Mobility through the front door

Spend time at any international airport or rail terminus and there will be plenty of people checking and sending emails from PDAs, laptop computers or mobile phones.

But research among CIOs suggests that many of these travelling executives are doing so without the input – or even the support – of their corporate IT departments. And both the user and the organisation are rarely aware of the real cost of running the device, let alone any return on investment (ROI) justification.

The survey of 390 IT decision makers by networking company Omnetica found that 91% of companies are making use of mobile devices at some level of their structure. But 60% of respondees have not calculated any ROI from using them. The research also suggests that relatively few companies have worked out a coherent strategy for mobile devices or applications, with growth of both being driven by ad-hoc purchases and small scale deployments – especially of mobile email.

“Companies are not doing this strategically. It is happening more by stealth,” says Fausto Amoroso, VP of marketing at Omnetica. “People use devices they buy to access the corporate network.”

Although often sound, the business drivers for mobility projects are hard to measure. Those surveyed said mobile use was justified as it increased the flexibility of work, improved employee productivity and increased responsiveness to customer needs. Email was the most commonly used application, cited by 65% of companies. But the true percentage of mobile email users may be higher, as businesses might not know at a central level whether staff have remote email access.

The mobile network operators and the device manufacturers have invested heavily in creating email applications that work seamlessly with messaging infrastructures such as Microsoft Exchange, as well as ISP and webmail providers. Even devices such as the BlackBerry, most often associated with a dedicated infrastructure, comes in consumer versions that can be set up to work with business email through a simple web interface.

For IT departments, the willingness of staff to build their own mobile working solutions, without or even despite the IT department, creates a number of problems.

Security is one issue that is often overlooked. Not all mobile devices have adequate data security tools, especially those that store emails locally. IT managers are also worried, though, about resilience, reliability and cost. As many as 30% of the companies surveyed by Omnetica cited security as the greatest barrier to adopting mobile technologies, with viruses as the chief worry.

Cost and maintenance were barriers for almost a quarter of companies. Half of those citing cost and maintenance as a concern were worried about managing the mobile infrastructure. A third worried about the cost of buying and maintaining the mobile devices themselves.

Door policy

Yet despite the concerns, few companies appear to set out to measure the benefits of mobile working projects. According to Gartner analyst Ken Delaney, this should come as no real surprise. Often, even when companies carry out an ROI study before deploying a new technology, they fail to go back to measure whether it delivered the expected benefits. Mobile projects are no exception.

“Most decisions are made based on competitive pressures, obvious uses for the technology or because of the drive to improve customer service,” he says.

Gartner believes, when it comes to automation projects, including mobility, project cost rather than ROI is the most important criterion. But Delaney points out that some technology – particularly mobile technology – is designed explicitly with software that can be set up without the corporate IT department’s input. He cites the BlackBerry as one such example.

This introduction of IT through the front door makes it hard for businesses to allocate the correct resources to mobile projects and measure their effectiveness. “Individuals buy devices themselves, but expect IT to support them,” says Duncan Ledwith, Microsoft UK’s head of mobility. “It is a headache for IT departments.”

If IT is to control technology introductions it needs to balance being responsive to users’ needs, with operating within a corporate usage framework. The ‘front door’ adoption is being driven by “the need for flexibility,” says Ledwith, “and that is a business imperative.”

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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