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Oct012011

Toward a Definition of Enterprise Mobility, Part 1: Key Dimensions

 

By Dennis D. McDonald

To download a free .pdf version of this document click on the above image.A .pdf version of this article can be downloaded here. Part 2 is here.The beginnings of Part 3, which addresses possible requirements for a collaborative project management application, are here and here.

INTRODUCTION

Is availability of powerful mobile devices and services really changing the way people work? Or are smart phones and tablet computers just providing more options for doing existing work without regard to location? 

Whichever is true, management needs to think about how best to incorporate mobile devices and services into the business. If management doesn’t do such planning, employees — or competitors — will. 

An important question is, how can we plan for the best ways to use such devices when we know the technology is changing so rapidly? Even if we are clear about our organizational goals and objectives, and even if we understand the business processes we want to create or change to improve support for these goals and objectives, we still need to decide how to make things happen in the real world. 

Sometimes “bottom up innovation” by those closest to the work will lead the way. This can happen when employees bring their own devices, membership in their own social networks, or even their own cloud based storage to work with them where they start mixing and matching how they communicate about work. Unfortunately, problems such as message confusion or even mis-use of resources could arise from such bottom-up innovations if employee efforts are not coordinated or managed effectively. Helping to plan for such innovation is one of the goals of this article.

Another challenge occurs when employees’ own technology is perceived to be more flexible and easier to use than what’s available at work — “I know I have a company Blackberry but why can’t I use my iPhone?” When something like this happens, management might need to look at adopting technologies that initially may not integrate well with enterprise systems or security practices.

One thing that makes adoption of mobile technologies potentially complex is that sophisticated location based application running on smart phones or tablets can now be developed to take creative advantage of today’s mix of portability, cheap computing power, and geolocation information. Such capabilities, some of which have been available on expensive portable systems available to high end customers and the military, are now readily available at consumer prices. 

How to take advantage of such power and flexibility, though, still requires thought and planning.

WHAT ARE THE KEY DIMENSIONS OF “ENTERPRISE MOBILITY”?

This article discusses how planners can think about the concept of enterprise mobility, starting with a recognition that more is needed than just deciding among brands of hand-held devices. The following are 11 key dimensions to consider:

 

 

1. PROCESS

“Process” refers to the sequence of activities a mobile worker — called an “actor” here — engages in when doing work. Some processes may be defined in advance, some may be defined on-site in response to location or local conditions, and some may be defined by the actor making an independent judgement about what needs to be done.

Processes generally are the collections of actions that organizations and their employees put in place and manage in order to accomplish organizational goals. Some processes are very explicit, repetitive, structured, and tied to a well-defined sequence of activities. An example of this might be the steps involved in disassembling and re-assembling a machine. Other processes are more general, unstructured, or loosely defined. An example of this might be the thought process and research a worker goes through once a faulty machine has been disassembled.

Technology, obviously, is only one of the resources needed to perform a process. Others include skills, knowledge, physical equipment, facilities, and administrative support. Whether the process is tightly or loosely defined, technology can help. In fact, the same piece of technology can help a wide range of processes dependent on its configuration or programming. 

As experienced IT managers know, technology is only part of the puzzle and may only account for a small part of the total cost of a project that involves changing a large or complex set of business processes involving many people.

It’s a fair question to ask whether mobile technologies are forcing us to change the way we think about processes. That might be true if you think of processes in a rigid, workflow-software-enabled way. Even if we restrict our thinking to that view, there is a lot that using a flexible and powerful mobile device can bring to the table, especially if that mobility means that decisions and actions can better reflect access to signals about local conditions that mobility enables. 

Viewed another way, use of mobile systems enables an alternate view of process. This is potentially one where there is less tight integration of all the steps in an automated sequence of tasks in favor of a more flexible mix of activities that combine automated and manual tasks tied together by a human actor making decisions and taking actions in direct response to local conditions. Looked at this way, one could say that extending technological support to work via mobile systems can in fact change how processes are defined and managed. 

Does this also mean that using mobile systems could actually increase complexity with a resulting rise in risk and cost due to increased uncertainty? Perhaps, but this is also a reason to carry out a detailed planning process.

2. ACTOR

The “actor” is the person or device that moves from place to place and performs work. Most of the actors we are concerned with here are people. In some cases actors may also include remotely operating “smart” devices that monitor and respond to local conditions with varying levels of independence or human involvement. This article, though, is mostly concerned about human actors.

In either case, the roles actors play in the business must be defined and understood. This starts with an understanding of the types of decisions the mobile actor needs to make while “in the field,” along with the training and experience the actor must bring to the mobile processes that need to be performed. 

Another important expectation is the role the sponsor expects the actor to play and how the mobile device will support this role. The actor may belong to a variety of communities and might in fact use the mobile device to communicate with both work and non-work communities while on the job. In addition, the mobile device may host a variety of work and non-work related applications that require communication with remote servers to operate. Some of these applications will be work related, others won’t. 

Whether we are discussing an Android, Apple, Amazon, or Windows remote device, the sponsor needs to consider the type of support needed for the particular work related role that will be performed with mobile support and how security for the work related applications will be managed on a device that may host non-work related applications.

3. SPONSOR

“Sponsor” refers to the individual or organization on whose behalf the mobile work is undertaken. This could be a client, an employer, an organization, another individual, association, or a consortium of some sort.

The relationships between the sponsor and the actor may be formalized though a contract or employment or may be temporary based on factors such as availability or convenience — or even whether the actor is “on duty” at the time the need for remote work arises.

Support for varying levels of control and initiative may need to be considered here, with some actors’ work being guided on well-defined paths specified by experts or someone in authority that is associated with or employed by the sponsor. Other actors’ work may be guided more by the actor’s own initiatives in situations where judgement and decision making need to be carried out by the actor working on behalf of the sponsor. 

In a traditional employee-employer relationship a certain level of understanding is assumed on the part of the actor about the sponsor’s goals and objectives. This helps the actor understand the “why” of the mobile processes that need to be performed. This understanding is critical when the process to be performed involves collaboration or coordination among a variety of actors. Keeping multiple actors “on the same page” in any sequence of processes or projects is always a concern and may play an important role in mobile processes where roles and responsibilities are spread across multiple actors.

If the sponsor-actor relationship is more tenuous or temporary, e.g., in situations where mobile technology is used to support point-of-purchase or impulse buying transactions, such assumptions may not be appropriate. This may have an impact on the type of mobile work that can be expected or on the communication that needs to take place between the sponsor and the actor.

4. LOCATION

“Location” refers to the physical space occupied by the actor at the time that work is done. This may be a fixed location or a series of locations occupied over a time span during which work is performed.

In some cases the location of the work will impact the local conditions that drive what type of work needs to be done. In other situations local conditions may be irrelevant to the work.

Location may also:

  • Influence the nature or quality of real time communication that can — or must — take place between sponsor and actor. 
  • Impact availability of resources at the time work needs to be done.
  • Trigger automated actions that configure or provision the mobile device in preparation for the performance of work. 

5. CONTROL

“Control” refers to the influence the sponsor has over the decisions and actions of the actor and the device and system used by that actor. This ranges from situations where the actor has little or new influence over his or her own actions, to situations where the actor functions autonomously while in the field. In either case, the amount and type of control by the sponsor over the actions of the actor can be influenced directly or by actions taken by others.

The quality and reliability of communication between the sponsor and the actor will to some degree drive the ability of the sponsor to directly influence actions taken by the mobile worker in the field. Sponsor control may also vary with the number and variety of local influences on the nature of needed work. 

Planning for control must obviously take into account the variety of situations the actor is likely to face when using the device in a mobile situation. Additional considerations related to control are security and risk. To what extent, for example, will the ability of the sponsor to control the actor’s actions be reduced if the device’s software is compromised through an exploit that prevents the device from operating as intended? Will it be sufficient to remotely shut down device’s operation? Or, is the risk such that a software exploit can completely wrest control of the device away both from the sponsor and the actor? 

Technical issues aside, both security and risk must be considered together when planning simply because the actor is (usually) human and may be operating semi-independently “in the field” away from direct communication with the sponsor. 

No matter what kinds of technical controls are put in place to prevent unauthorized access and display of sensitive or restricted information, for example, once the actor reads or sense that information from the device, the possibility then exists that it can be transferred to an unauthorized or unfriendly entity.

Also, the criticality of the remote work will also drive the manner in which control is implemented over remote work. It will make a difference, for example, whether the remote process supported by mobile technology is a medical procedure or an entertainment of some sort.

6. DATA

“Data” refers to the information needed by the remote worker to perform work, i.e., the processes associated with the job. Some of that information might be possessed in the actor’s memory, some might be stored in or accessible to the device to support work based decision making and actions, and some might be generated or assembled uniquely from a variety of local and remote sources based on input provided manually or via automatic means by local systems. In some cases some kind of real-time communication link may be needed with a remote data source or expert to provide the data needed by the actor for doing work. 

In any case. the processes that need to be performed will drive the identification of the needed data and how it can be made available when needed. Some data may be visible or displayed to the actor, while other data may support automated processes that don’t require human intervention. 

Just as the mobile actor belongs to and may need to communicate with a variety of “communities” while in the field, the actor might also need to to access environmental or locally available data that are provided by systems unconnected with the sponsor. For example, if the actor becomes accustomed to using public data linked to Google Maps to help locate and diagnose a problem, and Google Maps is not available, what is the backup?

7. APPLICATION

“Application” refers to software running on or accessible to the mobile device that, when combined with data and the actor’s judgement, supports needed decision making and work processes. 

As available mobile devices become more powerful, so too can the sophistication, power, and specialization of mobile-available applications increase.

One characteristic of mobile applications (“apps”) and more traditional computer applications is that where the application and its data reside and execute may not be on the device but on a remote server located in the “cloud.” Increasingly powerful mobile devices can also provide more computing power and storage to the mobile user but also may drive the need to provide more bandwidth for accessing supporting data from a remote server. This in turn may drive the need for better/faster/more secure communications.

8. SUPPORT

“Support” refers to work the sponsor needs to do to ensure the mobile worker has the resources to do the work. Some support functions can be performed in advance and embedded in some form in hardware, data, or software. Other support may be needed in real time while the mobile worker is onsite.

One way to think about support is that each mobile worker may need direct involvement or availability of a centrally available resource person when mobile work is being done. If multiple mobile actors will be actively working at the same time and will all need support at the same time, how will this impact the number and type of support resources that need to be available in total?

9. COMMUNITY

For each task, groups of individuals may exist that have varying levels of involvement as users, customers, experts, or just as interested onlookers. In some cases a community may exist that is not directly controlled by the sponsor or the actor but which may have a potential interest or stake in the work being performed. 

To what extent should that “community” be integrated into some aspect of the work the mobile actor performs? That is a question to which no standard response is possible. The value of communicating with this community before, during, and after the remote work is performed is, however, something that should be considered from a variety of perspectives, including cost, efficiency, and political expediency. 

Also, location based systems are emerging that can provide identity and information sharing among device users within range of each other that share certain characteristics. To what extent can or should such “instant communities” be included in planning for mobile services? Again, no standard answer is possible but opportunities for improving mobile work through engagement with selected communities should be considered.

10. DEVICE

“Device” refers to the physical equipment required by the actor to perform the work. For simplicity’s sake we can think of one device as a portable computer, as a tablet computer, or as a smartphone. In some cases the device moves with the actor. In other cases it might remain attached to the work site, location, or device that is the focus of the work.

The device itself may only be the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of the technology used by the actor to do work remotely. Additional systems and equipment may be needed to support the work.

Some additional equipment such as diagnostic systems or repair tools may or may not have physical or electronic communication with the actor’s mobile device. Or, the mobile device may need realtime access to a remote database or application that operates remotely and is queried actively or via an automated process with the resulting information being communicated to the mobile device for presentation to and action by the actor. 

One design consideration will be how best to take advantage of the capabilities of the mobile device. For example, will the mobile device be used to provide remote access to existing data or functionality that are already available via existing laptops or networked computers? Or, will the mobile device be used to support a re-engineered workflow involving potentially expensive changes to existing business processes?

11. COST

“Cost” refers to the resources — chiefly time and money — that need to be devoted to developing, implementing, and operating a mobile solution. The cost of buying the mobile device may be relatively small. Devices need to be procured, supported, and updated. Applications need to be developed for them.

Important questions include whether we are shifting costs, adding costs, or reducing costs. Another important question is “whose cost?” Some mobile solutions may require involvement of external networks or systems where costs are shared or where costs are borne by the sponsor.

Even if you anticipate a “free ride” on someone else’s network, you need to think about how long that “free ride” is going to last.

END OF PART 1. PART 2 IS HERE.

Copyright (c) 2011 by Dennis D. McDonald

 

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Reader Comments (2)

A lot of stuff to comment about here - I'll skip all the obvious ones (enterprise support of consumer devices, need to develop presentation / design skills, security and control around corporate IP on "uncontrolled" devices).

In my view, if corporate IT wants to be seen as a supported and enabler of the new mobility, there has to be some practical information architecture provided. Simply put, the end-user platform is ever moving, and the UI flavor of the month changes way too fast - but the key is the data, the information. And many corporations have developed semi-proprietary, semi-compliant, generally undocumented pseudo-APIs for getting information from here to there - APIs that only the corporate-standard desktop is able to consume!

(Note - that isn't a bad thing - last decade's task for IT was Standardization to reduce Complexity, Leading to Lower TCO. But that was then, and this is now ...)

The Mobility movement is actually towards a more voracious, ever-searching consumption of information - and the folks that purchase these devices want to consume the data that's all bottled up in corporate databases and applications. Very Helpful IT Groups will work to make it easier to get data out, in the well-accepted, standardized formats that many clients can consume (ex. RSS for text, CSV for numbers).

End users will want to consume the data - so let's get it to them. Yes, we can predict the future - they will learn that they have created multiple versions of the truth, or realize that everyone in their department didn't buy the same smartphone, stuff like that. An even bigger realization will be the understanding of the data that isn't there - I can't create a brilliant iPhone version of our product database, searchable by all sorts of "obvious" attributes, until someone in engineering or marketing sits down and enters all that descriptive data into the item master ...

Best to get them what info they can, so we can all get past the "access" issue and into issues of "content".
October 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames MacLennan
Jim -

I'm certainly not downgrading the importance of remotely accessed data, but access to and presentation of data seems an incomplete description of what a sophisticated mobile device is capable of doing. Increasingly powerful mobile devices provide more capability for gathering and making available for processing contextual information to support the mobile worker. Whether this contextual information is processed on the device or back at headquarters is a consideration, of course. Does this mean that the traditional concept of an "application" must become more complex now that we have more devices involved? Or are we just adding a lower-powered computer to the network in a way that increases overall complexity and support costs?

After all, if I can do 80% of my domestic computing and communication via a tablet computer, why buy a new desktop or laptop computer for the home if I can do most of what I need to do on a tablet? Do similar kinds of tradeoffs occur with adding more mobile processing to corporate IT responsibilities?

- Dennis
October 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterDennis D. McDonald

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