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COMPUTING

Mobile workforce strains IT staff

January 18, 1999
Web posted at: 4:51 p.m. EST (2151 GMT)

by Mindy Blodgett

From...
CIO

(IDG) -- A user calls the help desk in a panic because her laptop's hard drive just sizzled and she has an important PowerPoint presentation in the hotel conference room later that day. A road warrior leaves his $5,000, fully loaded notebook computer on the front seat of his rental car as he dashes into a gas station to ask for directions; when he returns to the car, it's gone. A harried vice president trying to catch up on e-mail from home frantically pages the help desk at midnight when it appears his laptop's modem isn't working.

These are the kinds of war stories that IT staffs with significant populations of mobile workers tell all the time, and that trend promises to continue as the prevalence of mobile computing continues to rise.

According to Dataquest Inc., a market research firm based in San Jose, Calif., the worldwide corporate mobile computing market is growing dramatically: Shipments of laptops, notebooks, ultraportables and transportable units increased from 7.8 million in 1995 to a forecasted level of 12.3 million in 1998. Behind this trend are corporations that are changing the way they spend their IT dollars.

At The Prudential Insurance Co. of America in Newark, N.J., for example, the portion of the IT budget devoted to mobile has gone from somewhere around 5 percent in 1997 to around 20 percent today, says Barbara Koster, CIO of Prudential's Individual Insurance division.

The shift from predominantly deskbound workforces to staffs full of roving employees has brought with it a whole new cost-benefit equation. While the total cost of ownership for mobile computing is higher than that for a comparable desktop—Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., estimates that the hard-core road warrior can cost an organization approximately 60 percent more in end-user operations expenses than does a desktop worker (see "Cost Control,")—the benefits can outweigh the headaches and increased costs. Among mobile computing's advantages, for example, are reduced real estate costs, since the technology allows companies to add to their staffs without significantly increasing their square footage.

Another oft-cited benefit is increased productivity. "I haven't done a quantification of the productivity increases, but it's just common sense that if someone is sending out e-mails from [his] laptop at 9 p.m., then [he is] putting in extra work," says David McCue, CIO at CSC Healthcare (formerly American Practice Management Inc.) in New York City, a wholly owned subsidiary of Computer Sciences Corp.

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As more and more workers hit the road, whether they use laptops or handhelds, IT staffs are finding that the nature of mobile computing has changed their modes of operation forever. CSC Healthcare, for instance, has about 85 percent of its 400-strong consulting and business force on notebooks. "Road warriors definitely impact how we do things [in IT], and that can be a challenge," McCue says. "You trade off hardware costs and support issues for more productivity."

There is, it seems, no turning back—IT just has to adjust. Some companies have added staff to handle the special concerns and 24/7 requirements of the mobile worker. Other organizations have simply changed the focus and training of their IT staffs and help desks. And for companies with large mobile workforces, security of both data and hardware are ongoing concerns. In short, CIOs with expanding populations of untethered workers need new ways to care for and feed this growing generation of road warriors, and they need them now.

Help desks: Supporting the untethered worker

Laptops are more difficult to configure, support and maintain than desktops. Few IT executives or mobile market observers would argue with that assertion. "The support issues are the biggest ones for IT and mobile computing," says Chris Goodhue, a vice president in Gartner Group's end-user computing service. "What happens when somebody in Kuala Lumpur has a hard drive that crashes? These are things IT support staffs have to deal with all the time."

Roy Schwartz, vice president of information systems and field technology for Prudential, recalls the time that a Prudential agent forgot how to log on and called the help desk, which over the weekend had switched to off-hours staffing. A field vice president had to be found to authenticate the agent, and that took until 2 a.m. the following day. In response to this incident, Prudential changed its authentication and password procedures so that the off-hours help desk can handle such an emergency without having to track down a field vice president.

For some companies, outsourcing at least part of the help desk function can be a solution to the support problem. For instance, McCue estimates that CSC Healthcare has saved between $500,000 and $600,000 annually by outsourcing its hardware support while maintaining an internal help desk for software-related questions and more general concerns. The company's current notebook supplier is Electro Rent Corp., which is providing IBM ThinkPad laptops with removable hard drives and CD-ROMs. "The way it works is if there is a problem with the hardware, the user can call the help desk and, if need be, they are FedExed a new laptop or hard drive right away," he explains.

For Robert Quinn, vice president and CIO of the computer systems division at Sun Microsystems Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif., finding a solution to the mobile support and help desk dilemma was a matter of trial and error. The company's laptop users currently number about 7,500 out of a total user population of about 25,000. "We've had to put a lot more thought into what we do in terms of mobile support," Quinn says.

For example, when the company first started seeing an explosion in laptop users in the mid-1990s, IT used to send people around the country fixing laptops at the "scene of the crime." "We had regionally based people who would go anywhere they were needed," Quinn says. But the cost of such a go anywhere, anytime roving help desk was high. "So we backed off that model and now we have more of a filling station model," Quinn says. "We outsource hardware problems to our systems services vendor, Vanstar Corp. If someone needs a software upgrade or has a hardware problem, [he or she] can ship the system to Vanstar, which does most of the handholding of the users."

Most of the 10 to 15 IT staffers Sun allocated to provide internal, personal service to the company's telecommuters and traveling and home mobile users have been redeployed, and an internal help desk still provides 24/7 service. And to make using the laptops as easy as possible, the machines from Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. are configured according to need. The three possible configurations range from a standard style, including personal productivity and contact management software, to one for the highly mobile power user, which has more memory and connectivity features.

Training of both users and support staff is another key to supporting mobile users. "Users have a much more emotional, intimate attachment to their mobile devices than to other technologies," says McCue. "When something isn't working, and they're on the road, users are much faster to panic." Accordingly, McCue says he has focused on training his internal help desk to "be really good listeners and to let the users vent." McCue also mandates that his help desk staffers use the same hardware and software as the users, "so they understand the issues and can do their jobs from anywhere."

At Prudential, such a great emphasis has been placed on user training as part of the company's $100 million LaunchPad mobile initiative that no agent or high-level executive is given a laptop until he or she shows up for two full days of how-to classes. Field agents who were perceived as leaders were recruited by IT to become part of the training effort. Slightly more than 20 of them became special mobile trainers, and they are now part of the IT team, at least temporarily. In addition, 20 new permanent IT staffers were hired to bulk up the help desk and support staff. After life insurance policy sales more than doubled for a sampling of a 500-person pilot program, the company proceeded with the rollout and expects to have 12,000 agents and field management on laptops by the middle of this year. It also plans follow-up training through interactive TV, CD-ROM and more classroom instruction as the rollout progresses. According to Koster, "More than 50 percent of the success of this [project] will be due to training of both the users and the help desk."

The process of software distribution can also change as the number of mobile users increases. At Prudential, Bob Piccirillo, vice president of field infrastructure, set up a release management team of five IT staffers that focuses on distributing software upgrades on CD-ROMs and managing remote software. In addition, a team of three tracks communication needs for the growing ranks of mobile users.

And in a bid to make the release of software upgrades easier on IT, the staff now spreads rollouts over a five-day period. "We once sent out a software release to 10,000 agents, and our help desk was overwhelmed with 2,200 calls at once," Schwartz says. "So now that we have a five-day rollout, no one calling our help desk has to wait for more than two minutes for help." All this has led to happier customers, both internally and externally, Koster says. "Now that the agents can have all the data at their fingertips, they can make faster sales," she explains.

Security: When data and hardware hit the road

"The biggest problem IT managers have today is that their corporate data is not just on the network—it is exposed to the outside world through the laptop as well," says Andrew Seybold, editor of the newsletter Outlook on Communications and Computing, based in Boulder Creek, Calif.

Last year Terry Davis, director of enterprise technology in the IT group for Coors Brewing Co. in Golden, Colo., says his company lost about $125,000 worth of hardware to thefts worldwide, and between 80 percent and 90 percent of those were of laptops. In response, he says his department has put together a security awareness program aimed at warning the roughly 1,500 laptop users at his company of the dangers of leaving notebook computers unattended.

Through memos and training sessions, Coors is making users aware of many of the typical robbery scams, such as the one in which teams of thieves loiter at the X-ray machines in airports: While one thief purposely stalls in front of a traveler with a laptop in the X-ray line, another snaps up the machine as it travels down the belt. And to protect his company's data, Davis says he is considering some products that provide encryption technology, requiring a user to have a "key" to operate a laptop.

Some companies have a solution to the hardware-loss problem that users might find painful: They require the user to purchase the laptop. The theory, of course, is that once it's yours, you'll take better care of it. Howard Arkin, senior vice president and CIO at Gould Paper Co. based in New York City, says that the company's IT staff maintains a preferred vendor list from which members of the sales force have to buy their laptops if they want to connect to the company's network. To ensure the security of data on the network, the company maintains an intranet with a firewall that users must go through to gain access.

When an organization has a large mobile workforce, critical data routinely leaves the corporate infrastructure on laptops.

According to GartnerGroup, organizations can address this problem by either providing local backup tools to their laptop users and instructing them to adhere to a strict backup policy or they can implement automated laptop backup processes that include backup storage on corporate servers.

GTE Internetworking in Cambridge, Mass., has decided to go the automatic route. Nine months ago it began to roll out security software from Connected Corp. that automatically creates backups to a remote server while compressing and encrypting the information. The company also uses technology that detects a stolen laptop by tracing it via special software installed on the device.

Technology: Gadgets for the mobile

While corporate IT departments struggle to keep up with the demands of their mobile users, vendors are developing products to make life easier for users and the departments that support them. Seybold predicts that personal digital assistants will get better and more useful, making it unnecessary for many users to lug around laptops. By the end of 1998 some vendors were shipping small notebooks with Windows CE operating systems for less than $1,000; such devices are aimed at users primarily interested in word processing and e-mail, though PowerPoint was available on them as well.

As for security, Seybold says that some laptop vendors are working on thumbprint technology that would read the fingerprints of users, while others are employing technology that would "read" the retinas of users to ensure that the right person is logging on.

Whether or not these James Bond-like technologies ever reach the marketplace, there is little doubt that for many companies, especially those in industries with large sales forces or roving engineers, mobile computing is here to stay.

"With mobile computing, you have to spend a lot of time figuring out ways of working smarter," says John Puckett, vice president of information technology at GTE Internetworking.

At GTE, for example, IT is rolling out software that diagnoses laptop problems and takes control of a machine remotely, walking the user through fixes. Like the antitheft application, this software is part of a program seeking to reduce the total cost of ownership. "We are already seeing productivity increases with that system," Puckett says, for both the users and the IT staff. "An organization can't spend too much time looking at the hardware costs when it examines mobile computing. There are definitely enormous challenges, but it is our job in IT to figure out the most efficient ways to support this type of computing so that business can be more productive."

Mindy Blodgett is a senior writer at CIO.

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