The Mobile Workforce – Where We Are

This is the second of a three part blog series exploring the mobile workforce: the past, the present, and the future. In some ways examining the current state of the mobile workforce is the hardest challenge of the three. While the past is easily researched and the future can be guessed, the present is a living, moving thing that isn’t easy to pin down. By the time you’ve think you’ve got a good handle on the situation you realize that things have already changed.

Rather than examining specific companies or devices, let’s instead take a look at trends: what do modern mobile devices look like, what do they allow us to do, and how are they being used today?

The modern smartphone is, or soon will be, the leader in mobile device sales. Hardware companies are teaming up with carriers to provide cheaper, more powerful, and smaller devices. Many modern smartphones have more raw computing power than a PC from ten years ago. For the mobile workforce, several key developments have meant much more than others:

  1. Bandwidth: 3G (and now 4G) devices have made real-time, data-intensive mobile applications possible.
  2. Keyboards: Whether on-screen or physical, the keyboard linked directly to a mobile application opened up the avenue for data entry in the real world
  3. Touchscreen: The opposite effect of the keyboard, the addition of the touchscreen allowed short, simple commands to be performed easily and quickly using programmatic on-screen buttons and work-flows.

The addition and prevalence of new mobile peripherals and features has also contributed to the mobile workforce. Cameras can be used for incident reports and image recognition applications. Bar code scanning, RFID, and NFC devices can be used to tag and monitor items, individuals, and locations. Magnetic stripe readers have allowed point-of-sale functionality and mobile printers have added to many applications’ real-world value.

These improvements allow companies to build all sorts of mobile workforce and mobile enterprise applications. These uses generally fall into one (or more) categories:

  • Asset Management – tracking what you have, where it’s at, and how it’s being used
  • Inventory – tracking what you use and keeping it in stock
  • Labor – tracking work done by your employees
  • Routing – planning and tracking the movement of people
  • Inspections – auditing and/or surveying items, locations, work, or people
  • Payment Systems – capturing and processing payments
  • Delivery – planning and tracking the movement of items
  • Service – capturing work done against a service ticket or work order

All of these categories can be further expanded by scheduling, dispatching, reporting, or administrative tools.

Companies who use mobile applications as part of their mobile workforce strategy include many major retail outlets, every major nationwide delivery service, regional warehousing and distribution giants, and hundreds of government agencies. But, while these large organizations are leading the way, the mobile workforce isn’t limited to large deployments. More and more, small companies are finding ways to implement mobile technology into their daily operations. This can be as simple as providing Blackberrys for corporate email or as complex as a fully-customized mobile forms interface.

The modern mobile workforce landscape is varied and robust. With anticipated improvements in bandwidth and device capabilities coming in the near future it will only get more and more so. Organization’s who don’t have a mobile workforce plan now may soon find themselves left far behind.

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