A lot of coverage of enterprise Wi-Fi concentrates on the technical issues. Is it secure enough? Does it integrate with the wired network? Which protocols should you choose?

Some people, however, think these factors are completely subsidiary to the real issues:

  • Does it save money?
  • Can the corporation trust it enough to use it fully?
  • Can the business structure handle the changes it will wreak?
  • Can users and IT departments agree on what it is for and how it should be implemented?

Get those issues wrong, and any technology is doomed.

Wi-Fi fears"The best Wi-Fi projects focus on people not gadgets," says a recent report from the Economist Intelligence Unit. The report reckons that security worries are a major issue to deal with, but so are training and expectations, with some managers holding contradictory views on security and benefits.

The Economist spoke to 309 senior executives, not IT mangers, so the report gives us an idea of the thinking of people who are influential, if not exactly informed. It is well worth looking at it, and comparing it with figures from Infonetics Research, who speak to CIOs and IT managers.

According to the EIU, around 41 percent of companies have implemented some form of wireless technology, though in the majority of cases, this is still at an evaluation stage. 41 percent also thought that mobile computing would make a significant impact on their business. "People are beginning to reinvent business processes," said Gareth Lofthouse, senior editor at the EIU.

As you would expect, smaller companies move faster. Infonetics found that the average size of companies not deploying Wi-Fi was larger than that of those that have it.

Costs or benefitsWhy do it? Far more managers think of mobile computing as bringing benefits, rather than saving costs, says the EIU. They want it to support flexible working (46 percent), or reduced "deadtime" for traveling employees (40 percent) or generally "increasing productivity" (37 percent).

This is well and good, but shows (not surprisingly) that these execs are a good few months behind marketing fashion in the Wi-Fi world, and the thinking of the study sponsor, Nortel. This year's hot justification is big cost savings promised by integrating voice onto the wireless LAN, with Nortel claiming spectacular savings. Only ten percent of these managers thought that wireless LANs could reduce infrastructure costs.

These managers think of wireless LAN as a cost which has to be justified on productivity grounds, so cost is the biggest barrier they see (quoted by 57 percent). Security comes second at 49 percent. Integration was also seen as a problem, as the execs did not want to be juggling devices for different kinds of access.

Contradictory viewsBut there are signs that the managers the EIU spoke to are inconsistent in their views, as the full implications of the technology haven't yet sunk in. They want mobility to allow "flexible working", which surely means working at home, or while traveling. However, when asked what the downside would be for individuals, the biggest worry (26 percent) was that "work would impinge on private time".

Perhaps it's good enough for the workers, but a bit of a threat if it affects the executives.

The positive spin, of course, is that UK legislation requires "family friendly" policies, allowing parents to request the chance to work at home.

However, these kinds of issues may not have been though through. "Unfortunately, employees can be something of an afterthought," said Lofthouse. Sixty-five percent of companies have no training for their mobile users, and 45 percent have no specific IT helpdesk support.

Security perceptionsSecurity was another area where executives had contradictory views. A majority (54 percent) thought their mobile technologies were secure, while a lot of them (45 percent) actually had no specific security policy for mobility.

Infonetics agrees that security is a barrier, so it is perceived by IT managers as well as board members. It's quoted as a reason to hold back by 48 percent of the big companies that Infonetics spoke to. However, this may be due to media scares, said Richard Webb, directing analyst at Infonetics Research: "There has been a lot of coverage of earlier problems, and less on the solutions that are currently hardening up."

Webb reckons that IT staff are likely to be more cautious than executives. "IT people say it is not as ready as you think," he said. "It is they that step back and ask for the business case."

However, in some cases, IT staff are actually pushing for wireless, and security is actually one of the drivers they quote: 30 percent of the Infonetics survey said that eliminating insecure rogue access points was a major reason to put in Wi-Fi. They don't want Wi-Fi but given the rise of "unofficial" Wi-Fi they will accept that "official" Wi-Fi is the lesser of two evils.

Wi-Fi from the grassroots
And this is the core of the social issues of Wi-Fi. Who is driving it?

"Big-win" cost-justified projects like voice integration are driven by the senior managers. Users are more likely to see it as impinging on their freedom if they are required to use IP phones instead of their familiar mobiles. "There are lots of phases of barrier to get over there," said Webb.

However, the more usual way mobility gets put in, is driven by users, allowed by IT managers (more or less grudgingly) and Wi-Fi use and integration involves a dynamic struggle between the IT manager and the end user.

"You don't usually get technology driven by employees themselves," said Webb. "Employees are urging IT staff to provide Wi-Fi access."

And the pressure comes from above as well. "Mobility is attractive to business managers and unattractive to IT managers," said Lofthouse. "If you unshackle people from network plugs, you move into an unknown dimension."

This is similar to the way PCs emerged in the corporation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. People are buying equipment which has Wi-Fi support, and PDAs and smartphones that can synchronise remotely, on expense budgets without central control. IT managers see the security issue and want to get control back.

This may be behind the lack of training and support. If it comes in grudgingly, in response to user demand, then IT managers might be forgiven for wondering why they should be expected to provide much in the way of support. However, using mobile technology in an enterprise setting needs a lot of support, if only to make sure that the company's security policies are carried out.

It seems clear that Wi-Fi implementations need to have both senior management and IT staff behind them to work. And that means a clear idea of what the company hopes to achieve, and the implications on all levels.