Keeping Your Multinational Workforce Connected

By  Pat Brans — July 02, 2009

Keeping your mobile, multinational workforce connected with wireless voice and data services raises a host of challenges for large organizations. Chief among these is the reality that, while 3G networks have advanced in many regions of the world and 4G rollouts are underway, ubiquitous and reliable connectivity is still not guaranteed.

According to Stephen Drake, Program VP for Mobility & Telecom Research at IDC, "While we are certainly seeing faster and faster networks, with broader coverage, and with increasing reliability, ubiquitous coverage is still several years off. Mobile browsers also need improvement, and it's often a challenge to get coverage in places like basements, rural areas, or airplanes where many mobile workers function on a daily basis."

Enterprises have a plethora of technology options beyond cellular available to them to help their multinational workers stay connected, including WiFi / VoWiFi, and emerging portable satellite technologies.

At the end of the day, it's not necessarily the technology choices you make so much as it is the questions you ask before making those choices that will determine how successful you are at keeping your multinational workers connected with a minimum number of headaches.

Among the key questions multinationals should consider for their mobile deployments are:

  • Do you really get full wireless voice and data coverage in the regions you need it most? If not, how do you plan to compensate for this?

  • What are the different coverage requirements for your various levels of  mobile workers? For example, does the task worker in one region require the same kind of 24/7 always-on connectivity that your globetrotting sales team might require? 

  • How do you manage your mobility deployment from a business standpoint? Is it centralized or left to the discretion of regional or local business managers?

The approach that multinational giant DuPont -- with 60,000 employees in more than 70 countries -- is taking with its mobile deployments provides a view into how one company is tackling workforce connectivity.

DuPont's Mobile Approach

Like most companies today, DuPont provides mobile email to its executive staff, and to quite a few other job functions where fast response to email is important, including sales teams, field workers and others. Whereas most of the company-supplied smartphones have so far been BlackBerrys, DuPont is now moving towards accommodating other operating systems, including Apple's iPhone and Windows Mobile 6 devices.

Recognizing the value of keeping its workers mobile, over the last three years, DuPont also has shifted from using desktop computers to notebooks. It currently has about 27,000 notebooks worldwide, 15,000 of which are used in the United States. Virtually all of the notebooks are WiFi-enabled, and the company has been  moving to wireless connectivity in its plants and offices. "In some office locations you can only connect via wireless,"  says Phuong Tram, DuPont's Global CIO.

In some plant sites where volatile gases are present, DuPont uses ruggedized, explosion-proof devices.

As a diverse company with business units that encompass everything from agricultural products to nanotechnology, DuPont supports a wide variety of job-specific mobile applications. These are expected to integrate with a range of back-office business solutions.

To accomplish this, DuPont is transitioning from using middleware to taking a Web browser approach to make legacy applications available to mobile users.  For example, sales staff throughout the company use browser-based CRM functions on mobile devices.

IDC's Drake acknowledges that browser-based applications could seem to offer a connectivity panacea. "It would save you a lot of headaches if you could count on applications automatically working across device types and operating systems."

But, he cautions that"there are a number of realities that are making that prospect a bit challenging today." For example, the wireless network may not be as fast or reliable as it needs to be," and the mobile browsers are still not where they need to be," says Drake.

Such is the case for DuPont's Pioneer agricultural business unit, which equips field workers with ultra mobile PCs to  collect information on what's happening out on farms in places as widespread as rural Texas, Iowa, and Arkansas in the U.S. as well as Chile.

Because most of this work is done in places where wireless coverage is poor, this is a case where DuPont uses an application that operates mostly offline, synchronizing at the end of the day when workers can get to a connection.

Nonetheless, the information gathered by these field workers is relayed to sales teams, to product management, and to R&D departments. The mobile solution in place has helped improve the accuracy of information shared.

For DuPont, enabling all of this to come together requires collaboration between Tram's global IT department and regional IT, telecommunications and line-of-business managers. "We come up with a global design and strategy," says Tram. "And where possible, we try to come up with a global contract. But in some cases, we have to negotiate locally [with the carriers]."

Tram says corporate policies outline the types of usages that would justify having a company-owned mobile device. "It's not an assumption that we just buy devices for employees," says Tram.

Policies address both voice and data usage. "If you get a phone you don't necessarily get the data plan," explains Tram. "In fact, we have around 15,000 company-supplied cell phones that aren't used as data devices. The cost of the phone and the cost of the voice and data usage are paid for by the business unit itself under our contracts."

A Move Toward Managed Services
DuPont is looking to offload device management to the carriers.

"While we say we want to keep data off the device, there still needs to be security controls to take care of cases where there is some data stored locally," says Tram. "For this reason, you need the ability to perform a remote wipe of a given device. Many of the carriers provide this capability, so we don't have to worry about it ourselves. This service is relatively new, and it relieves us from having to provide this functionality internally. We've tried doing device management ourselves; and based on that experience, we think it's better to have the carriers do it for us."

IDC's Drake says offloading device management services to the carrier is an attractive idea for large multinationals.

"That's one less thing you have to worry about yourself," he says. "But multinationals have to deal with hundreds of different operators. Device management services are not offered by a lot of them -- and when they are, functionality differs from one carrier to another. If you want ubiquitous and homogeneous device management service, you really need to operate a device management platform yourself or get a software service provider to do it for you."


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