What to consider before mobilizing your workforce

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

As technology makes it possible for workers on the move to be connected to their files, data and clients at anytime from anywhere, there is a greater expectation for worker productivity. But unless you take into account issues such as mobile and Wi-Fi network performance, service provider data limits, stress of mobile devices on server infrastructure, differences in device hardware and software, and mobile security, you may have a "mobile" workforce, but one that is less productive and more expensive than an in-office workforce.

Say you are traveling on the Acela from your office in New York to a meeting in Washington, D.C. During the three-hour trip, you plan to use your iPad and the train's free Wi-Fi to watch a company-mandated training video. You then plan on using your laptop to download and fine-tune a large PowerPoint presentation needed for the meeting. This would be the definition of maximizing your productivity via mobile. But guess what? You can't do either of those tasks. Amtrak blocks streaming video on its Wi-Fi and restricts file downloads to 10MB.

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Annoyed, you connect your iPad to the Verizon network. Things are streaming very well over your 4G connection until you are suddenly handed off to 3G and the headache of buffering begins. You pull into Union Station frustrated at not accomplishing what you needed to get done.

This example demonstrates some of the network limitations you might encounter when mobilizing your workforce. You cannot control the conditions on public networks and if something goes wrong, you are at the mercy of that service provider.

To gain the full benefits of mobility, you need to anticipate where your mobile workforce will be located and their connectivity needs. If you expect your workers to be primarily in areas with spotty coverage or slow speeds, having them work via mobile might not make sense. A project manager working for an oil company will most likely have greater difficulty finding network conditions that meet his/her mobile working needs in the Texas Panhandle than will a commodities trader from New York working for a week at the Chicago Stock Exchange.

Many wireless service providers are now reducing the amount of data that users can access per month. If your company works with large video or audio files, these data caps can be met surprising fast. At that point, your mobile workers will either experience a throttling of their data speeds (and therefore decreased productivity) or exorbitant overage fees.

Before fully mobilizing, you must also know how your existing back-end infrastructure will handle the stress of mobile users. Given that the latency of a mobile device is inherently more than what is experienced by broadband users, if 5% of your workforce is mobile, they could easily be using 50% of your server resources. Add that to an infrastructure currently operating at 60% capacity, and you've got a recipe for disaster. If you can avoid a server crash, service will be greatly slowed for all users, not just mobile workers.

Another IT consideration for a successful mobilization effort is how to support the myriad mobile devices used by your workers. Troubleshooting, security and support are relatively efficient when you are dealing with common hardware and software systems in a centralized workplace. With mobile, unless you expend considerable capital upfront to invest in a uniform hardware and software platform, you are looking at multiple devices, operating systems and networks, each with their own unique set of IT challenges.

Does your IT staff have the knowledge to fix iPhone 4S issues? How about bugs in applications that run on the new Android Jelly Bean OS? How do they handle these issues when the person who is having the problem is not down the hall but 3,000 miles away? Mobilizing your enterprise apps across multiple platforms requires both the upfront cost of mobilization and the continued cost of optimization for each successive device and operating system.

TECH DEBATE: Mobile security: In the device or in the network?

The bottom line costs of security for a mobile workforce that can be quite a bit more than for a fixed workforce. This is largely due to the increase in potential points of entry that need to be secured. Any Starbucks, airport lounge, or hotel room Wi-Fi connection now becomes a potential entry point to your network for those who would seek to cause mischief, or worse. Do you pay to secure employees' private mobile devices or do you roll the dice and hope that they make smart decisions that don't put your data at risk?

While greater mobility for companies and their employees is a reality and has tremendous advantages, you cannot rush into mobilizing your workforce without considering the associated costs. Without doing so, any potential bottom-line benefits due to increased worker productivity could be offset by increased IT expenditures and security breaches. Only by seriously contemplating these factors as they affect your entire organization, not just those workers who will be mobile, will you be able to implement a successful, productive, and cost-effective workforce mobilization strategy.

Dave Berg is the senior director of product management at Shunra Software, a Philadelphia-based company specializing in network virtualization to help firms worldwide ensure application performance and end user experience. For more information, please visit http://www.shunra.com.

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