Knowledge workers benefit from mobility, but maintaining a productive balance requires constant attention.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

April 2, 2004

7 Min Read

Turning the century of techno-wonder, we are now in the era of mobile computing. We embrace the reality of the connected environment prophesied so earnestly years ago. Networks and mobile computing have finally evolved to meet the very real challenge of making workers more productive by bringing connectivity and applications into a natural state of coexistence. Given the rise of wireless broadband and hotspots dotting nearly every major city, an IP address is around the corner — literally.

But the network is yet one small factor in the total equation. Design changes and the evolution of human factors in computing have caught up with silicon processing. Combining the strength of powerful processors and adaptive applications, mobility is coming closer to the productive edge desired by companies in quest of a seamless intertwining of information warehouses and input tools. That's a giant step for employees who want to unchain themselves from the anchored desktop environment.

Before, computer users struggled with manual dexterity. Today, mobile devices have advanced to integrate the smallest form factor with effective — and almost natural — input methods. That rich extensibility, in terms of function and interface, has allowed even the most standoffish user to take note of hardware and software improvements that offer an intuitive approach to computing. Take pen-based inputs, for example: Handwriting recognition software has come of age to capture even the sloppiest penmanship.

While steadily enhancing accuracy and quality, software and firmware developers alike have come to grips with advancing the mode to match user requirements. Scott Eckert, CEO of tablet PC manufacturer Motion Computing (Austin, Texas) describes the evolution of the PC as a journey toward combining human intuition with the power of application handling. "In its most basic form, the PC has evolved to meet the elementary form of human-to-machine interface while enabling us an evolving opportunity to collect and manage data as a secondhand function of everyday life." Motion Computing's founders engineered the company's slate-form technology after extensive user testing revealed highest demand for not just lightweight portability, but even more a clipboard-style approach to data entry. Today, the company's largest clients include hospitals and field service companies that have since traded traditional analog paper and board in favor of tablet performance and digital ink.

Security Speed Bumps

With the rapid deployment of mobile devices, secure information portability isn't a benign concern. Sensitive data on laptops has become a serious bone of contention between IT managers and user communities. It's part of the continuing tug-of-war between the IT function, which needs to reign in information access and deal with vulnerability to hacker penetration, and users in extended enterprises, who are focused on productivity and employing every means to encourage profitability. Harmony between IT control and sensible user participation is what it takes to work on both sides.

Alas, with the hacktivism pandemic on an ever-increasing rampage, security is an understandably widespread obsession. IT managers and users must work together proactively to protect the value of digital property regardless of its physical or mobile status. Thankfully, the bonus intelligence offered by firewall and antivirus solutions plays a strategically important function in controlling the inflow and outflow of data as it reacts with the user network.

Were it not for sophisticated security, growth in mobile computing and information portability might be stymied. Security hurdles could get higher: but the current temperament of IT policy has allowed the technology coalition aligned to meet the threat to work sufficiently. Users are getting what they need; meanwhile, the IT community makes sure that risk is contained through a backdrop of protocol and safety nets.

Are Employees Productive?

In case you haven't visited a Starbucks lately, the scene is coming to resemble an executive library, or perhaps war room. It would be atypical to not see at least a few serious people huddled over their laptops and talking into cell phones, all the while sipping a flavored brew. Welcome to the digital age of 802.11x networks and extreme connectivity. Is all of this connectedness paying dividends? Some say "yes": Others remain cautiously unsure.

The litmus test for measuring productivity comes when you subtract a variable input, such as mobile computing, from a similar interval of time without such an input. Economists often apply a measurement concept known as total factor productivity (TFP) to solve for the variance of efficiency produced by a given input — or technology, as the case may be. What we examine is how mobility affects the output, or rate of improvement, as a case for whether the mobile worker is truly more productive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has long monitored the effects of technology and has contributed significant data to studies over the past decade. These have swayed from favor to disfavor about mobile worker productivity. Recent data, however, shows that mobile workers are adapting quite well, and that the change contributes positively to the enhancement of business operations.

Findings from a client study that my firm performed in cooperation with a university human factors experiment indicated a nominal gain of 11.3% in TFP for employees who apply a combination of wireless voice and data means to accomplish core tasks of their job assignments. Put simply, this translates to a marginal improvement of nearly 4.5 hours of additional productivity per week (assuming a 40-hour work week). Extrapolate this number to the economic value produced by each of your employees, and the productivity contribution is significant. Think of what you could do with an extra 4.5 hours per week.

Perhaps the more direct question is: How are employees generating the positive improvement and which technologies contribute most? The answer is twofold; information technology enhances the productivity of certain tasks, while other tasks are actually hindered. Take email, for example. Most of a typical knowledge worker's functional responsibility depends greatly on communication; email is certainly a widespread means of communicating knowledge today. However, time spent with email can soon reach a point of diminishing returns when users are overwhelmed by the effects of spam or background noise (that is, irrelevant email). Infoglut can extract a high price in productivity.

Cellular mobility has proven its economic worth by enabling real-time communications between knowledge agents and generally accelerating time-critical input. Yet, the voice mobility concept is plagued by a deluge of extemporaneous misuses; it too can reach a point of declining value. The underlying challenge to CIOs is to know just how much connectivity is appropriate given the worker's role in performing a certain assignment. Does everyone need MMS or wireless email? Probably not.

Yet in all fairness to the spread of devices and services available, those products with the highest TFP yield are ones suitably matched to the employee's respective role in the organization. Field service engineers find greater productivity in data sharing alone versus a counterpart sales agent who requires a combination of data and voice to accomplish objectives with a customer.

Sensibility and Pragmatism

Deciphering the true pros and cons of employee mobility can be difficult. But setting aside the economic numbers debate, it's hard to deny that mobile computing contributes heavily to the convergence of knowledge and the compression of time in which the enterprise can now react and operate. The issue at hand today is how much rope you can give users before they go beyond the limits of what's practical and sensible.

For the CIO, mobility is more about setting limits to curb the potential pitfalls of security and information risk. For users, the critical temperance issue is information and communication saturation: that is, knowing the point at which mobility actually hinders the accomplishment of a given set of tasks. On both ends of managing the mobile relationship, the crux of the matter is harnessing technology to equalize risk with appreciable productivity gains. And that's a noble and timely cause.

Guest columnist Frank J. Bernhard is an author, technology economist and managing principal with OMNI Consulting Group LLP, an economic advisory and assurance firm. His latest book is Beyond Collaboration: How Supply Chains Meet Demand Chains (CRC Press, 2004).

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