We are living in a time of immense change, but we are often not very aware of what is happening around us. Our situation is like that in a famous quote, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t a fish.” Even though cell phones were invented less than 50 years ago, and the iPhone less than 10 years ago, they have already become part of our taken-for-granted world. In business, we are now starting to see the rise of the term “enterprise mobility” to describe the trend of working outside an office environment while using mobile devices and cloud services to carry out business tasks. This trend is accelerating and will overtake most large enterprises in the next five years. Will you be ready for the impact of this change?
The answer to this question depends on your understanding of the medium in which you are swimming. We contend that it is made up of three components—technologies, affordances, and organizational change—the TAO of enterprise mobility. In this article, we look at each of the components, and how understanding each of them in the context of enterprise mobility adoption can help to prepare us for the near future of changing business practices. We also examine the processes of innovation and idea diffusion, and why constant innovation is necessary to simply keep up in this rapidly changing field. Having viable innovation practices in place will be the secret of success for those companies that master this new digital and mobile world.
While traces of a vision of being untethered from desks and landline phones while working for a business have existed for the past 50 years, we are only now arriving at the “tipping point” (Gladwell, 2000) of innovation where we recognize that this change is happening very fast. Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, the use of mobile phones has grown such that there are now significantly more mobile phone users than desktop computer users (1.9 billion vs. 1.7 billion worldwide in 2015). While usage of mobile devices varies by industry, the use of mobile phones and tablets has become ubiquitous in most business settings.
Technologies are usually not adopted as single innovations, but come in clusters, often packaged together. Mobile phones are not just phones—they are Trojan horses for over 30 discrete technologies, many invented more than 100 years ago. Enterprise mobility would not be possible without the invention and development of electric batteries (1800), the telegraph (1837), fax machines (1843), telephones (1876), radio (1894), wireless telegraph (1895), television (1909), digital computers (1936), transistors (1947), solid state integrated circuits (1949), silicon chips (1954), satellites (1957), computer networks (1960), pocket computers (1962), databases (1962), computer graphics (1963), touch screens (1965), memory cells (1969), graphical user interfaces (1973), the Global Positioning System (1973), cell phones (1973), digital cameras (1975), cellular networks (1979), and up to a dozen different sensors. (The date after each technology is approximately the year when a working model of the technology became available.) Each technology in this incredible mélange has its own history, and together, along with the myriad of applications that we use, they are precursors to the functionality that we enjoy today from our mobile devices.
Obviously, the development of the technologies in our mobile phones, tablets, and wearables hasn’t happened overnight; but, for many executives, the major technologies now used in business have changed only recently (if at all), becoming much more mobile and miniaturized and using components operating at much higher speeds, while using levels of machine intelligence, big data, and the cloud that didn’t even exist in the early 1990s, when Gloria Gery conceived the notion of improved efficiencies with instant information from electronic performance support systems (Gery, 1991). Such concepts were science fiction at the time, something out of a then-contemporary William Gibson novel. However, with the ubiquitous pocket computing experience offered by the smartphone, tablet, and now wearable devices, it’s clear that the science-fiction books and films of the early days of the Internet were far more accurate than we could have imagined. Certainly, we don’t live in a computer simulation as the Matrix films fictionalized (though there are some very interesting physicists who have put together compelling arguments that we may be in that state of being), but we can take advantage of many of the tropes that we’ve come to know and love from these cyber thrillers.
In the diffusion of any innovation, the necessary technologies usually come first, followed by a set of applications that make the hardware useful for carrying out specific tasks. Sometimes the potential uses of a new technology are not obvious, even to the developers and designers who produced a specific device. Sometimes, the users “reinvent” the possibilities by seeing new uses that the original inventors hadn’t anticipated.
As technology developers and analysts, we refer to what we can do with a particular technology as its “affordances” (Gibson, 1979) or design “action possibilities” (Norman, 1988). Essentially, an affordance is a quality or feature of an object, or of an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action. For example, the handle on a teacup allows it to be lifted without the holder getting burned. A teacup also has a number of other features that make it a great and useful tool.
As technologies change, the possibilities of what can be done also change. All technologies have a set of affordances that makes some actions possible while limiting others. For example, if we look at three different educational or training technologies—a physical classroom, self-paced eLearning, and mobile learning—we can immediately see that the actions of both teachers and users are enabled, shaped, and also limited by the features of each of these technologies. Table 1 shows some of the differences (and similarities) among these three learning technologies.
Table 1: How do learning technologies compare?
Every innovation that an individual or an organization adopts has consequences, many of them unforeseen. It is probably obvious that your workplace has changed because of the use of mobile technologies. Reading the press, though, it’s just as obvious that all of business has changed—it is now global, connected, decentralized, hypercompetitive, and precarious.
How will you keep up? People, process, and tools are the only things you can affect. It’s clear that you need to attract, hire, and retain savvy people to collaborate and complete their work using the latest in technology. Let’s explore what that means for your business. What can you change, enable, and grow for your business? In the words of author Jack Womack, from the afterword of William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic, Neuromancer, “What if the act of writing it down, in fact, brought it about?” Envision what could be possible, and you can make it so.
Certainly, in most industries, there is a steady demand for improved performance and increased productivity. “Do more with less” is a constant refrain. The numbers don’t lie. The recovery in the US that has occurred since the market crash in 2008 was largely a jobless one until very recently. Most hiring in office and knowledge-worker roles has occurred to fill jobs vacated in the downturn, and we are just now hitting the pre-recession employment numbers. At the same time, there has been an increase in both the productivity of the average office worker and in the GDP (gross domestic product). We are actually doing more with less. Perhaps this is the result of the swing to enterprise mobility and all its benefits.
Businesses that have significant market share and a history of growth in their industry are embracing change, as well as extensively employing mobile technology. A 2013 study by research firm i4cp found that “high-performance organizations” are over four times better at managing organizational change compared with low-performance organizations (i4cp, 2013). And business leaders “are increasingly adopting an extensible Mobile Application Platform (MAP) approach” as the infrastructure underpinning such organizational change (Cloud Standards Customer Council, 2013). Accenture (2016) found that 54 percent of exemplary companies “deployed a mobile-enterprise app store (versus only 22 percent of other organizations), providing enterprise-grade functionality to their mobile users,” while a recent Salesforce research study showed that “high-performing organizations are 3.5 times more likely than underperformers to extensively use mobile reporting tools” (Salesforce Research, 2015). The importance of an enterprise mobility strategy was also highlighted in 2013 research by the Brandon Hall Group (Freifeld, 2013) showing that high-performance organizations had:
- A formal mobile learning strategy
- An integrated learning plan that incorporates mobile web and apps into their LMS
- Content that is accessible through mobile devices
- Engaging and effective mobile content
- A well-thought-out and mature mobile learning model
The time of hesitation is over. Enterprise mobility is not a phase or a fad. These devices, and all their wonderful affordances, are here to stay.
A key recommendation would be to start examining some of your stickiest problems and begin with a clean slate. What nagging issues have you been unable to solve with learning, training, workshops, and the usual approaches to information access and sharing you’ve typically tried? It’s entirely possible that the solution is already in someone’s hand in your company. It’s time to engage with your workers, begin a human-centered design process, and find out what clever pieces of technology could be combined to make the problems go away.
Cloud Standards Customer Council. Convergence of Social, Mobile and Cloud: 7
Steps to Ensure Success. 2013.
Daugherty, Paul. Masters of the digital universe.
Freifeld, Lorri. “Mobile Learning is Gaining Momentum.” Training. 29 November 2013. https://trainingmag.com/content/mobile-learning-gaining-momentum
Gery, Gloria. Electronic Performance Support Systems. Gery Associates, 1991.
Gibson, James J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979.
Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little, Brown and Co, 2000.
i4cp. Building a Change-Ready Organization: Critical Human Capital Issues
2013. Institute for Corporate Productivity, 2013.
Norman, Donald A. The Design of Everyday Things. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Salesforce Research. State of Analytics. Salesforce, 2015. https://www.salesforce.com/form/conf/2015-state-of-analytics.jsp