Last time, we talked about tools for the mobile salesforce and the productivity improvements inherent in putting a high degree of mobile computing and communications capability in the hands of salespeople. Here, I want to extend that discussion to cover applications beyond field sales and service to those who are mobile no matter what their jobs might be – and those numbers continue to grow rapidly.
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Think about what makes a company really competitive – certainly, the people who work there, the IT tools they have access to, the institutional knowledge and expertise of the enterprise, and so on. I think, though, that we'd have to conclude that essentially all companies in a given industry have access to everything their competitors do. If, for example, you and your company design and build semiconductor chips, you might very well develop a new process taechnology or manufacturing technique that could give you a competitive advantage. But your competition is also working hard on innovations, and everyone will eventually have access to the same information; thus the playing field tends to level over time.
Given this, I think that the only good way to keep the field at least a little bit tilted in one's favor is via speeding up the flow of information within the organization. We've seen that whoever gets a given piece of information first and is able to act on that information first, often gains some advantage in the marketplace. In fact, the value of information is inversely proportional to the number of people who have access to it. This is why governments and enterprises go (or at least should go!) to such great lengths to protect valuable information. Learn something, protect it, use it, and profit from it.
OK, so it's one thing to gain access to information ahead of the competition, but it's quite another to be able to act on it before the other guys learn about it. This means getting information into the hands of those who can use it and make use of it as rapidly as possible. And this is where mobility really shines in building and maintaining a competitive edge. I have said for some time that work is, in fact, something you do as opposed to necessarily a place you go. From a general management perspective, I am increasingly opposed to centralizing staff in knowledge-based companies (manufacturers are unfortunately largely out of luck here) and instead favor investing in tools that allow staff to be productive anytime, anywhere. Given the availability of wireless networks and mobile computers, why should anyone be forced to waste time commuting or otherwise traveling to a given location just to communicate? And given the increasing performance and capacity (and cost-effectiveness) of these tools, why would anyone choose to work any other way?
In fact, the only real issues remaining in this debate are sociological, not technological. Some people have a very hard time focusing on work when they're not in a context that reinforces their work ethic (e.g., an office). And some (most, in fact!) object to the lack of boundaries between work and personal time that necessarily comes with the lack of office walls. As someone who has run a highly distributed business for many years, there are ways to deal with all of this, the most important of which is thinking in terms of goals and objectives instead of locations and hours. What I've found is that the convenience of wireless and mobile IT inevitably leads to higher productivity once the tools (and the policies, procedures and managerial mindsets) are in place and properly tuned. OK, there may still be an issue or two with ease of use – a topic I'll return to later this year – but any organization that wishes to benefit from the competitive advantages inherent in mobility is free to do so today.