Walking The Mobility Tightrope

By  Craig Settles — April 30, 2009

In the latest installment of our ongoing Process & Strategy series, industry analyst Craig Settles addresses the challenges that mobile advocates face in implementing mobility projects that require buy-in from IT and business teams. Executives from government and the private sector share their top tips on how to walk the mobility tightrope.

Check out other installments in this series:
What's The Plan?
Playing Politics
Effective Needs Analysis
Mobile Device Management
Taking The Pain Out Of Mobile Expense Management

When does a successful mobile deployment produce major heartburn? When conflict arises between IT requirements and business priorities.

How do you minimize the pain? By performing the kind of delicate balancing act that's more commonly seen on the stage of a Cirque Du Soliel show.

 The IT staff is constantly stretched thin supporting applications of all sorts, not just mobile. Pre-deployment planning is good, but the unpredictability of life tests every plan.

On the business side, managers and workers alike want their mobile technology to be easy to use, rarely obtrusive and always working. When reality trumps desire, the tech-side/ business-side relationship can take a hit, but it doesn't have to mean the end of the world.

Organizations can't train and forget

Effective training makes users proficient at getting the technology to work. But it's the learning curve -- those weeks of on-the-job, repetitive use doing real tasks under various conditions -- where people figure out how to use the technology to make their work more productive. It's in negotiating this curve that users uncover unforeseen problems or greater ROI opportunities.

Mark Meier, IT Director for Oklahoma City, OK, runs mobile applications over the citywide Tropos wireless network. "For six months, a combination of bugs and reluctance to change were an issue. I went in and talked to every shift of police officers. They'd air out stories about what did not work. We taught people tricks to overcome problems, such as: when you have bad coverage inside a building, roll in a car with a mobile access point to be a relay for the wireless device."

IT and business managers have to come together quickly to resolve unexpected post-deployment training issues. Mississippi Department of Corrections Network Manager Jerry Horton got a lot of calls from managers and workers when their mobile devices were updated.

"When we rolled out devices, we did not anticipate that users would have to download firmware updates remotely from our server, [rather than] get them via CDs. We had to develop a script that automatically connects users to the update, then train workers to install it onto their devices."

By definition, mobile users mostly are out of the office. Upgrades, repairs, new applications created by users and other oddities require that IT and business staffs always be ready to orchestrate joint problem-resolution operations. 

Keeping up with change

With mobile applications, change is constant and it is swift. When the Oregon Department of Transportation first deployed mobile applications, the technology was simple. Then new products came out at the same time that vendors started buying each other. IT had to change policies for dealing with vendors, such as requiring them to already have, or to hire, tech people who are located in Oregon.

Mobile and wireless applications inspire employees to immediately create new uses for the technology, and start re-inventing work processes. Business managers subsequently have to scramble to adapt in-office procedures, IT may need to adjust to new demands and both groups must coordinate their responses.

Brent Graden is Director of Economic Development for the City of Prestonsburg, KY, a town of 4,800. He became the IT "staff" by default. Graden deployed an outdoor Meraki wireless network over the city's business district to drive more shoppers to the area. After it was operating for a while, citizens pushed for the network to do more.

"We have to make sure we're doing what the community wants," says Graden. "I gathered about 200 surveys, spoke at meetings of civic organizations such as the Kiwanis Club, and held open-house meetings for telecom companies and service providers to address business and technology issues."

Getting in front of a beast that is moving every which way, seemingly at once, requires unbridled forethought more than reactionary policy making. According to Oklahoma City's Meier, "We said we're not building a network to do 100 functional things. We're building this to give users options, and have mobile technology extend current applications."

Currently, 217 applications run over Oklahoma City's network, most not foreseen when the network originally launched. Organizations that build applications for a specific goal without anticipating the future can box themselves in. However, a strategy that extends servers out to the field could result in data flowing to places where enterprises may not want it. When thinking outside of the box, organizations still have to weigh the pros and cons.

First let's vote, then I'll decide

At some point, even a time-out and two choruses of "Kumbaya" won't keep the harmony train on track.

"Every time Business sees a new widget, they immediately want it," jokes Carolyn Hollingsworth, IT Director at heating and cooling equipment manufacturer Lennox International, Dallas, TX. "We have to balance between user demand and [whether we can] even get it up and running."

IT sometimes tell business units to go ahead and buy product and rely on the vendor to support it, because IT won't. If the application creates network problems for others, IT will step in to demand that users get rid of it.

Horton, of the Mississippi Department of Corrections, minimizes misery by evoking a higher power. "All state agencies must have policies and procedures, so we get the top person to issue [these] for technology. Then we can say 'this is what's published. If you want something different, you have to ask the Commissioner to make a change.' Most people won't push that."

Arguably, this may seem inflexible, and there are some downsides. But IT resources can only stretch so far.

When he was Medical Director of Informatics at Central DuPage Hospital in Chicago, Dr. James Thompson discovered that unless an organization wants the business- and IT-sides to wrangle forever, a C-level executive must be the final arbitrator. Now VP of Medical Affairs at San Francisco-based healthcare IT vendor McKesson, Dr. Thompson advises creating a process for conflict resolution during the planning and pilot phases, rather than after an application is up and running.

When that doesn't work, bring in the arbitrator. "At this point, it's not about getting input, it's about getting a decision and moving forward," says Dr. Thompson. He warns that, while many managers prefer not to escalate a problem up to higher-ups, in healthcare doctors are not shy about taking it to the top. "From their perspective, this technology has become an integral part of life-and-death decisions, so issues regarding their needs demand immediate resolution."

Tips For balancing IT, Business Priorities

  • Agree early on that IT and business managers will come together quickly to resolve problems.

  • Don't underestimate the post-training issues that arise when the real learning curve begins.

  • Require business users to respect IT policies when they invent new uses for their devices.

  • Find a compromise between the "cool to have" and the "need to have."

  • Careful forethought is more effective than post-problem policy-making.

  • When all else fails, turn to your "higher power."

Craig Settles is a wireless business strategist, marketing expert, author and speaker. His blog on business mobile application strategy can be found at http://roisforyou.wordpress.com


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