From play to work and back again. Mobile devices and the consumer effect

After a number of years of preliminary investment, activity and experience with mobile technology, many companies are finding themselves moving into a new phase of activity in this area. Part of this is characterised by the desire to get more users ‘mobile’ – driven by some quite dramatic changes to working practices over the past few years. This is coupled with a desire to make the mobile experience a much more functional and effective one, through extended use of applications which are already used in a static working environment. A good example of this is the extent to which people access email through their mobile device in a work context.

An important element of this shift is that businesses find themselves faced with the need to integrate mobile technologies more fully into IT strategy from a policy, security, execution, development, management and skill-set perspective. While all this is indeed important, it is nothing that companies are not already dealing with.

A somewhat newer challenge they face, however, is the need to more explicitly acknowledge the expectations of users in terms of form, function and desirability of technology they have been exposed to in their non working lives as consumers. While mobile devices are a constantly evolving story, the advent of the iPhone had a phenomenal impact on individuals’ attitude towards and use of ‘smart’ mobile devices. Although this effect took off from the consumer space, individuals increasingly want to bring their enhanced mobile experience into the workplace. People’s experiences and preferences are inevitably different. While some are happy with a BlackBerry for work purposes, others want the functionality of the iPhone in the office, and yet others are devoted to their Palm Pre… and so it goes on. Moreover, this isn’t a static picture, with devices and the way that people use them, constantly changing. Take, for example, the dramatic increase in web browsing with mobile.

So, just how far should companies go in embracing employee preferences? It is understandable that in a large corporate environment, IT managers will be wary of a fully ‘consumerised’ approach to equipment, i.e. letting users adopt whatever they want with no constraints, on the basis of cost, risk and support overhead. But if companies swing to the other end of the scale and completely restrict choice around mobile devices, this brings its own issues. For example, there is an increasing likelihood that some employees will bring in their own device in any case, and try to use it for work applications. Yet others will simply not use the company device, which may have negative impact on the value of the mobile solution to the business.

Companies that want to make the best use of mobile in the workplace should aim for the happier medium, and consider offering a range of devices that meet corporate standards in terms of security, supportability manageability and cost, but that are also ‘desirable’ and meet user expectations on functionality. A possible hidden benefit to the business in all this is that more suitable devices may come to light, by virtue of the fact that the net was cast a little wider than may have been the case historically.

Another important factor to bear in mind is the extent to which the chosen device or solution supplier is committed to dealing with both corporate requirements and user expectations in the same equipment.

Granted, the question of consumerisation of corporate equipment is not an easy one to deal with and it is one that companies are unlikely to be able to avoid for much longer if they have not yet taken the first step in at least acknowledging it. A proactive, rather than reactive or dismissive approach is much more likely to bring the workforce on side, and may indeed uncover business benefits which were not obvious before a broader view of the options available was taken.

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