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I'm Not Mobile, I'm Desk-Challenged

Sixty years ago, a lot of people were on party lines that shared a phone connection with a half-dozen others. You dialed four-digit numbers and if you wanted to call out of area you had to get an operator to literally patch you through. I flew once with a woman whose grandmother had been the operator who placed the first transcontinental phone call made in the US. But even though you talked on an antique black phone in those days, telephony was pretty much what it is now.Advances in communication and collaboration all come up against this basic truth; what we had 60 or more years ago is good enough for all practical purposes. Technology can't change the market absent some benefit for it to exploit, some change for it to address. So it is with enterprises and "mobility." Collaboration and UC both rely on this notion of the increasingly mobile worker, the person who then has to be empowered from that Great Somewhere Out There. More UC/UCC depends on more mobility.

We're not getting it from traditional sources. Only 15% of workers today exercise their information technology and communications resources from remote locations with any regularity, and that's about the same number that did so 15 years ago. It's true that we're using more applications from remote locations, but when the surge of enterprise email growth topped out in 2001, we actually flattened out on per-employee remote empowerment.

Don't look for every worker to be dragging around netbooks or tablets in the future, either. I modeled the rate of technology empowerment based on my usual 277-enterprise survey results. Today, only 48% of workers have any information technology component to their jobs. Guess how many will have one in 2015? Only 49%. You don't pump gas, change tires, or flip burgers with collaborative technology.

So is all of this mobility and empowerment stuff hype? Actually, it's not. We're just getting it all wrong. The "mobile worker" that will drive communications and collaboration isn't somebody who's jaunting across the country and living out of a suitcase. It's somebody who left their desk to get a drink of water, or stopped in at another cubicle or office on the way back from lunch. It's not the "mobile" user who will drive change, it's the "desktop-challenged" user.

Right now, only a third of workers are directly empowered with technology by their company-meaning they have a company-provided computing/communications technology set. By 2015 that number will rise to 41%. Today, the third of workers who are directly empowered use their technology 4.8 hours of each day on the average; by 2015 that will increase to 6.1 hours per day.

There's a lot of meaning behind these dry numbers. A worker who is committed to using technology 6.1 hours per day is linked into a cooperative work behavior set by that technology, a behavior set that supports the "teams" of workers that are typically behind every business activity. The real mission of communications and collaboration in the future is to support these teams, which means connecting these workers. That connecting is more difficult because of three factors.

Factor one is that teams are getting bigger. Companies report that a "decision" today requires three parties on the average, and an important one requires five. When something has to be decided, these three or five people have to be reached to provide sign-off. If any of the members are unavailable, that means that the decision is delayed until they can be consulted.

Factor two is that people are staying at their desks less. Team members in 2009 were at their desks for 69% of the time, which is down from 74% in 2005 and 79% in 2000. There are more meetings (if you're a manager in any kind of company that won't surprise you!) and there is also more personal flexibility. If I need three people's sign-off and there's a 69% chance of anyone being at their desk, the odds of them all being there for the collaboration is 2:1 against. For five people, it's less than a 16% chance.

Factor three is that decisions and collaborative activity are increasingly "incident-driven", meaning real-time in nature. Customer inquiries and complaints are the number one priority of most companies, and you can't orchestrate them to happen when it's convenient. Management tends to make its demands out of context with regular activity, via email or even IM. When you have incident-driven stimuli, you can't schedule responses and so you are hostage to team availability.

We have this problem today, and guess what the number one device used to link the "desktop-disadvantaged" worker is? A wireless phone, according to 81% of enterprises I surveyed. In contrast, just one-quarter as many think workers need email while away from their desk. So that means that supporting the increasingly desk-less workers of tomorrow is more a voice activity than a data activity. Why? Because they can go back to their desk if they need something complicated.

There are simple things that could be done to empower a worker away from their desk but in their usual capacity. One is to let them review simple text and slides and sign off, a mission for which tablets seem perfect. The challenge is making a tablet convenient to carry on a mission to the cafeteria to get a sweet. Smartphones aren't appealing to businesses in this mission because of the screen size. Another option is to provide convenient docking points where a smartphone could be "Bluetoothed" to a local display to get a good look at a couple slides.

The survey and modeling work suggests that we're being too simplistic in our expectations for mobility and collaboration. We're looking at the stuff that's already being done, ignoring the fact that because it's already done it's probably mature. The future of collaboration won't be created by doing today's things a little differently, it will be created by doing tomorrow's things.