When it comes to providing mobile tools in the workplace, who is in charge of the big picture in your organisation?

Assuredly, when it comes to the traditional vertical applications that are easily identifiable as strategic to the business - warehouse, retail floor, service dispatch and even patient charting in healthcare - this isn't so tough a question. The productivity benefits are fairly clear-cut. When the very nature of the business and supporting tasks are mobile, an organisation can't thrive without the mobile tools.

But how much to invest in mobile connectivity for the everyday business professional is still a hazy ROI question for many organisations. Are marketing professionals and finance folks most productive when at their desks - or at somebody's desk - or when travelling about? These are really questions for business executives in charge of determining high-level business goals and the processes that support them.

Of course, they must communicate with employees who know their jobs best in order to determine what those processes should be. Then they must align with IT, telecom and others to figure out how to get the goals executed.

ROI calculators - yeah, right
Now many vendors have "ROI calculators" on their Web sites. I did overhear a woman at a recent trade show politely state during the Q&A portion of an educational session that it was difficult to trust those, since the vendors have a vested interest in making the returns look good. She also said she was having a tough time convincing upper management about the benefits of investing, say, in wireless LANs because "once you have it, you won't want to go back," as the leader of the session offered as a deployment rationale. Points taken.

The use of mobile tools today, except for the vertical applications, is still largely being driven by an employee's desire here and there, rather than being thought out strategically, from the top down. Many IT tools have entered the enterprise this way over the years. Now, however, it's getting time for IT to align with executive management and get a mobile plan in place for the whole enterprise, that embraces productivity, mobile security and mobile management. Not only will this yield the greatest return, it will save money by eliminating redundancies on the various wireless usage plans and making best use of volume discounts.

Statistics back the case
Cisco and the Economist Intelligence Unit recently gathered some statistics that may help on this score. While the results clearly were the ones Cisco was hoping for, the survey was of 1,500 global workers, about how they perceived the relationship between productivity and mobility.

The key findings indicate individual workers do link the use of mobile technology with their job success. Thirty-one percent ranked mobile tools "critical" to job success and 44 percent ranked them "very important". And close to three-quarters asserted their efficiency could be improved by increased access to mobile tools in places where they currently have few or none.

The study indicated that employees are going to be "more mobile" in the next couple of years and would like their employers to do more for them to help improve their connectivity while on the road; about 26 percent were unsatisfied with the mobile support they receive today.

Users cited the top three mobility benefits as

  • "improved responsiveness to colleagues,"
  • "being better informed" and
  • "faster decision-making."

Mobility - as important as routing and switching?
This is all good insight and a good first step toward building an enterprise-wide mobility plan, advocated in my last newsletter. Mobility - now taking the form of internal wireless LANs, hot spot services, cellular voice and data services and smarter and more varied end-user devices - is becoming a strategic and embedded component of the enterprise IT infrastructure, just as routing, switching and security are.

Still, as we said above, most mobile deployments - other than vertical applications - tend to be driven by a user request here and there and are often expensed as a monthly reimbursable item. And much of the deployment specifics lie in the hands of the mobile providers: coverage of a certain service with adequate bandwidth may not exist where given users may need it, and it might not be available with the most appropriate mobile device for those users.

And when mobile users are off site, who's making sure that the security and management aspects of the connection and user device are under control? Good progress has been made in this area from a technology and service standpoint, but of all the various aspects of IT and networking, mobility is perhaps the most nascent in this regard.

All members of the industry must participate to bring maturity to the mobile evolution. For enterprises to simply invest in more mobile tools to boost productivity without thinking through the management, security and cost ramifications isn't wise. They might want to spring for hot-spot access for all their travelling employees, for example. But is this safe? It can be: but policies and procedures must be in place first.

And traditionally consumer-focused mobile network operators will eventually need to be more enterprise-focused and flexible to accommodate business requirements. Let's hope they're not so consumed with merger details that they back-burner their enterprise efforts.