivity functions, payment functions were among the strongest apps used on tablets for both groups (meaning they were above the average app usage rate). IDC concluded from this that tablet apps resonated with small and medium-sized businesses in the retail industry in particular to help mobilize and enable their sales staff.
  • For small businesses, email, industry-specific/customized, office productivity and IT asset management apps are among the fastest-growing applications.
  • For midmarket firms, office productivity, payment, engineering, accounting and ERP apps are the fastest-growing tablet apps.

There are many insights to be taken from this data, IDC concludes. One, the growth in industry-specific apps, particularly with small firms, indicates that IT innovators (those that embrace new IT) are finding business value from using tablets for industry-specific functions, according to Chute. And midmarket firms are turning to tablets for their advanced computing capabilities.

What can SMB CIOs take away from these findings? For starters, they should view mobility as a way to drive productivity levels higher, not as a security risk. Which doesn’t mean you should totally ignore those risks, Chute said. “The cost of hardware ownership can be very low, and by owning the devices companies can ensure higher levels of security,” he wrote me in an email. Because refurbished tablets, for example, are relatively inexpensive and powerful enough to run customized applications, owning these devices (rather than letting employees use their personal devices) and thus lowering levels of security risk are now within SMBs’ reach.

At the same time, such devices can help SMBs enable their role-specific employees, such as those in outbound sales or field force, and make them more productive. “[Connected devices] ensure more timely and accurate order taking and fulfillment and take payments at the time of service,” he said.