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Mobile user management: Managerial styles

I spend a lot of time working with managers at many levels across a broad range of enterprises, organizations, missions and industries, spreading the gospel of mobile and wireless and helping organizations take advantage of these. But one question -- unrelated to the mundane issues of technology, networks and computers -- comes up repeatedly: how to manage a mobile workforce. With an increasing number of key staff essentially "out of the office" on what is effectively a permanent basis, this is a fair -- indeed critical -- question. Many people, especially those in sales and service, really don't need (or even want) a regular spot in the office. Others, from engineers to call-center staff, can be quite productive working from home or even (OK, for some) a coffee shop. And yet management still has the responsibility to make sure that needed

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activities are performed and that work is indeed getting done efficiently, effectively and productively.

Some managers naturally take to mobility with little encouragement. These people like the freedom that mobility implies and probably grew up with cell phones, wireless LANs and iPods. On the other hand, some managers require -- um -- a bit more encouragement.

A lot of managers suffer from what I like to call "Moses Complex," and they are easily identified by the fact that they refer to their staff as "my people." They define themselves and their role in the organization by the boss-worker relationship they have with their staff, and they tend to get nervous when said staff members are not in the office during normal working hours. Those who suffer from Moses Complex are the most likely to resist mobility in any form – they want people at their desks, where they can be easily found and -- well -- managed.

Mobility is fundamentally at odds with this decidedly less contemporary view of management. Today's themes are worker empowerment, decentralized decision-making and, most important, work as something you do and not a place where you go. I first started preaching this gospel many years ago, but I must confess that it has been only recently that advances in technology, most notably broadband wireless networks and powerful subscriber units, have allowed such a philosophy to be realized. We can now have mobile access to the Web and the enterprise network from almost anywhere, at broadband speeds, minimizing the need for knowledge workers to be in the office at all.

I'll discuss some of the techniques one can apply to mobile user management in my next column, but for today I want to leave those who still suffer from Moses Complex with a thought. Management theories to date have usually centered on management by objectives (MBO) with a corresponding carrot-and-stick reward system. Goals are set, tasks are assigned, and butts are often kicked. Contemporary workers, especially those under 30, have a serious problem with this style. My thought is that a different technique, often called management by commitment (MBC), is much more appropriate today. Indeed, I have used this technique since I founded Farpoint Group 17 years ago, and I have never had a problem managing a highly distributed (in fact, global) staff.

Here's how it works: Staff are offered opportunities to produce a deliverable. If they accept the assignment, they commit to a schedule, budget, and level of quality for the deliverable. Weekly meetings, usually via phone or Web-based conference, are used to monitor progress and milestones. Those who meet their commitments gain points; those who don't, lose points. It's really simple -- more points mean greater value to the organization, and fewer points mean someone may be in the wrong job. But, most important, it allows workers a high degree of freedom in terms of how, when and where they work. I've found that contemporary knowledge workers value this freedom -- fundamentally enabled by mobile information technologies -- above almost everything else in their work lives.

Next time, the nuts and bolts of mobile user management.

About the author:

Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.


This was first published in February 2008

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