Bringing IT mobility to the workforce

With mobile computing now reaching wide scale enterprise level deployment status, Adrian Bridgwater examines the technical challenges for companies seeking to truly mobilise their workforce.
Bringing IT mobility to the workforce
By Adrian Bridgwater
Mon 04 Aug 2008 04:00 AM

With mobile computing now reaching wide scale enterprise level deployment status, Adrian Bridgwater examines the technical challenges for companies seeking to truly mobilise their workforce.

Modern Arab enterprises have been rolling out mobile computing technologies in a bid to raise their employees' productivity for some years now.

But as recently as a decade ago users were still largely concerned with how small a mobile they could get their hands on, while laptops and PDAs (personal digital assistants) were still in their relatively early ascendancy. But times have changed.

Mobile devices have now come full circle and encompass diary, camera, text edit and telephony capabilities. Laptops have become ultra thin, ultra light and sometimes even ultra small.

Unless a significantly higher level of security provisioning is put into place, businesses risk losing the benefits of mobility as their systems are hacked, infiltrated and plundered for the equity that exists in their corporate data.

Connectivity channels have evolved and bandwidth has broadened to accommodate the pressure of the corporate data stream. In short, companies no longer have mobile devices per se; they now have a ‘mobile device strategy'.

Although it may sound like marketing-speak, the ‘strategy' element is crucial here. For most businesses in the Middle East this means planning and provisioning.

It's not just a question of placing an order for 250 new laptops and a few dozen mobile phones and making sure they're fully charged up before sharing them out. There are many concerns and potential problem areas to provision for, if the deployment is to be successful for long-term use.

It is sometimes argued that this is the point at which the responsibility for technology crosses over from hardware to software. It is easy to talk about the ‘robustness' of mobile devices if they are built with shockproof cases and ergonomically designed exteriors.

But robustness at the core comes only from software-driven systems designed to be resilient to viral attacks and hacking.

In practice this is more than firewalls, anti-virus packages or corporate spam controls and access privileges. Think a league or two up from this baseline and start considering intrusion protection, anti-spyware software or perhaps even ciphers and encryption keys.

Unless a significantly higher level of security provisioning is put into place, Middle East businesses risk loosing the potential benefits of mobility as their systems are hacked, infiltrated and plundered for the equity that exists in the corporate data that they hold.

Given that these new security concerns raise their head as more workers need access to the corporate data centre and its protected data, it is the database vendors themselves who have had to raise their game. Companies like Sybase have, over the last 10 years, made successful corporate acquisitions to bring in this kind of ‘provisioning' where expertise may not have already existed inside the organisation.

"Given the prevalence of large scale mobile device deployments here in the Middle East and elsewhere, enterprises have to build in a new strategic layer into their IT plans.

Terms like ‘robust' and ‘secure' may be somewhat over-used, but they do express the key factors that modern businesses need to consider for their mobile workforce, especially if the work in hand is of a sensitive nature or defence-related," says Sevag Kalayjian, Sybase regional manager for the Middle East.

The still nascent nature of economic development across the Middle East and the Gulf in particular lends itself to a plethora of application scenarios for sophisticated mobile technology. Whether it is traditional Windows or Linux-based computing devices, hybrid devices or specialised purpose-built machines there is a demand for data on-the-go.

In healthcare, surveying, construction, utilities, or even the oil business, companies do not want their workers to operate without access to information all the time, irrespective of whether they are sitting at a desk or not.

Commenting on the growing implementation of mobility systems by enterprises, Nimer Ghazal, Middle East regional sales manager for Secure Computing says: "Enterprises in diverse industries are increasingly realising the benefits of a mobile workforce; they have maximised the productivity and efficiency of their operations and staff, while providing employees the flexibility to work outside their office environment.""However, enterprises also need to keep an eye on the problem of mobile viruses, which is not yet a major threat, but could soon be a serious concern with a steadily increasing number of remote workers accessing the Internet through their mobile devices.

Organisations need to extend their internet usage policy, data protection and anti-malware protection to their mobile workforce and should implement strict security measures against the malware which is spreading across many destructive web sites," he adds.

Ghazal went on to say that these security policies should also control what type of access to the corporate network employees have while working remotely.

For most companies the obligation for data protection falls to the IT department. Unless the process is identified and a strategy is defined, it may not happen at all.

In addition they should enforce the use of encryption for sensitive data stored on the device or data in motion to and from the device. As a company, Secure Computing champions the use of software-based two-factor users authentication to provide an additional layer of data protection.

This also involves technology such as the company's MobilePass client software that generates fresh ‘one-time only' passwords produced directly on both handheld and portable devices.

Another key vertical where large scale mobile deployments can be found is the construction industry, which for the last few decades has been a key driver in the growth of Gulf countries.

This has necessitated a rapid evolution from the construction industry itself, both within the operational offices that architect the projects and on site among the workers. Mobile computing devices have become an integral part of any major build project at a level far beyond the mobile phone.

"The pace of technological change in mobile computing has been as rapid as the burgeoning construction sector and there have been innumerable areas where building firms and their supporting partners have put products from our range into deployment, especially where full and permanent connectivity was required - a field that Fujitsu Siemens Computers has built up a solid market leadership in," says Andreas Thimmel, senior vice president volume business for Fujitsu Siemens Computers.

"Crucially, this has meant that the right data and communication channels have been open at the right time to the people that need it - and information, as we know, builds efficiency. Jobs have been completed faster, closer to budget, safer and with less overall cost and power consumption. This is particularly important for our company as we strive to champion the cause of green computing across the Middle East," he adds.

So with the question of security provisioning for the mobile workforce reasonably well identified here, the next logical step is to define responsibility for these controls so that we can measure and manage their effectiveness.

Broadly speaking, it is only the security specialist IT vendors who will appoint a ‘chief security officer' to act as a spokesperson on data risk. For most companies the obligation for data protection falls to the IT department.

This may sound like a simplistic statement, but unless the process is identified and a strategy is defined and agreed upon - it may not happen at all.

"Arabian businesses should make the IT department and, preferably, the PC team responsible for wireless PDAs and smartphones; more than 50% of Global 2000 enterprises already have. Wireless PDAs and smartphones are increasingly used together with or as a complement to laptops.

Middle Eastern enterprises should use the same processes to manage wireless PDAs and smartphones as PCs and, when available, leverage the same tools.

By making the same team responsible for all mobile devices, maintaining user policies in a single location and uniformly enforcing them, regardless of device, is greatly facilitated. In addition, the interface to the help desk function is streamlined," says vice president Leif-Olof Wallin of Gartner Research.

"Large organisations are increasingly, where possible, separating device ownership from voice and data subscriptions. IT departments should segment the user base into profiles and ensure that each profile has the right combination of devices, voice, services, training, software and support," he added.

If Middle Eastern businesses are to fully profit from the use of mobile computing devices then they need to provide a security layer commensurate with the sensitivity and economic value of the data they hold.

This will require focus with a view to user behaviour. It may be down to restricting the ability to download third-party applications; establishing procedures for employees to follow if they loose their smartphone or laptop; or more intuitive controls placed over corporate VPN access from any type of device. With luck, it will be all of these.

Form factors for functionsIt's time to raise the perception of the mobile computing device above the level of the laptop. Businesses embarking on enterprise-wide deployment may be working with technology that comes in a wider variety of ‘form factors' designed to provide more than you might well have imagined.

• Laptops, mobile phones and PDAs: still with us of course - but in a seemingly infinite variety as no single manufacturer has created the perfect machine. Yet.

• GPS devices: used to track courier shipments.

• The surveying, field engineering, construction and outdoor leisure industries make huge use of ‘ruggedised' handheld units.

• Wearable electronic devices: embedded electronic sensors in sports clothing. This technology is already extant and ready to deploy.

• RFID: the retail industry makes massive use of mobile scanning devices and RFID tags to control its goods.

• Travel: airports, train stations and other travel terminals around the world are using fixed kiosk and mobile technologies to scan and read passengers' details.

"Today's business world demands constant connectivity. Advanced enterprise & SMB smartphone platforms offer powerful features that keep Arabian users plugged in to email, calendars and intranet systems. However, if they aren't deployed and managed properly, smartphones can present significant security risks.

Smartphones carry and have access to a staggering amount of sensitive corporate information, including internal communications, customer contacts, financial information and intranet systems and networks.

If this information falls into the wrong hands, either through malicious software or because a phone was lost or stolen, it could have a devastating impact on a business," says Jean Paul Ballerini, senior technology solutions expert, IBM Internet Security Systems.

Business communication has spiraled within the mobile space and huge gains in organisational productivity are potentially achievable if the appropriate security concerns are addressed, devices rolled out and managed carefully. To make this happen in the Middle East, there may be one additional layer required to make this happen.

Echoing the comments made by Gartner Research, Cairo headquartered LINK Development CEO Hanan Abdel Meguid says the problem is that for years most organisations have had two separate but parallel investments in terms of communications: one around a voice network (telephone, fax, voicemail) and another around a data network (data, internet, email).

Bringing them together into a single stream of unified communications (UC) can, potentially, save money, make managing the network easier and make it more powerful in terms of what it can deliver and where.

"New communication methods like mobile telephony and videoconferencing have been developed but have remained separate silos and therefore increased overall complexity once again. So we end up with multiple communication systems, different interfaces and technologies and a lack of effective integration," said Abdel Meguid.

LINK Development's proposition to companies that rely heavily on information exchange and collaboration - a category that increasingly describes most businesses - is that UC streamlines communications and minimises delays caused by the use of multiple and often disconnected communication systems.

So where does this leave enterprises? There are more workers, more devices, more data, more languages more ways to communicate and more types of data including video and sources of rich Internet applications.

On the other hand there are also now more hackers, more spyware, more intelligent self-spawning malware, more e-commerce risk and more cyber-fraud to no doubt counterbalance this developing reality. There are pluses and minuses apparent on both sides of the equation, but in general there is no reason to stop Arabian business moving forward with the adoption of this new computing paradigm.

The glass is half empty, the glass is half full…Individuals who shudder at the thought of being given an additional ‘communication' channel to connect them to their office or manager may not be in the right job. One should consider the pros and cons of ‘always on' working.

The glass is half empty

• So-called ‘micro-managers' who interfere with every little detail of their team's work will be tempted to further infuriate their employees.

• "Honey! Put that BlackBerry down!" - personal relationships have been known to suffer as result of one half of a marriage being just too ‘connected'.

• Management will potentially lose focus from disenchanted employees if they work from home or on the road. Productivity losses will show themselves eventually, but losses may result before they can be quickly identified.

• Stress factors: males in their 30s and 40s suffer some of the highest levels of stress for any workers, carrying what is effectively a mobile office with them at all times may not help this situation.

The glass is half full

• White papers and industry trade publications - if workers read these valuable data sources on their own time then the company prospers.

• The water cooler factor: although employees may not be able to network quite as much with their co-workers, the lack of distractions may outweigh any negative aspects.

• The flexibility factor: employee A needs to be in Jebel Ali at 10 in the morning, then catch a plane for afternoon meetings in Manama before flying back to catch up on all the days events via e-mail. Suddenly, this just isn't a problem anymore.

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