Mobile Development: Embracing the Enterprise App Storm

By  Bob Tinker — December 13, 2010

There's a low pressure system moving into the enterprise, and it's being driven by smartphones and tablets. It's accompanied by high winds of change and regular flashes of brilliance. It's gathering momentum, and this storm isn't going to blow itself out anytime soon. It's the Enterprise App Storm.
Mobile apps have transformed the way we use mobile devices in our consumer lives and they are going to transform our business lives. The ubiquity of smartphones and the rise of tablets have triggered a wave of mobile app development in the enterprise. But it's not what the mobile industry usually talks about. It's not about extending the big-iron enterprise apps like CRM and ERP to mobile. It's departments, business groups, and even individual employees taking it upon themselves to create innovative apps that solve specific business problems, improve business processes, improve how work is done, or just make their lives easier. This could be a company directory built on LDAP (lightweight directory access protocol), a conference room scheduling app, or an app that facilitates tracking expenses. Development is fast and decentralized and IT often isn't aware of everything that is being built. Distribution and discovery are ad-hoc.
It's chaotic and disruptive. It's exciting and inventive. It's the Enterprise App Storm.
Mobile apps will transform how companies function, how employees work, and the relationship between IT, departments, and users. Companies want to unleash the energy and innovation, yet harness it in a productive way. Here are five steps for harnessing the Enterprise App Storm.
1. Start by embracing them
It's very likely there already are mobile apps in your organization of which IT is not aware. A young business analyst from a prestigious financial recently told me that many of her friends are getting business jobs at other companies because they know how to build simple mobile apps. These are not IT or developer roles. They are business positions where the hiring manager has recognized a need for people who can develop specific mobile apps for that department. Employees who can build apps that solve problems for their teams take some pressure off IT. Embrace the employee innovation, encourage it, and give employees the tools and channels to do it effectively.
2. Design them correctly
Good mobile apps deliver a great user experience, improve some aspect of people's lives, and make people want to use them. Mobile enterprise apps should be no different. They should solve a problem, be easy to use, and deliver instant results. Think like a consumer app developer and focus on delivering a superlative user experience. Ask for feedback. And then, iterate, iterate, iterate. The beauty of mobile enterprise apps is that you're not asking your employees to do anything new. They already intuitively understand how apps work, and they're familiar with the updating process.
3. Make them cross-OS
One of the things that makes managing enterprise mobility so challenging is that organizations no longer have an environment that is standardized on a single operating system and device. The time when a company referred to itself as a BlackBerry shop or Windows Mobile shop is over, and most companies are facing the reality of multiple operating systems. From a development perspective, this means any mobile app needs to work on every device the company supports. This doesn't have to become a huge resource sink. There are many application development companies and developer platforms that can streamline cross-platform development.
4. Simplify discovery and delivery
Once an app is built, how do employees find out about it and how do they get it? Do you post it on a consumer app store? Send a list to employees and let them find it? Host it on a server internally? We've seen a number of companies doing a combination of all of these, and it's a mess. The answer for many CIOs is to leverage OS-agnostic, internal "enterprise app stores" that allow developers and IT to publish internal apps or link to external, public app stores. An enterprise app store gives IT a way to simplify and control the review, publishing, discovery, and delivery of mobile apps in a user-friendly model that consumers are used to using. IT and internal developers can publish mobile apps or link to external apps to the enterprise app store. IT can review the app, approve it, and set policy boundaries based upon role and mobile platform. An enterprise app store lets IT harness the energy of the Enterprise App Storm by enabling the publishing, discovery, and delivery of mobile apps in a secure and consumer-friendly way.
5. Get people to use them
You can build something that meets the required specifications but you can't ensure that people are going to use it. The only way apps are going to be used is if employees actually want to use them. There's a lot of competition for your users' attention so you need to approach app adoption like marketing a consumer product. Get buy-in early in the conception and design phases from the target users. Don't allow the project to be driven by HPPOs (highest-paid person's opinion). Promote new apps in common areas, on the Intranet and via e-mail. One of our customers even made an internal television commercial.
The Enterprise App Storm is coming whether you're ready or not. With most storms, safety regulations recommend hunkering down and waiting them out. The Enterprise App Storm doesn't work that way. It's only going to get bigger and IT departments should prepare for the resulting wave of innovation and creativity. Like sailing, get in front of the storm, harness the energy of the wind, and aim for clear sky. Besides, when is it ever clear sailing for enterprise IT teams?
Bob Tinker is CEO of MobileIron, a provider of mobile device and wireless expense management services. 


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