Creating an agile workforce

Mobile working has become ubiquitous. From teleworkers accessing a corporate intranet via their home PC to field workers using handheld devices for sales and service calls, the freedom for employees to work outside the physical boundaries of the office – at a time and place that suits them and the business – has become firmly established in corporate culture.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Increasingly, organisations are looking to extend these ‘agile working’ capabilities out to a far wider cross-section of their workforce. This includes delivering business intelligence information to mobile managers, setting up virtual meetings so employees can be involved in decision-making processes from any location, offering online training that can be accessed from any browser, and equipping employees with laptops, PDAs and other devices enabled for wireless connectivity so that they can access corporate email and other applications.

What is fuelling this move towards greater mobility? One of the most compelling arguments is that by opening up enterprise applications to both a fixed-location and mobile audience, the efficiency and productivity goals that drove investment in those applications in the first place have a greater chance of being achieved.

“Paper-based communication is dead, frozen,” says Nick Jones, an analyst at research company Gartner. “The real-time enterprise will make much higher use of laptops, PDAs and other mobile devices because it means they can capture data at source and feed it back into the relevant systems immediately.” Gartner predicts that by 2005, between 40% and 60% of applications will be delivered in some mobile form: whether this is across mobile devices such as PDAs, enhanced mobile phones and laptop computers, or via an Internet browser accessed from a dial-up or wireless network.

One major Irish insurance company, for example, has opened up its application approval systems to its house-to-house sales team. Previously, agents calling on prospective customers would help them fill in application forms, before returning these to one of the company’s offices. There, a data entry clerk would input the details and run them through credit checking and premium calculation systems. The sales person would then came back to the customer with an answer – two or three weeks later. Now, employees enter details into a wireless PDA while visiting the customer. The information is sent for processing and customers given an answer there and then.

Organisations like these are trailblazers in creating an agile workforce. And the greatest benefits are being achieved by those businesses that embrace agile working as a cultural, as well as a technological change. Furthermore, the decisions are now often being driven at CEO level. “The first step starts in the boardroom, because it’s a strategy decision: ‘We want people to be mobile’,” says Andy Barker, marketing manager for Mobility at hardware company Fujitsu-Siemens.

UK communications and IT services company BT, for example, boasts Europe’s single largest remote workforce, consisting of 55,000 workers that have a high level of workplace and time flexibility and 5,000 home workers. This required a dramatic shift in corporate culture. “It’s a move towards an employee-centric view. Rather than equipping a desk saying, ‘this is someone’s phone, this is someone’s PC’, it’s about, ‘this is someone’s identity and they can take it anywhere’,” says BT’s chief technology officer Phil Flavin.

Corporate concerns

But despite the apparent benefits of a more agile workforce – increased productivity, universal access to data and applications and better use of employees’ time while outside the office – many organisations still harbour concerns about deploying wireless devices more widely than simply supplying employees with mobile phones.

Without doubt, the biggest of these is security. “The impact of losing the physical device itself is considerably less than the impact of losing the data on it,” explains Flavin at BT. “The device is the means of access to the corporate network, so security is an overriding concern for customers.”

Agile workers, booming market

As the number of mobile workers soars, the market for the technology that will enable them to do this is also set for substantial growth. According to market research company IDC, the worldwide mobile office communications market will grow to be worth $74.3 billion in 2006, almost triple its value in 2002. Which areas will see the greatest investment?

Broadband: One of the basic requirements for remote working is high-speed access to corporate data. Broadband not only enables employees to get into corporate applications more quickly, but also opens up access to more advanced applications such as unified messaging or teleconferencing. According to IDC, the global broadband market will be worth just over $30 billion by 2006.

Dial-up access: At present, dial-up access is the most common way of accessing applications remotely, frequently used by employees working from home or a hotel. Dial-up access will remain the largest sub-segment of the mobile communications market for some years to come, only to be overtaken by broadband around 2005. Consequently this market will see much slower growth, according to IDC, increasing in value from $15.6 billion in 2002 to $24.1 billion in 2006.

Mobile data services: Currently, many employees’ definition of mobile working is confined to voice communications. As the data transfer speeds of mobile networks improve, for example with the introduction of ‘always on’ third-generation networks, the use of mobile devices for accessing corporate data will increase considerably. IDC says worldwide spend in this area will explode from $1.4 billion in 2002 to $12.6 billion in 2006.

Public or visitor-based networks (VBNs): Visitor-based networks – high-speed networks that enable on-the-move employees to work remotely from airports, conference centres and hotels – are set for staggering growth, according to IDC. Although the market is relatively new, demand for VBNs will reach $6 billion by 2006, compared with just $0.5 billion in 2002.

IP VPNs: To insulate employees from the security threats posed by mobile working, organisations can set up dedicated networks to cater for mobile or remote workers, and these frequently take the form of an IP-based virtual private network, or IP VPN. As well as offering dedicated connectivity to the corporate network, VPNs offer ‘value-add’ security services such as firewalls, digital certificates and single sign-on. These value added services, says IDC, will grow to be worth $1.5 billion by 2006, compared with $0.4 billion in 2002.


Another focus of concern is on how to establish a return on investment profile for the broad efforts involved in building and managing the agile workforce infrastructure. As Alistair McLeod, customer development director at Orange Business Solutions, points out: “It is hard to make a case for return on investment [from mobile devices and applications] because much of it is based around intangibles – for example, the ability to access email on the move. There’s also a fear of uncontrollable costs. Because support might be usage-based, for example, an organisation may struggle to know how much that will be?”

Management is also an issue – as PDAs, laptops and mobile phones used by employees proliferates across various lines of business, how can IT managers and administrators keep up with software updates and security patches across an ever wider variety of platforms? Since individuals have often chosen the type of PDA or mobile phone they use, this can create challenges as organisations attempt to incorporate these non-standardised devices into their agile workforce initiatives.

The vast number of devices available to enable mobile working has led many organisations to focus managing on the hardware aspect of a deployment rather than the tasks that the device will help the employee accomplish. “The device is the enabler, the end brick,” advises Barker at Fujitsu-Siemens. “Don’t start with the device and work back. Work on the applications your business will use, and then establish what the best device would be.”

Clearly, the pioneers of mobile working – companies such as Fedex, TNT and UPS – whose workforce is largely mobile by its very nature – have already addressed these challenges, often with bespoke systems. But for those organisations where mobile working is becoming an important extension of their traditional operations, it is best to start with ‘ring-fenced’ investments in technologies that will show a speedy return on investment, according to Jones at Gartner. “What’s happening today? People are experimenting with pilot projects of 10 to 50 mobile devices, and these are meeting with success,” says Jones. “Organisations can then use these projects as a proof point for more extensive roll-outs.”

But as the technology to support agile working progresses, the biggest challenge may be psychological. “Many organisations are put off by the fact that some of the earlier moves into mobile data involved six-figure bills from systems integrators and management consultancies,” says MacLeod at Orange. “The reality now is that solutions have progressed – there are more technologies with a ‘light-touch’ integration profile, and the core enterprise application vendors have made their systems more mobile friendly.”

Furthermore, the physical inhibitors, such as mobile network data transfer speeds and the reliability of wireless networks, are being addressed as these technologies evolve, encouraging adoption on a wider basis.

As that occurs organisations are creating a seamless experience for their employees – wherever and whenever they happen to be working.

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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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