Mobile collaboration: Harnessing the next phase in mobility

Editor's note: The Forrester Research analysts quoted in this report were among the speakers at Forrester's 2011 Content & Collaboration and Business Process Forums, where they discussed these issues in more detail.



By most accounts, the business use of mobile devices is growing. Armed with their smartphones and tablet PCs, employees are finding new and innovative ways of getting their jobs done from wherever they happen to be. Often, this requires working together—collaborating—to strategize and improve productivity.

But while mobile collaboration can be good for business, it requires the IT organization to deliver services that put greater demands on the IT infrastructure.

Mobile collaboration: Definitions and trends

"Mobile collaboration means working together wherever you are. It doesn't matter where your location is," says Ted Schadler, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "You're able to get the communication and the resources you need to work together."

Among the trends driving mobile collaboration is the fact that consumers are, by nature, social and collaborative. As they become accustomed to using those technologies in their personal lives, they want to use the business equivalents on their mobile devices.

"Increasingly, people are wanting to use their mobile devices—smartphones, touch phones, tablets—to do all the same things they can do on their computers," says Schadler, who is co-author, with fellow analyst Josh Bernoff, of "Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, Transform Your Business" (Harvard Business Press, 2010).

Applications for mobile collaboration

Forrester identifies eight types of applications that businesses should consider as they begin to mobilize their collaboration strategies.

-- Email and calendars. "The traditional killer app for mobile has been email. That is core to productivity," says Koplowitz. According to a Forrsights Workforce Employee Survey in early 2011, 87% of smartphone workers use email on their devices.

-- Document-based collaboration. Users need to be able to work with documents, reports and other information from their mobile devices.

-- Web conferencing. Tools for Web conferencing, such as WebEx and GoToMeeting, allow users to schedule meetings regardless of participants' actual locations.

-- Activity streams. Described by Schadler as "Twitter for the enterprise," activity streams allow users to receive information feeds from fellow team members. Users can share what they're working on and solicit information from colleagues—for instance, asking whether anybody's got a good contact at a particular company.

-- Presence and chat. While this class of applications hasn't yet taken off for mobile collaboration, Forrester expects adoption to pick up as people recognize the usefulness of knowing, via presence technology, whether colleagues are available for a quick conversation even when they're not in the office.

-- Social collaboration. These applications include internal blogs, wikis, community sites and social networks.

-- Expertise location. "One of the most common apps for business is expertise location," says Schadler. This app allows user to quickly find colleagues with a specific type of knowledge or skill set. Schadler describes these apps as "a phone directory on steroids, but enhanced with [information about] who is available that day."

-- Videoconferencing. According to Skype, 39% of its 170 million active monthly customers use the Internet-based communication service for work. And now Web-conferencing vendors are adding videoconferencing functionality to their services.

Collaboration challenges for IT

Forrester says these applications also share one key characteristic affecting the IT organization: the expectation of low latency on a wireless network. Users are accustomed to having instant access to consumer mobile apps and games, and they expect that same level of service from the business apps they use on their mobile devices.

That can create problem in the traditional client/server model where multiple trips to the server to bring data to the device can introduce latency. Combine this with the need to deliver native applications to a variety of device types and operating systems, and IT faces quite a challenge. The answer, according to Forrester, is to deliver mobile-collaboration apps via what it calls "a new mobile-app Internet architecture."

"The app Internet is an application architecture of native apps on smart mobile devices linked to cloud-based services that provide a context-rich experience anytime, anywhere," Schadler writes in a Forrester report, "Mobilize Your Collaboration Strategy."

The difference in the user experience can be compared to using Web-based email rather than a native email app on a smartphone or other mobile device. Web-based email is clunky. It's slow and difficult to navigate. A native email app is faster and easier to use because it was designed for the device, and because data is cached on the device.

"It is a device-versus-data source location issue," explains Rob Koplowitz, a Forrester vice president and principal analyst. "On the vendor side, this is difficult to live in… If you're a small software company, it's a lot of engineering to build for all devices. The tension exists: Can I just build a mobile browser version of the software that doesn't cache the data close to where I'm working? Or do I pick and choose devices for a client-server app?"

Vendors are in various stages of building out their applications for mobile devices. That leaves IT organizations in the lurch as users have immediate service needs that IT can’t fulfill. "People are just trying to get stuff done, and the information systems provided by the company just don't do it," says Schadler.

As a result, people are using consumer mobile collaboration apps, like Skype and Dropbox, to carry out their work. This also creates concerns for IT. "We have a long way to go before we can provide the level of assurance in a cloud service that you can provide in an on-premise service, so it's legitimate that IT organizations are hesitant to provide a service from the cloud," says Schadler.

Mobile collaboration considerations

As IT organizations plan their mobile collaboration strategy, Schadler advises them to "think through the performance implications and the permissioning implications." One consideration for IT organizations with European operations is the implication of putting information in U.S. data centers. The U.S. Patriot Act allows the U.S. federal government to seize data in those centers.

Koplowitz also suggests that businesses consider the following questions:

-- Who needs mobile collaboration apps? For what purpose? "Enterprises don't necessarily understand all of the requirements that their users have for mobile apps. They tend to be more reactive," says Koplowitz.

-- How does this map to the application? Businesses should ask "'What are the actual discrete areas of business value we can begin to mine?'" Koplowitz says. "There are areas of tremendous efficiency that can be gained."

-- What are you going to support in your environment? Consider how you'll map your mobile strategy to vendor capabilities and what you'll give to users. For example, if you want a rich social interaction, you need to look at a vendor with an appropriately rich approach to mobile.

Crystal Bedell is a freelance writer specializing in technology. She can be reached at cbedell[at]bedellcommunications.com.

About the Author

Crystal Bedell is an award-winning freelance writer who specializes in covering technology. Contact her at cbedell[at]bedellcommunications.com.

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