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How to Go Mobile Without Tears

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While we’re happily chewing the fat here on bCentral, how many mobile devices are being used in your company at this moment?

The fact is, with the extraordinary rise and rise of mobile working, keeping tabs on which employees are using which devices at any given time is a bit of nightmare.

Apparently, more and more of us are sneaking in our own off-the-shelf devices “under the radar”, causing havoc by synchronising super-charged handheld computers with the corporate network. Often, these devices have more computing power than several Apollo spacecraft and when they crash then unforeseen support costs escalate the IT budget into the stratosphere.

Alternatively, having downloaded the latest top secret new design specs and confidential emails into their handy handhelds, the more forgetful employees are leaving them for any interested party to read in the back of a cab.

Very few SMEs, it seems, have formulated a policed and structured mobile strategy. Yet, with the growing use of mobile devices in the workplace (research company, Gartner, reckons that by the end of 2007, 70 per cent of what it calls “office productivity workers” will carry at least three mobile devices) it’s becoming increasingly aware that lax mobile policies can seriously damage your balance sheet.

So how do you select which devices your employees need, how do you police their use and keep support costs down and how do you make the business case for buying them in the first place?

Here are some essential tips for formulating a mobile strategy without tears…

Do an audit of existing mobile devices being used by employees from mobile phones to handheld computers. Specifically check what applications are being used. Have they bought or downloaded their own software? Is it compatible with the company’s desktop applications? When they connect to the desktop and ‘synchronise’ their devices, can they do any harm to the network (e.g. is Joe in Marketing trying to upload his personal Russian character set onto his PC)? What sort of support do the devices and applications require? Could this be rationalised by standardising on equipment and programs for discrete groups of workers (i.e. some employees might need high-spec laptops which replicate the full range of Windows applications on their desktops. Others might only need small handhelds which give access to email and selected data away from the office). ‘Road warriors’ engaged in mission critical, time-sensitive work will probably require a mix of devices.

Don’t be hustled by the ‘noise’ surrounding new and emerging mobile technologies such as wireless and ‘always-on’ 3G and GPRS. When buying new mobile equipment for your workforce, look at the individual needs of your employees first and then select the most appropriate technology. If you’re in the elevator business and your engineers spend half their lives down a lift shaft, chances are ‘always-on’, round the clock connections won’t be a priority.

Don’t go for the cheapest option. Cut-price and hand-me-down portables don’t cut it in the corporate workspace and will cost you more in support and down-time in the long-term.

Test the equipment in the field. Does the equipment need to be ruggedised to withstand a sudden downpour or accidental knocks? Can you read the screen in bright sunlight? Can even the fleshiest fingered employee manipulate the keyboard without difficulty? How easy is it to synchronise with the company network? Calendar and email functions should seamlessly interact with office networks and organisation tools. Can you reply, forward and delete emails without hassle? Do you need remote printing? In which case investigate Internet based fax solutions such as ZetaFax.

How “scaleable” is the equipment? Does it need to be wireless enabled? Is it based on proven, long-lasting wireless, security and Internet standards? Choose your devices and network platforms so that you can build on the basic infrastructure over time to get maximum RoI.

Are the devices application specific or can applications and data be pushed to the portable, typically via a secure Internet connection? Companies are increasingly using Intranet and Web portals to enable employees to grab oven-ready information and applications on the hoof. But make sure that information is formatted to suit individual devices. A postage stamp screen on a handheld computer or mobile phone might not cope well with a rich multi-media page downloaded from the company’s internal Web pages.

Make sure that employees get optimum use out of their mobiles. Initiate training days and encourage the swapping of experiences, user tips and potential pitfalls. Create a user community on internal Web pages where experiences can be discussed and patch in IT managers and back office staff.

Make sure you get maximum value out of the equipment. If mobile workers are only using their laptops etc for checking email and calendars and are still returning to the office to pick up essential documents, look at how they can tap in remotely to the corporate network for specs, maps, customer details etc.

If you’re asking field workers to replace clipboard and biro with portable devices they might well resist if they are IT novices. Get around this by strictly limiting the applications used in the first phase. For example, push mission critical information (stock availability, special offers, client details etc) out to the devices for a period, until employees get to rely on the input. Only get them to upload their own information when they are comfortable with the technology. Lock down and pare down applications to be task specific so that usability is a ‘no-brainer’.

Provide at least the same level of support to mobile workers as you would your desk-based workers. They will probably need more. You might need to troubleshoot 24/7 for certain groups of road warrior who might need to connect to the corporate network in different time zones on dodgy connections.

Security is key. Ensure data is frequently synchronised and backed up via the office server in case of loss or damage, ensure users password protect data on mobiles and use encryption where appropriate for sensitive data.

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