Beat the clock

TORONTO – Canadian companies have to develop policies that ensure the mobile computing devices they’re using to boost productivity don’t put users at risk or chain them to the office, executives told the NetworkWorld Canada conference on Tuesday.

At a panel discussion with

several vendors, the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) presented the results of a small survey of more than 300 Canadian organizations that outlined trends in mobile computing. While 74 per cent said they hoped tools to create a “portable office” would increase worker productivity, 82 per cent also said they were worried about security and virus issues. The other consistent feedback, said CATA executive director Norm Kirkpatrick, was that productivity could have a dark side for many employees. 

“There is a concern that (mobile computing) may become an electronic leash,” he said, “or that it will turn them into 24 by 7 employees.”

The answer, according to NexInnovations CIO Michael Harrison, is enterprise-wide rules around when mobile devices have to be shut off. “For us, it’s basically ‘Don’t RIM and drive,’” he said, referring to the use of Research In Motion’s BlackBerry devices in vehicles. “You start checking your messages, and before you know if you’ve got sucked in and you’ve completely lost control of your vehicle.”

If employees get into a car accident as result of using their BlackBerry devices, Harrison said, NexInnovations will not indemnify them.

Tracy Fleming, national IP telephony practice leader at Avaya Canada, had been discussing the merits of Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), a forthcoming standard that will allow mobile voice data to follow users across devices and platforms, like a phone call that transfers seamlessly from a cell phone to a desktop phone once a user arrives at work. SIP-based systems are tailored to employee work habits, Fleming said, which could also make it more difficult for employees to manage their downtime. “The filtering has got to get a lot more intelligent,” he said.

There is no question, however, that some firms are hoping to squeeze more results from the eight or more hours employees spend on the clock. Victor Garcia, CTO at Hewlett-Packard Canada Co. said mobile computing was specifically deployed to internally to fill up the “dead space” in a workday, such as waiting for a taxi or for a plane at an airport, by connecting to enterprise applications. “When else would we have time to check and answer e-mail?” he said. “If we had to wait until we got back to the office and logged back in, we would give up our lives.”

NexInnovations, which began an enterprise mobility strategy by rolling out BlackBerry devices to its field sales force years ago, started seeing a return on its investment within 16 days of deployment, Harrison said. Garcia, meanwhile, said HP has managed to reduce the time between a service ticket opening and closing by “a number of factors” as work can be distributed while they are on the road. In some cases, mobility is also meaning significant reductions in travel costs, including mileage and related expenses, said Microsoft Canada chief security advisor John Weigelt.

Despite reports of rampant laptop thefts and hackers getting in through wireless access points, it’s possible to achieve secure enterprise mobility today, Weigelt added. This involves a mix of legislation (corporate governance standards) policies around who owns the data on a personal digital assistant, and physical controls when shared resources like laptops are checked in and out of the office.

“You can apply the same ‘defence in depth’ to mobile devices that you would to anything else in your organization,” he said.

Many organizations start their mobility strategy with a simple goal of getting e-mail on the road, Garcia said. They don’t plan far enough ahead to prepare their network infrastructure to roll out sales force automation and other tools, or for the range of different devices – PDAs, notebooks, etc. – that will become part of the network. “What started as a simple solution becomes a complex mess,” he said.

Fleming said emerging technologies such as SIP will change the way we think about mobility because it will mean one address for users to remember, but it also has to be “brutally easy” in order for adoption to take off. “If your worker is leaving the building with a Batman toolbelt of devices, there’s a problem,” he said.

Approximately 55 per cent of those surveyed by CATA believe the “portable office” will be a reality within three years, Kirkpatrick said.

NetworkWorld Canada continues on Wednesday.

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