16 July 2008

Why I'm a sceptic on enterprise mobility

Are you an enterprise mobile sceptic? When I start listening to the evangelists for ‘mobile everywhere’ strategies, I am. I’ve heard quite a few recently, and they make mobility sound like a solution looking for a problem.

That might sound more than a little Luddite, but hear me out. You see, there’s mobility and there’s mobility, so let’s highlight the kinds of mobility that I’m not talking about.

When a business spends money on a technology, it wants to be clear what the return on that investment is, or is at least likely to be.

For example, if I make widgets I need to deliver them. This means I need to pay someone to take those boxes to paying customers. Without that vital process, I have no business, so I need to equip the delivery drivers with the kinds of technology that both adds to their productivity and makes their lives easier. This is not the kind of mobility that triggers my scepticism.

Similarly, the sales execs need to be out and about talking to people. They need phones and other communications devices to do their jobs. That’s a given, they’re essential. Again, this isn’t the kind of mobility which makes my teeth stand on end.

The problem I have is with many IT industry companies, often large services and/or telecoms companies. Often they’ll own a network and so need to flog hardware, software and services that will add traffic to that network, helping to amortise the investment. To their hammer-wielding marketing people, everything looks like a nail.

I hear them say that there’s huge growth potential in mobility (a statement which experience teaches us usually means there’s not much out there already). Maybe so -- although it sounds like the same story I was hearing from a very large networking company 15 years ago -- and again 10 years ago, and so on.

Despite the accessibility of mobile technologies and undoubted benefits they bring to a large number of people, mobility isn’t something that everyone in a company needs. And most companies presumably agree, since most haven’t bought into mobile technologies in a major way. If they had, the vendors wouldn’t be talking about the amount of potential that exists.

That’s because most people’s jobs aren’t mobile and they’re unlikely to benefit much if at all from being asked to do their jobs wirelessly. Most people sit in front of a monitor most of the time, processing data, making decisions. They interact with the people in the office because they’re physically close to them for that explicit purpose. Mobility is of marginal benefit.

Don’t get me wrong: for me being connected while mobile is a great productivity gain when I’m working with my laptop on the train, in a hotel lobby or coffee shop. But I won’t make the mistake of imagining that the way I work is typical of most.

For the CIO, perhaps a bigger brake on the development of a mobility-for-all strategy is that a loosening of control over devices with an ability -- propensity, even -- to return from the big bad world onto the company network laden with viruses and other malware is not an attractive prospect. Not to mention the cost of managing them all.

This draws me to conclude that CIOs are more likely to lean towards the idea of developing a strategy which results in expenditure on mobile software and hardware only in cases where the job demands it.

Which is where we came in -- and why I remain a sceptic when vendors bearing mobile strategies come a-knockin’. Until, that is, I hear otherwise.

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