The Mobile Workforce – Where We Are Going and How to Get There

This is the last of a three part blog series exploring the mobile workforce: the past, the present, and the future. A lot of effort and brainpower by a lot of different people has been put into guessing the next great mobile technology and how it will revolutionize our lives. Rather than focusing on what the future will bring in terms of devices and networks I focus my thoughts on how I hope the mobile workforce mindset might change. I believe, the next critical change in the mobile workforce won’t be some new widget or bandwidth solution, but rather new insight and vision into how to use mobility and what it can really do for us.

The Setup

In the US currently, there are four major mobile service providers. All of them already offer 3G service to most of the developed United States. 4G service has been deployed or scheduled for dozens of major markets across a number of carriers. WiFi use is now commonplace and available in many consumer and public locations. Some cities, like Boston, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia have even established metro-wide WiFi networks. Bandwidth speeds are up, data plan costs are plummeting, and physical device options couldn’t be more varied. Very soon, smart phones are expected to be the fastest growing segment of the market. The time for the mobile workforce is now, yet . . .

The Challenge

I’ve heard the mobile landscape of today described as the Wild West and, to my mind, this is a good analogy. There are fortunes to be made, new lands to discover or build, and seemingly boundless opportunity. But, there are also ghost towns, shootouts, and roads to nowhere. For a company trying to mobilize their workforce this environment can be both extremely enticing and, at once, terrifying. Companies on their own may feel they are faced with the choice between complex, imperfect, or unproven options or waiting for new developments that may never arrive. If this is the Wild west, then it’s time for a new sheriff . . .

The Future

The future of the mobile workforce, like all things technology related, will be ever-changing. We can expect contraction in some areas (mobile carriers), expansion in others (device manufacturers), and dramatic battles over standards and systems (4G spectrum, mobile OSs, app stores). To mix metaphors, mobile technology is both a hurdle to overcome and an elevator to success, but this is how it has always been with any workplace technology from the very first days of the industrial revolution. Some companies at the head of the innovation curve expanded wildly, others wasted millions on innovative dead-ends, and still others clung to the traditional ways and mostly shrunk and failed. What needs to change most is not how technology is used or the type and forms of that use, but rather the mindset of the decision makers and the directions that innovation takes.

Here are my rules for succeeding in the future of the mobile workforce:

1. Doing nothing is worse than trying and failing

A wait-and-see approach not only prevents you from enjoying the possible benefits of being a leader in any new markets and opportunities that might develop out of the technology, but allows your competitors to catch up and surpass you in market-share, revenue, and positive brand awareness. In today’s technology-savvy environment being thought of as an “also-ran” or “old-hat” can cost you real dollars and when it comes to the mobile workforce the longer you wait the smaller you can expect your ROI.

2. You need to spend money to save money

Most everyone understands the sales adage that you need to spend money to make money, but it is also true that cost-saving measures are often not free. Sure, you can cut your workforce without using technology to improve efficiency, but at some point the costs in worker satisfaction, performance, and employee retention will catch up to you. A good mobile workforce solution will save man hours in terms of reporting and administration, but it is also likely to speed up actual work-flows and increase the ratio of work per employee, freeing up man hours for expansion into new areas or payroll savings through contraction.

3. You do not understand all your options

The idea that a corporate executive could do a day of Google searching and come up with a workable mobile strategy for their business is roughly equivalent to having your receptionist build your website. It is technically possible, but the results are not likely to be very valuable. Rather than looking for technical solutions, look for technical specialists with the experience and the knowledge to provide you with options you may not have considered or were not aware. Any mobile workforce specialist or consultant worth their fees will ask many questions about your business, how your current operations are performed, and your vision for using mobile technologies. The best consultants are not afraid to tell you that certain ideas are unworkable or far more expensive than they are worth. If you are afraid of those innovation dead-ends, a good mobile workforce specialist is the best way to stay on the straight and narrow.

4. Assume change

The lifespan of the average mobile device is less than 2 years. The most popular consumer devices change even more frequently, Apple for example comes out with a new iPhone every year, and we’ve seen similar short lifespans for Android and Blackberry devices. Even manufacturers who specialize in enterprise-level hardware change over their catalogs every five years or so. At some point you will need to migrate your workers and applications to a new device or platform, just accept it. Plan for it. Include it in your budget decisions. Make the change work for you. Consider a phased approach – start small with cheap devices, then plan to expand into more complex applications and work-flows on more sophisticated hardware.

5. Think about mobility in new ways

It is easy to see how a delivery driver or on-site technician can use mobile technologies, but also think about mobilizing workers who you might not initially expect, including:

  • Sales persons – entering sales data, customer survey responses, requesting equipment, labor, etc.
  • Managers and Administrators – allocating resources, auditing work, dispatching jobs, mobile reporting
  • Office workers – marking the start and end of work on a project, requesting supplies, capturing expenses

Try to think of mobility as not just adding certain functions and features to a mobile device and giving that to your employees, but rather think of the mobile device as an extension of the workplace that users can take with them wherever they go.

With these five rules, any organization should be able to set themselves up for success whatever the future of the mobile workforce brings.

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