Pros and Cons of Mobile Management

This article accompanies Small-Screen Wonders

Thursday, September 16, 2010
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It may seem like just about everyone around you has a cell phone in their hand, but appearances are deceiving -- particularly in the United States, says Bob Clements, a Naperville, Ill.-based principal with Axsium, a global technology-consulting firm.

Mobile devices (particularly smartphones that allow for more sophisticated transactions) aren't nearly as ubiquitous here as they are in some other advanced countries, and that can pose a problem.

Clements closely follows the mobile-workforce-management market and says that, while these applications -- which allow managers and employees to enter time-and-attendance and other work-related data via mobile devices -- can be a boon for productivity, they can also pose potential liability issues.

Below is a brief conversation between Clements and Senior Editor Andrew R. McIlvaine:

What advice would you give to HR in terms of the sort of questions they should be asking when it comes to determining whether mobile-workforce-management solutions are right for their organization?

Clements: Well, you need to consider it from two perspectives: the manager/supervisors and the employees.

Managers and supervisors tend to get very excited about the potential productivity gains from tools like these in terms of their ability to let people stay on the sales floor, the factory floor, etc., rather than having to go back to their desks to enter data and so forth.

But then there's the cost of providing these services: It's easy if people already have BlackBerrys or smartphones, but if they don't, then you have the additional burden of having to justify the cost of supplying those, which may not be so easy.

Then you need to consider the security issues. What sort of information continues to reside on a smartphone after an application is no longer being used, for example?

And the employee perspective?

The biggest issue there tends to involve the potential costs of employee self-service.

Let's say someone uses a mobile app to update their time-off request or manage their schedule availability while they're at home -- if they're hourly/nonexempt, that's considered paid work, so how do you track that time?

This component can become a bit iffy, which is why a lot of companies tend not to allow hourly employees access to web self-service.

And, once again, there's the cost of the mobile devices themselves. It may seem like everyone in the U.S. has a cell phone, but in reality the U.S. culture isn't quite where much of the rest of the world is. We're not at the point where we can assume everyone has a cell-phone plan that includes a data plan, especially older employees.

Now, HR can make it clear that it's optional for employees to participate in this sort of thing. But that can also raise some fairness issues: If we were to make a service available and only part of the employee population can access it, those who can't may argue that, "It's not fair that my co-worker can use his cell phone to pick up extra overtime and I can't."

So here's what HR should be thinking about: "What's our liability?" "Are we being fair?" and "Are we providing people with adequate channels in order for those without cell phones or smartphones to be able to access the same services as everyone else?"

For example, an IVR system that sends out text messages should also be equipped to contact -- via land-line phone or e-mail -- for employees who don't use text-messaging. So long as those employees approve, of course.

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Sounds like HR leaders should keep an attorney close at hand when making these decisions!

I do think you need to consult a lawyer before you get too deep into it. The good news is, a lot of these issues are easily overcome -- you can get the benefits of mobile-workforce management that you expect -- but I'd hate to see someone setting themselves up for liability, which can be especially risky when it comes to employee self-service.

What's your take on the mobile WFM market overall. Will it change the workplace?

Mobile-workforce management is an area that a lot of people are talking about right now, but I don't see it being widespread just yet; I see a lot of people doing pilot projects.

For mobile WFM to really take off, you need to have greater employee access, and we're not there yet. What needs to happen here in the U.S. is that we overcome this cultural barrier that having a cell phone is not as vital as having a land-line phone.

Sure, it may seem like everyone around you has a cell phone, and I know a number of young people who've discontinued their land-line service in favor of cell phone only, but in reality the U.S. trails a lot of other countries, like Japan, in this area.

In Japan, everyone thinks of their cell phone as another appendage. Everyone conducts business on their cell phone.

We need to arrive at the point where everyone here -- blue collar, white collar, old, young, in-between -- also thinks of their cell phone like an appendage. Until it becomes universal in the U.S., we'll continue to run into legal problems.

Countries like Japan and South Korea have certainly gotten a handle on the use of cell phones for work, and so can we.

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