Going Mobile

“Out in the woods, or in the city, it’s all the same to me, when I’m driving free, the world’s my home, when I’m mobile.” Going Mobile, The Who (written by Pete Townshend).

Nearly four decades ago, when Roger Daltrey crooned this song off the classic album “Who’s Next,” the mood in the country was about “doing your own thing.” Youth was all about free thinking, hitting the road and finding yourself. That was a powerful concept at that time, questioning the status quo and blazing a new trail. As we draw near the end of the first decade of the new millennium, that yearning for freedom has taken hold of business as a way to survive, not just prosper. Advancing mobility strategies have taken on a whole new significance, and even the small business owner cannot afford to ignore it.

I don’t think it’s a big stretch to point to the acceleration of technology since the PC revolution was a huge factor in the way we do business today. How many of you could do without your email, or your computer? Everything we do is touched by technology, even the local mom-and-pop general store. The manual register that was used not long ago has now been replaced with a point of sale system backed by networked databases.

The evolution of the network brought with it a desire to return to those days of freedom. So, when the ability to add mobility to the network became viable, many Fortune 100 businesses began to take advantage, and why not if you could have the same experience on the road or at a customer site as you could in the office. Taking it a step further, how about those workaholics that constantly burn the midnight oil at the office? Why not take that same work to their homes, allowing them to augment their business success with some quality family time? Historically, the cost for many mobility technologies was far too prohibitive for the average SMB organization, but as those costs inevitably came down the adoption rate when up. Now, road warriors and telecommuters are so common that they are almost the norm in every organization.

Let’s look at the key technologies that started this revolution. Without question, the starting point for mobility began with the cellular phone. You could answer a phone call without having to sit at your desk, and suddenly sales professionals became more agile. They could be reached almost any time or any place. Then came the advancement of email that quickly replaced business letters sent through the US Postal Service, couriers or Express Mail. These technologies provided some new ways to get in touch with coworkers or clients in seconds.

This created some flexible mobile solutions for workers, but what about mobility for PCs? Wireless access gave workers the tool to break their shackles at their cubes, and allowed them to roam around the office. But who wants to stop there, why not get out of the office entirely? Remote access technologies like Virtual Private Networks (VPN) and mobile Internet allowed the office to travel where the worker traveled. On the road, at customer sites, or even at home, the ability to be productive takes another leap forward. So, what’s next? How about eliminating phone tag? The introduction of Instant Messaging which was originally considered an AOL gimmick for home users changed the game even more. Now workers had a way to connect directly with coworkers and managers, as well as seeing their availability status. Some organizations extend that out to key customers as a way of increasing their retention of important accounts, giving them immediate access for ordering or requesting service.

The logical evolution of these advances would be to combine them. Enter the BlackBerry and other “smart” phones. Now, one small handheld device allows users to place and receive calls, check emails with mobile connectors to the corporate Exchange server, search the Internet, and utilize mobile instant messaging. This completely brought down the office walls and opened up the world for “going mobile” for everyone – workers, managers and business owners. With the ever-increasing adoption of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) Telephony, the company phone system became another network tool. VoIP offers simultaneously ringing of an employee’s office phone and cell phone, as well as allowing that office phone to be brought anywhere with an Internet connection and ring as though it was sitting at a desk in the company’s office. When you add Internet Faxing, now even the fax machine was able to move with the worker. This kept those important contracts and other sensitive documents from sitting in the fax tray as well as provided enhanced security and ease of forwarding.

So the revolution was in full swing. A study commissioned by Arizona-based HR association WorldatWork showed that in 2008, more than 17 million employees worked remotely at least one day a month, up nearly 40 percent from 2006, including businesses of all sizes and shapes.

For the most part, all of this started as an option for enterprise companies. Initially, the costs to obtain these advances were way out of the small and mid-sized firm’s budget. With the steady pressure to bring these features to the SMB marketplace, eventually they became viable, and now in many cases are considered the norm. Look at the evolution of cellular phones. First, the huge “brick” phones in the early 90’s that were very expensive to purchase and use on a monthly plan. Now, it’s easier to count those who don’t have cellular phones. Every other technology discussed above has gone through a similar downsizing of cost and increase of availability, allowing them to be deployed in the SMB space. In many cases, including my own company, these technologies are key to attracting and retaining top talent and differentiating you from “the crowd.” While they are available, more than a few firms are still reticent to adopt them, to buck the waters of the way it’s always been done. However the rewards for those who do can be dramatic.

Along with the benefits, though, there are potential major pitfalls. Joe Cogliano of the Dayton Business Journal wrote recently about a law firm in Ohio struggling with some of them, including envious coworkers who remain in the office, supervisor mistrust, lack of recognition and visibility for teleworkers, and challenges to team building. Add to those the potential for loss of corporate data, unauthorized access to networks, and leaking of sensitive information. For many small and mid-sized businesses, the road to competing and winning requires driving with a faster and faster car. Adding some or all of these tools can dramatically alter the perception of the organization, showing a progressive side that can be very attractive. Spend the time to fully understand and plan for the inclusion of mobility, understand what it will give you and how it will change the way you work. If you ignore them, you may just hear your customers singing another Who classic, “Who Are You?”

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