The final frontier

Making the leap towards a mobile workforce is a bold one, though there are some organisations making the move without abandoning the traditional office.

Tags: Avaya IncorporationEmirates Telecommunications CorporationHuawei Technologies CompanyIDC Middle East and AfricaNational Corporation for Tourism and HotelsUnited Arab Emirates
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The final frontier NETTO: A hardware issue that means the system is down, and you can‘t log into a system that is physically down. (Khaled Termanini/ITP Images)
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By  Nathan Statz Published  July 18, 2009 Arabian Computer News Logo

Mobility is one of those buzz words that's made the leap from marketing jargon into everyday speech. The transition was helped along by the sex appeal of enterprise toys like smartphones and laptops which make the idea more than a little appealing to employees.

Everybody likes receiving a gift and staff members will love it when the packages from a local vendor show up in the office, but amidst the graveyard of cardboard boxes and bubble wrap will come the concerns of upper management who are more interested in a return on their investment, rather than freeing a BlackBerry from its plastic prison.

The reason for this concern is rooted in the fact that a mobility strategy runs a little deeper than just handing out gadgets with a smile and a handshake. Most businesses can't escape the fact that sometimes employees need to be out on the road, particularly the sales team, and CIOs will often wake up to an inbox stuffed with conference and convention invites that really need attending.

Shanjose Netto, IT manager at the Millennium Hotel in Sharjah, knows all too well about the need business travelers have to be connected to their home office. Often guests will call up months in advance to speak directly with IT to be certain that the internet will be up and working and that there will be enough bandwidth to run their applications.

"People are coming to this country for business-related work and if the e-mail is not working, it's like they are dead," explains Netto. "You have guests tipping our existing staff a big amount because they were so happy to receive an email showing he was just paid 3 or 4 million [dollars]."

This hunger for constant connection to the office is nothing new for enterprises. The workday has evolved to the point where being off the clock never really happens. It's not an uncommon sight to see a smartphone start vibrating when dinner is on the table and it has become second nature to pick it up and quickly glance at the latest communiqué.

Given this environment, it's surprising to note that mobility is still far from being adopted wholeheartedly. Concepts like hot-desking employees, where staff only spend certain days at a desk and often share it, and generally encouraging your workforce to spend more time on the road and at home are great in theory, but if you take a stroll through your nearest office block you will notice that apart from the sales team, everyone is still at their desks and the scene looks the same as it did 30 years ago, only with different technology on desks.

For Ihab Ghattas, assistant president for the Middle East at technology and network vendor, Huawei, opting for a completely mobile office is not the best strategy because there is still a human element that needs to be considered. He believes that the way forward is to focus on facilitating the traditional office with mobility as opposed to cancelling it.

"In many cases you could run video conferencing facilities, you could run texting and messaging or whatever it is, which is great, but in my personal opinion this turns us as humans into sheep," clarifies Ghattas.

Despite highrises still being flush with traditional desk-chained workers, there are those like Saleh Mohamed Al Habshi, head of IT at the National Corporation for Tourism and Hotels in Abu Dhabi, who is leading the charge for the implementation of a mobility strategy as early as next year. The plan is to implement virtual private networks and improve the ability of the first line of management to access mobile office technologies, beyond that of simply having a BlackBerry, according to Al Habshi.

"It will make a great difference of course, especially for our project managers who now - most of the time - are on site, they're not in the office here and also for our guest-operations managers," he continues.

There are of course scenarios where the ability to access the office network is not going to be enough and physically being on the premises is unavoidable. The Millennium Hotel's Netto uses the example of hardware failure, where all the mobility and connectivity in the world is not going to be able to help you access a server that won't switch on.

"If we are facing a hardware issue that means the system is down and there is no way you can remotely come into a system that is physically down. There has to be somebody very capable of taking a decision, like the IT manager or the senior staff, who have to come here and evaluate what the issue is," outlines Netto.

Calm in a crisis

One of the larger questions that crops up during mobility discussions is whether the technology exists to effectively handle a crisis from outside the office. With all the channels of communication that are open to the modern executive, there is still something to be said for the ability to walk up to an employee and have a face-to-face chat that isn't being viewed through a flood of electrons. This will usually depend on a case-by-case basis though, as some roles may be less demanding of in-office time than others.

Stephen Fearon, vice president of CRM on demand and sales development at Oracle EMEA, personally doesn't feel the need to be in the office, but believes that with a European job where you travel a lot of the time, that is considered par for the course.

"For network connectivity I've got 3G on the phone and the laptop and you can get onto all of those things, be it in the airport or where you are landing. I might land and then give you e-mail communication, approvals and looking at the key performance indicators for the business," he says.

"If you look at it from a of troop level - the key people who are on the road the most and want to be getting a particular benefit from having a mobile office is probably sales people," he claims.

As the senior manager of mobility solutions at the United Arab Emirates' largest telco, Etisalat, Shady Fouad is in a unique position to be able to view the enterprise market from a carrier perspective. He believes that the technology definitely exists where you can be connected and in control of operations when you are out of the office: "I would say for some companies, and supermarkets are one of them, the only reason I go to the office is to see my colleagues and [mobility] is now complimenting how human beings work," he claims.

According to Fouad, when talking with CIOs about their mobility strategy and data plans with Etisalat, the main concerns are the cost and capability of systems. This often means asking how old the systems being used are, and whether an upgrade is necessary to utilise mobility technology. Unsurprisingly this can cause headaches when the business is running on a fleet of PCs without a laptop in sight. It goes without saying that a mobility strategy looks much more attractive when it doesn't come with a pricey bill for a business-wide rollout of new laptops.

Mobility is a dish best served illustratively for Roger El-Tawil, director of channels and marketing for MENA and Turkey at Avaya, who answered a phone call that went to Avaya's office in Dubai and was transferred automatically to his home phone and then across to his mobile, which he answered with a wirelessly-connected Bluetooth headset.

"We had several issues in the past year that I can remember where people had to work from home. If you remember when Bush was coming into Dubai everyone worked from home," continues El-Tawil. "I'm on the road at least 50% of my time and at airport lounges, between customer meetings and your day-to-day work doesn't stop."

One of the important things to note about mobility is that it's not a brand new technology, the hardware and technical expertise to access networks remotely and be able to utilise applications from the road has been around for years. What has not been around for a similar period of time is a positive attitude towards the utilisation of remote communication technology - rather it was once seen as an unnecessary business risk.

Huawei's Ghattas explains that security is one of the main concerns of CIOs when it comes to facing a mobility strategy: "I think in this part of the world, we need to build the confidence and the security of the internet in general. A lot of people still have a fear of doing certain operations over the internet like banking and so forth."

"Every time that you cross the street there is a risk, so if you want to completely eliminate risks you stay at home. But risk is an important issue, from one angle we have to improve the security measures on the equipment side, on the network side, that's one aspect of it. But the other aspect of it is the confidence of the consumer on the internet," adds Ghattas.

While you may not find too many enterprises in the Middle East which have embraced mobility to the point of abandoning traditional office space altogether, elements of the technology are being embraced all the time. For many CIOs who are glancing at the infrastructure costs associated with keeping the office ticking, the prospect of sending employees to work from home and on the road is an enticing one. What ultimately wins out though, is the clear and present need for a physical presence to entertain clients, hold meetings and ultimately to have a gathering point for the swarm of company worker bees.

This isn't to say mobility doesn't have its place, there is definitely a surge towards empowering the workforce with the ability to stay connected to the office, though this is looking more to upgrade the enterprise workplace and not to the abandonment of it. Convincing executives who have been successfully running sprawling multi-nationals that they should start sending employees home more often is a hard sell - explaining the benefits of an enchanced office, not so much.

Ask the analyst

When you talk to CIOs in the region, what are their main concerns around mobility?
Well they have concerns around security. There is a perception of an issue of security, and they also have an issue with integration with their existing applications. That's primarily it in terms of the solution itself, I would say those are the two major ones in terms of barriers.

How in touch with the upgrade cycle of mobility products should CIOs elect to be?
I would imagine that they shouldn't just be following any new offering that a vendor would be developing. Obviously the IT team would be looking into what makes sense for keeping the company's security [safe] and which type of devices would support that.

Said Irfan is the research manager of the telecommunications group in MENA and Turkey at IDC.

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