Employees who work remotely expect to be able to access mobile data anytime, anywhere, but in their travels they could run into snags. For example, Wi-Fi on airplanes is becoming more commonplace, but it's still not the norm; companies can't assume their road warriors will have Internet access wherever they go.
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Once it's clear that data must be available offline for employees, IT must figure out a few things:
- What data should be available offline?
- Should there be a permanent repository or just a cache?
- Is it business-critical data?
- Are there regulations that govern the data and its access?
- Does the company have any rules surrounding public cloud storage?
- How can users access mobile data?
Fortunately, there are a multitude of applications and services for providing mobile data access. The first and most common method is to use some sort of cloud sync service. Dropbox is probably the most well-known, but there are dozens of options to choose from in this market. The advantages of cloud services are that they are typically user-friendly, and most people are familiar with them from a consumer perspective. The applications are designed with a simple user interface, and they are fairly easy to navigate. The downside is that companies don't always have visibility into what happens to the data when they leave it in the hands of third-party consumer services.
But businesses can turn to some of the cloud file sharing vendors that offer business-level services. Box has had a business-focused cloud sharing service for some time, and Dropbox has added business features to its repertoire in recent years.
The second method is to use a mobile content management (MCM) tool to create a secure document repository. Many of them come from enterprise mobility management (EMM) vendors, including Good Technology (now part of BlackBerry), MobileIron, Citrix and VMware AirWatch. The premise of these products is that shops have the EMM software deployed, and they can add an MCM component to store any corporate documents within the secured repositories provided. If EMM is already in place, using the built-in MCM cuts down on integration headaches and internal staff can administer all the security. This is particularly useful for highly regulated industries such as finance and healthcare.
The downsides are that MCM products are typically tied to larger EMM suites. It can be expensive for an organization to implement a standalone MCM product, and there isn't much integration with the native capabilities of most devices. For example, if a company uses MobileIron for EMM and wants users to open documents with the vendor's Docs@Work product, users must download and install the Docs@Work client on their devices. Only then can workers open the documents with that application. Using device-native applications to read or work on files negates the benefits of having the MCM in the first place, but it can also create a user experience that is less than ideal.
The third option available to access mobile data is to build file syncing-and-sharing capabilities into internal apps. Some sales force automation applications have this type of functionality. They let people record and send visit reports via the app, though the data transfer serves as more of a caching capability than anything else. These are less common on an enterprise level because they require specific development to match the purpose and data that the organization wishes to transfer, but for use cases where complex and unstructured data must be transferred, this type of option could be feasible.
The biggest advantage of this approach is that it ensures the appropriate context for the data being transferred; the data lives in the application itself and employees share it only within that context. Additionally, this approach is highly customizable because enterprise application teams are in control of the development and data use.
Choosing a method
Many shops make the mistake of selecting a way to provide access to mobile data based on technology preferences; it's important to not fall into that trap. IT must keep in mind that its most important job is to provide a positive user experience.
Admins should have a conversation with the people who will use the application, find out what they want to do with it and then select a product around that. Businesses must ask:
- What is the purpose of the application?
- Who will use the application?
- Are there integration points with other systems that require active access to the application?
- Does it need offline capabilities?
Reviewing these questions should help drive the research toward which of the three methods is most appropriate for a given organization.
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