2012 is emerging as the pivotal year when global sales of mobile devices - including smartphones and tablets – are widely predicted to overtake PCs in terms of both shipments and spending. And it is clear that the mobile working revolution is delivering compelling business benefits to a wide variety of UK and European companies.
Probably the biggest myth about remote working is that the practice will compromise the security of mission-critical data. However, technology to secure mobile workers has reached a level of maturity where even some of the most security-conscious organisations have mobilised workers.
Financial services company AEGON, one of the world's largest life insurance and pension companies, cited security as a key concern when it recently upgraded its mobile access systems. The group, which has 4,500 employees and two million UK customers, is subject to both international and national laws – such as Sarbanes-Oxley and the UK Data Protection Act – as well as the UK's Financial Services Authority.
Commenting on the project to equip the company’s sales force with Wi-Fi access, home broadband and 3G connectivity, Sandra Tuddenham, head of IT, AEGON UK, said: "At the same time as increasing the flexibility of our sales force, we had to ensure that customer and corporate data was protected. Allowing staff to access applications through public Wi-Fi hotspots could expose the AEGON network to malicious activity. We had to minimise these vulnerabilities and the business risk inherent with remote access solutions."
To help create a secure mobility platform, AEGON worked with Computacenter, which designed the infrastructure around a Virtual Private Network (VPN) based on Check Point software. Although the VPN gateway enables AEGON to encrypt the remote link to a sales person's laptop, it also needed to be able to authenticate individual users and devices, which was achieved by deploying two-factor authentication.
To further boost security and reduce management overheads the company’s mobile working platform enables full remote management. As well as confirming a device is registered with AEGON, it will also detect if a laptop is missing any security patches or antivirus definitions. If the integrity checks fail, a laptop is only permitted limited access to the network, which allows the company’s IT team to manage the device remotely.
Although much attention is given to the client side of mobile working technology, for insurance company Helvetia Switzerland, the largest business in the Helvetia Group with 2200 employees and 750,000 customers, mobilising its sales force centred on an upgrade of its back-end infrastructure.
The group’s sales force (comprising 29 general agencies, 18 main agencies, 650 advisors, and 190 internal sales staff) has many customers living in rural locations, and was finding it difficult to guarantee mobile coverage across the country’s mountainous terrain.
“In many cases it was simply not possible to work remotely,” said Peter Abt, head of network and security operations for Helvetia Switzerland. “As a result, the sales person had to do a lot of preliminary work in the office, visit the customer’s home or workplace, and then return back to the office to get online, and close the deal.”
To address these issues the company rolled out Cisco’s Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) Mobile offering. The system was found to increase the speed of Helvetia application connections by 50% through the use of technologies that intercept and optimise IP traffic. Caches, deployed on both the client and the server, store WAN traffic and use algorithms to remove repetition.
Early results confirm a 60% increase in data compression, which has led to improvements in sales productivity, customer acquisition and retention ratios.
Another vertical sector which is seen widespread deployment of mobile working technologies is construction. Skanska Utilities, one of the UK’s largest contractors to the utility industry. It recently deployed a mobile working programme to enable over 500 of its field-based staff to send and receive real-time job information, including pictures and GPS locations, over the cellular network, when working remotely.
Under the Traffic Management Act, the company is required to accurately notify Local Authorities of works undertaken on the highway from start to completion. Failure to do this results in fines. The construction firm recognised the need to replace a slow and cumbersome paper-based system of reporting works that was resulting in it receiving such fines. Working with mobile systems integrator Handheld PCs, Orange provided all 500 employees with smartphones, which include GPS functionality, to upload data captured in the field to Skanska Utilities’ back-office systems. On average, 33,000 pictures are now captured and sent over the network each month.
“As well as saving us a significant amount in fines, the mobile solution also helps us efficiently manage hundreds of projects throughout our company. Simply by entering a project number, users can look at the progress of a job and, thanks to the mobile application, see a visual storyboard that shows the status of each job we’re working on,” said Boyd Neal, system solutions manager for Skanska Utilities.
Paul Caris, CIO at international law company Eversheds told CIO UK that the company’s mobile working infrastructure – which enables over 3000 employee to work securely from anywhere on any internet-connected desktop, smartphone, laptop or tablet – has improved staff productivity and enhanced the scalability and flexibility of IT systems.
“Our firm can operate from the locations that best serve our employees and our clients’ needs without compromising on the quality of IT services available. We are also very well prepared for unplanned mass relocation of staff, our mobility platform could cope perfectly well with several hundred additional users without any degradation of service,” Caris said.
He added that an additional major benefit is the improvement of employee work life balance. “We are breaking down the barriers between the corporate office experience and the experience our customers can expect from their personal device. The benefit is that it becomes less of a chore to use corporate IT and if we can reach the nirvana of it becoming an enjoyable experience, our customers will be more productive and more inclined to access our IT services whenever and wherever they like.”
Caris went on to explain that Eversheds’ mobile platform, which is based on Citrix technology, offers a device-independent desktop. It supports Windows and iOS platforms, and enables staff to use their preferred access devices.
While vendor hype suggests that workers are generally enthusiastic about mobile working, Caris cautions that a successful mobile platform needs to deliver high levels of service and functionality: “There is still cultural resistance in some parts towards agile working, but this is improving all the time with our employees enjoying equally good performance working at home or in the office. If a mobile / home working solution degrades the performance achieved in the office there will always be barriers to change.”
It is clear that the benefits of mobile working are now clearly understood for companies of all sizes across a wider variety of key verticals. And it is equally clear that 2012, which analyst company IDC dubs the “year of mobile ascendancy” will see many more companies implementing technologies to mobilise staff. However, experts warn that the year will also see a major market disruption and CIOs are advised to choose the companies that develop their strategic mobile technology with great care.
Frank Gens, senior vice president and chief analyst at IDC, warned: "Companies like Microsoft, HP, SAP, RIM, and others – including Apple – will face 'crossroads moments' in 2012. By the end of the year, we should have a good idea which vendors will – and won't – be among the industry's leaders at the end of the decade."