Are You Empowering Your Mobile Workforce?


I can still remember taking delivery of my first alphanumeric pager at work and feeling like Batman with the device hanging off a utility belt. In those days, the mobile phone was either uncommon or simply too expensive on a per minute basis to have, so the pager provided an elegant solution to alert me if a server died or a piece of the network was down.

That was then — this is now. The mobile enterprise has transitioned from pager to BlackBerry email to smartphone, and the potential is there for Apple’s iPad too. But with technology changing so fast and enterprises — sorry to say — often moving slow, it’s easy to be a revision or two behind. Is your enterprise changing with the times or are you still playing with pagers?

Here’s a list of current and on-the-horizon solutions you might want to watch for, so your mobile workforce so can do more with less in a wider range of locations.

It All Starts With Getting Connected

So you’ve issued the latest and greatest laptops to your mobile workforce — that’s great, but how is that staff getting online to actually do any work? Gone are the days of using standalone client apps for the bulk of the workday. Now it’s all about collaborating on documents in the cloud or voice chat and video conferencing, activities that require a connection to the web.

For years, I’ve used 3G mobile broadband solutions for my connectivity needs, but I’ve stayed away from embedded solutions, such as the integrated 3G radios that are optionally offered in various netbooks and notebooks. Why? They’re too limiting for today’s mobile worker because they support a single device — the one where the radio is embedded. A more flexible solution is a USB dongle for 3G that works with multiple computers, but I look to mobile personal hotspots as the most effective connectivity answer. For example, a 3G data plan for the Novatel Wireless MiFi device costs the same as a USB solution, but works with up to five devices at a time by creating a Wi-Fi hotspot. So the mobile worker with a Wi-Fi capable laptop, phone, and/or camera can use all their devices with the web for one monthly price. And if your workforce is out and about in a 4G service area — more are getting added on a fairly regular basis — a Sprint Overdrive could be the ultimate connector. Like a MiFi, it creates a Wi-Fi hotspot to share a 3G connection. But included in the monthly charge is unlimited use of Sprint’s faster 4G network. With a faster pipe, workers can do more at no extra cost.

Cloud Software and Services Make For Sunny Days

A connected workforce is good, but the next step is to leverage that mobile broadband. Some client apps can’t be replaced, but many are overkill in terms of the functionality offered. Based on Pareto’s law, 80 percent of users typically only take advantage of 20 percent of the features a complex client application offers. For example, some research claims that Microsoft has found that the average user of Microsoft Word hits a mere eight percent of the available functionality. Are you equipping your mobile workforce with software or services they simply don’t need?

Enter the cloud, with apps and services that focus on the basics that your workforce needs. Google Docs immediately comes to mind as a cloud productivity provider, but Zoho is worthy of a look for more advanced functionality. Aside from basic documents, spreadsheets and presentations, Zoho provides solutions for invoicing, databases, reporting, remote support and more. Of course, even with all of those online documents, folks still want to print. Enter HP, who offers at least two remote printing solutions. ePrint, for BlackBerry, is printer agnostic and only requires a printer to have an IP address. Mobile workers can press a button and zap a paper copy of a document, photo or web page to the compatible printer nearest them on their travels. iPrint Photo from HP is more geared for those in the field that snap pictures — think insurance adjusters or for contractors when estimating. Using an iPhone or iPod touch, photos from the handset are printed over a local Wi-Fi connection on the spot. Speaking of the iPhone, Apple’s next OS upgrade will beef up the enterprise capabilities — most notably multiple Microsoft Exchange accounts, support for SSL VPN access and locally encrypted storage of email.

Remote Access to Computers and Peripherals

For some apps that require heavy lifting, the cloud just won’t cut it. That’s why you spent big bucks on high-powered PCs and servers for the enterprise, right? But the mobile workforce shouldn’t have to come in to the office just to leverage more computing power. High-end equipment doesn’t process data any faster if a user is sitting in front of it. Times like these call for remote access to desktops or servers. If you can open up that access and still meet your required regulatory and privacy standards, why not take advantage of it?

Citrix offers GoToMyPC for this situation, and the corporate package includes an administrative client to allow or restrict access by user or by function. Data transfers are protected by 128-bit AES encryption while sessions are secured with end-to-end MD5 authentication. LogMeIn offers a similar solution but extends it beyond the traditional corporate laptops by providing a client for the not-so-traditional iPhone and iPad devices in the workplace. And recently, LogMeIn added a client for Google Android handsets. It’s a beta, but with it, I’ve remotely accessed and used my 27″ iMac at the home office.

So What’s the Point?

The intention here isn’t to break out every possible solution to mobilize the workforce. Instead, it’s to raise awareness on the types of mobile solutions available today that are worth looking at. Enterprise mindsets don’t change overnight, as they’re usually faced with business and budgetary constraints that slow things down. But the mobile space is nimble and changing fast. If you’re not aware of what it has to offer, you might still be stuck with a pager on your belt.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Dossy.

Relevant analyst in consumer electronics
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  1. Antoine RJ Wright Monday, May 24, 2010

    For as good as ts topic is, you don’t speak on establishing governance or what that will look like. ^^^Being mobile enabled as a contractor isn’t the same as being as enabled within a small, medium, or large enterprise. How do your recommendations take this into account?^^^

    1. Good point Antoine, but with so many permutations and combinations of technologies and policies in the enterprise space, it’s a challenge to get down to that level and still have the concepts apply to all.

      That said, I’d opt for solutions that are more widespread in use and less niche. ^^^Google Docs is something I’d consider niche when it first arrived but as it matured over time, it’s becoming more mainstream and therefore more worthy of adoption.^^^ The latest and greatest tech or service, on the other hand, is something I’d hold off on adopting if I were a consultant with many clients.

    2. That makes some sense, but I guess that I’m a bit in reflection from a consulting firm that I recently left and how theree were several mobile options in place, but little in the way of leadership, policy, or even standardization in behavior to make mobile use compelling. And I mean something as simple aa using SMS for emergency communications instead of email or manual call lists.

      While I see (and use) the technology, that behavior and governance chasm seems more the challenge than anything else, hence my question. Thanks for the road of thought today. This is good.

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