The Advancing Leadership Blog

Got your head in the cloud?

Jason Flick is co-founder and CEO  of YOU i Labs, and a member of TRT 662 in Ottawa.

Why should you care about smartphones and the cloud?

For starters, 2011 is likely to be known as the year of the smart phone. This is the year the smart phone will outsell PCs for the first time. According to IDC, vendors shipped 100 million smartphones worldwide in the fourth quarter of last year alone. They also say the next 20 years of IT are going to be ruled by smartphones and the cloud. Major technology companies are now focusing on cloud/mobile and in many cases a combination of the two. For example, Microsoft is spending 90 percent of its $9 billion R&D budget on the cloud. Or, if you prefer, look at it this way – three years ago it was the early adopter that had a smartphone, around 5%.Three years from now that number will jump to 80 percent of people in North America on this new computing platform.

So I get it, smartphones are popular, but why the cloud? We’ve heard this term for years, how does it play in all this? The cloud has evolved; this is not the old client server debate of the 80’s. This new age version is a hybrid of distributed smart servers and storage, with the full utilization of the smartphones serving as smart clients with significant memory and cpu. In the area of mobile, the cloud extends the data to the mobile device, but it also offers layers of abstraction from the constantly changing OS, device, and connectivity we see in the smartphone world.

As a business owner, what does all this mean to you, and how can you lever it rather than be left behind? I run 2 companies full of geeks and even for us 2011 is the year we have moved as much IT and services we can into the cloud. We demand 99%+ from our server room and that is just too costly to support as it requires redundancy, regular maintenances, and staff to drop everything if something goes wrong. Industry giants like Sybase, Amazon, Google and Microsoft are all offering cloud services that make jumping to the cloud easier for all types of organizations.

Business Apps

The simplest way to embrace this tidal wave of mobile is to look at how you can use mobile applications in your company. There are two types of business apps; off-the-shelf and custom. Off-the-shelf applications have pre-defined features and integration points, sometimes even simple standalone time-saving efficiency applications like reference guides or specialized calculators. These are easily adopted and in many cases, your current employees are using many of them without IT support, policies or your corporate security measures. The other type of business app, custom applications, draws from the information and processes that you’ve built as part of your intellectual property and competitive differentiators. We call these ‘internal applications’. It’s estimated that over 75 percent of enterprises and all fortune 1000s have proprietary systems, most only accessible by PC at your employee’s desk. Extending these to be accessible when and where your staff needs them can be invaluable. Some examples that we have developed include scheduling apps for home care providers, sales tools, electronic ticketing and logistics tracking systems.

Off-the-Shelf Applications

These are the simplest to adopt and your IT manager’s first step would be to poll your team and see what apps they are already using. During this process you should also make sure you have a sound understanding of what devices they have in their hands. If you have one large corporate account you will have some good data, but I am sure some of you use contractors, volunteers, and third party vendors. If you need to extend mobile apps to them, include them in this survey. Once you have this you can start with a ‘recommend’ apps list you educate your staff on. On the other end of the spectrum, you can extend mobile apps out to your staff. These can, and often are initially, just an icon on their smartphone that links to your internal web application(s) that you have enabled mobile friendly versions of. In some cases, if the application is infrequently used, the devices may render the web applications well enough as they are.

Custom Applications

I think these create true value for your business and will be where many businesses differentiate from their competitors. When I consult with companies on how to embrace mobile, the first ideas are all about squeezing what you have onto a smaller screen. However, embracing mobility often offers blue ocean opportunities. For example, a medical company I was working with needed to push out data to its doctors, but the project changed when they looked at how a real-time two-way link to doctors could change their model. They considered that when you know where the doctor is and possibly who they are speaking with, suddenly you aren’t talking about fitting a large page of PC information onto a small screen, but simply presenting the smaller subset of data the doctor needed at that moment.

Before you embark on your journey towards mobility and the cloud it is useful to consider these 5 elements:

Data Management

  • Where will your data be stored; cloud, office, and on the mobile all need consideration.
  • How sensitive is your data; establish both policy and software to implement your appropriate security measures.

Device Management

  • Is this going to be your device or will you let your staff/customers use their own?
  • Review the different mobile management tools, much like the desktop, you need to support and manage many aspects of the devices.

Messaging

  • Having your own corporate message system is now easy and adds significant efficiencies. Most cloud providers enable this.
  • Messaging integrated into your enterprise applications means you can push work orders, alerts, and updates easily.

Integration with Existing Systems

  • Review your existing data sets and where they are stored (Database type, OS, and accessibility from the outside).
  • Spend the time to build an information architecture and move what makes sense into the cloud through some fairly simple software sync/connectors.

Cross-Platform

  • Consider which OSs you want to support and when. If you are buying the devices you may be able to run with one device and OS which can be a great savings, but doesn’t lay the ground work for the inevitable future changes.
  • Investing in a good set of mobile device requirements and a solid information architecture is more than half the work of developing an app, so supporting 2-3 OSs is often a viable option.

Summary

Mobile phones are the fastest adopted technology our world has ever seen. You need to look at how this proliferation of connected and content-packed devices fit into your business. If you don’t, your competitors will and it is only the rarest of businesses that can afford to ignore this evolution.

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