Three ways to manage a successful mobile workforce

The secret to successfully overseeing a mobile work force is in the management - of the people, resources and technology. In this column, Craig Mathias offers advice for managing your human capital.

Successfully managing a mobile workforce goes well beyond understanding the technical aspects of mobility and the features of available gadgets. CIOs need to look at the big picture and place more emphasis on managing their human capital – the people who are out and about with only mission-critical wireless devices and services standing between them and the success of the business.

Management style

I've found that managers, who assert the highest degree of trust in their staff, have the most success managing a mobile workforce. These managers know that mobile workers need not just the tools, equipment, and services, but also the support of management. And that begins with an understanding that work is something you do, not just a place you go. Managers who refer to their team as "my people" (heavy on the possessive) often have a difficult time cutting the cord. They end up bombarding field staff with e-mails and phone calls to make sure they're "working". This doesn't work. Many people I've interviewed refer to their mobile devices as "electronic leashes" for just this reason, and they're usually not very happy regardless. But this cuts both ways – mobile professionals need to know they're expected to meet the organization's goals, and the manager's job is to make sure his team has the tools to do so. After that, it should be business as usual.

As for the reporting structure, there's no need to have a designated "mobility manager" in most organizations. Since you're only varying the tools - not the job that needs to get done - field staff should continue to report to their normal management hierarchy.

Enterprise security plans

Another critical point to successfully managing a mobile workforce is to make sure the CIO updates his enterprise security policy or plan. If you don't have one of these, I urge you to create the plan before you proceed with implementing any mobile or wireless operations. It's important to define what information will be available to whom, and under what circumstances. The number one problem with most mobile implementations is security, but this is usually addressable without too much effort.

The majority of mobile products and services available today offer some form of airlink security (that's the connection between the wireless device and the base station or access point at the other end). It's even possible to extend corporate virtual private networks (VPNs) to wireless connections as well. It's also a good idea to have all mobile workers sign an acceptable use policy document just to make sure there are no misunderstandings about what services can be used on the corporate wireless device itself.

Measuring ROI and TCO

It's very important, of course, to consider costs, particularly with respect to total cost of ownership (TCO). Return on Investment (ROI) is also important, but more difficult to measure. I generally recommend that if one can manage the cash flow of an investment in wireless, and demonstrate some form of ROI in terms of improved service, closing new business, or reducing costs, then it's time to make that investment.

ROI especially has accounting implications, and is often highly related to the nature of a specific business. TCO, on the other hand, is simply a calculation of what it costs to provide mobility, including capital expense (the cost of the device), and operational expense (the wireless service sued, and training and support). Regardless, senior management needs to be happy with at least TCO before they'll agree to a mobility plan, so it's best to devote at least some time on this before proceeding to the boardroom.

Gadgets

Wireless technology has improved dramatically over the past two or three years, with much better coverage and network responsiveness. Many mobile users still use notebooks, and they can take advantage of very-high-speed services from Verizon Wireless (1xEV-DO, known as BroadbandAccess), and Cingular (with UMTS). The other major carriers will also offer services in this class (300-600 Kbps) shortly. This kind of power on a handheld device isn't widely available yet, but many handhelds do an excellent job of serving mobile users even with less throughput.

I'm a big fan of the Web Services model, and the browsers on today's handhelds can be quite good. Two that I recommend are Blazer, which comes on the PalmOne Treo 650, and Thunderhawk from Bitstream. And I personally recommend a mobile device with a mini-keyboard for text-intensive activities like e-mail; telephone keypads just don't cut it beyond very brief messages.

We're not yet to the point that we can duplicate the desktop browser experience, but we're not that far off. The real beauty of Web Services is that if you can get your applications running in the office, they will likely work on the road.

Support

Finally, don't forget about support. This is the area where most mobile workers often feel let down – something's just not working, and there's no one available to solve their problem. Tune up your help desk, provide staffing that has the expertise in the products and services being used in the field, and make sure it's staffed to meet the size of the user base. When all of the above come together, it's a thing of beauty – and good for the bottom line as well.

This column originally appeared on SearchCIO.com

Craig J. Mathias is founder of the Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless communications and mobile computing.

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