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4/30/2013
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SMBs Love Mobile, Struggle On Strategy

Mobile use skyrockets in small and midsized businesses, says SMB Group annual survey. But what about measuring results?

Mobile World Congress 2013: 9 Hot Gadgets
Mobile World Congress 2013: 9 Hot Gadgets
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How much do SMBs love mobility? Let us count the ways.

Overall usage of mobile technologies is nearing total saturation at 91%, according to the SMB Group's annual mobility study. Bring-your-own-device (BYOD) offices have nearly doubled from the previous year. Employee use of internal apps for things like collaboration and CRM is up 20% from the 2012 study. Mobile device management (MDM) is also on the rise, with adoption up 15%. All of this means mobile is commanding larger slices of SMB technology budgets, too.

Indeed, all arrows continue to point skyward. "I've been in the IT industry over 20 years [and] I've never seen any kind of category of technology take off like this," said SMB Group partner Laurie McCabe in an interview. All in a relatively short time, too. Apple's iPhone, a major catalyst here, doesn't celebrate its sixth birthday until June. "[Mobile has] just taken off like a rocket," McCabe said.

The question: Is there strategy behind such pervasive mobile usage? SMB execs and employees certainly seem to think so. More than half (58%) of SMBs report improved productivity as a result of internal apps, and 52% say such apps enable better and faster decisions. Nearly half (48%) say that "internal" apps have a significant external impact in the form of improved customer service.

[ Will wider availability of Wi-Fi help SMBs? Read 36 NYC Subway Stations Get Wi-Fi. ]

"Do [SMBs] view [mobile] strategically? I think a lot of them do," McCabe said. "That doesn't mean they have a great strategy."

There's the rub. Calling something strategic and having a sound strategy aren't the same thing. As InformationWeek's Chris Murphy wrote recently: "Apps aren't a plan."

So what makes a smart mobile strategy in the wide, diverse world of SMBs? And how do you effectively measure results? McCabe pointed out an advantage here for smaller companies, especially the "S" in SMB: It might be easier to find reliable qualitative measures for mobile's impact -- as in, "I literally see my employees becoming more productive because of Device X or App Y" -- without needing hard quantitative data to prove results. It's easier for time-crunched small businesspeople, generally speaking, to connect the dots between their mobile usage and their bottom lines -- more so than other boomtown categories like social media.

"It's not like a large enterprise, when you're doing a [complex] return on investment analysis," McCabe. "In their gut, [SMBs] feel that these things are benefits they are getting." Gut metrics might not satisfy Wall Street; they can be perfectly sensible on Main Street.

In the case of some customer-facing apps and technologies, SMBs can rely on the kind of numbers that please Wall Street, too: Dollars and cents. McCabe pointed to the rapidly growing mobile payments sector as Exhibit A. For a small retail business, a mobile payments app could be a linchpin of a mobile strategy -- if not the strategy. If you're handling an increasing volume of transactions over iPhones or other mobile devices, showing results could be as straightforward as showing an account statement. Appointment scheduling apps offer another example, McCabe said. Service businesses that experience an uptick in bookings after deploying a mobile offering don't necessarily have to do a lot of heavy-duty analysis to prove ROI.

McCabe noted that internal tools often require more qualitative assessments, especially for small firms with resources already stretched thin. But even then, such assessments don't need to rely on the "mobile's hot so it must be making a difference for us" types of "measurement" that doesn't really hit upon any tangible benefits. McCabe pointed to inventory management apps. Once upon a time, inventory tasks required you to be in a physical place at a specific time, but not anymore. "I think you measure that in time savings, which you then translate to cost savings," McCabe said. She doesn't think most SMBs are actually doing that calculation. That's not necessarily a problem -- again, smaller organizational size becomes a boon here.

In his Global CIO column, Murphy shared a quote from an exec at a recent tech conference that illuminates a problem for some large businesses: "In a lot of organizations, you have 27 mobile apps with different corporate sponsors with no cohesive strategy." Sure, the same problem could plague midsize firms, especially those approaching 1,000 employees or more. But most SMBs can exploit a competitive advantage here. The buck stops with fewer people and mobile strategy should be no exception. Nor should the qualitative approach be looked down upon simply because of an insatiable thirst for stats.

"[SMBs] may not be quantifying the [mobile] benefit -- but they clearly see the benefit," McCabe said. "It's their gut. It's working. But like I said, this stuff can be quantified if they want to."

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