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Mobile Devices in the Enterprise: A Pain to Manage, but Manage You Must

by Michael Nadeau

March 10, 2011

Years ago, a former colleague of mine introduced his father to the then-new world of microcomputers. His father, a manager at Campbell Soup Company, immediately saw how a micro could give him better information and insight to his part of the business. He purchased a TRS-80 Model I and a spreadsheet program with his own money and parked it on his desk at work. Soon, his coworkers noticed that he had access to better information than they did, and they asked IT for their own microcomputers.

IT, of course, balked at the idea. How could they allow these unsecured rogue units into their system? The tide was not in their favor, however. The proof of the micros' value was in the results. Managers were making better decisions faster, and IT ultimately had to accommodate the new tool.

This is exactly what's happening with mobile devices in the enterprise today. Employees are using their own iPads, iPhones, Android smartphones, and other devices at work, and they expect IT to support them.

Why are people using their personal devices at work? Better information faster is part of it. SAP, for example, is already enabling companies to create dashboards that give mobile users instant access to information that had earlier been unavailable to them. Perhaps the most important reason, and why companies need to support their employees' devices, is that they are extensions of the individuals themselves. The mobile device is how they interact with their personal and professional networks; it's how they get information and how they promote them selves and what they do. All of this adds to their value as an employee. Take it away or limit it and you risk losing your best people.

Supporting personal mobile devices presents a huge challenge for IT. Yesterday, I attended the SAP Run Better tour in Boston. There, I heard SAP CIO Oliver Bussman speak about some of those challenges. He urged attendees to put a security and governance structure in place to protect the company.

Bussman emphasized the need for device management, which he cited as the number one concern about mobile devices among CIOs he's spoken with. A key part of device management is being able to keep personal and business information stored on the device separate. This is a serious security issue for both the employee and the business. The employee does not want to surrender the device to the company should he or she leave, and the company does not want sensitive data leaving with the employee. Tools such as Sybase Afaria let you maintain dual personnas on these devices so it is easy to erase company data without risking an employee's personal data. Many companies, however, have no formal process for cleaning company data from a personal mobile device.

Managing personal mobile devices in the enterprise is only going to get harder. Bussman estimates that their are currently 3500 differenct devices available with many more on the way. Which ones should you support? How do you deal with jailbroken devices, which present security threats? Are you willing to let third parties such as Apple have access to your custom code run on mobile devices to comply with their user agreements?

As with micros in the enterprise 30 years ago, the benefits of personal mobile devices outweigh the risks and investment needed to support them.

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