This is a landmark year in the history of communications – not just because it seems to be the year of the smartphone and the tablet, and not just because we decided to hold an inaugural conference about enterprise mobility, MobiBiz, yesterday. It’s also the 100th anniversary of the Canadian who offered more insight on communications than anyone else.
I am referring, of course to Marshall McCluhan. We best remember him today for the phrase “the medium is the message,” but he had a lot more to offer us than that. In fact, he had a few turns of phrase which resonate more in 2011 than ever before. “When you are on the phone,” McCluhan said, “you have no body.” Today we blithely refer to working or even living virtually, but McCluhan’s observation is much more useful in the descriptive way it captures the difference between electronic and face-to-face interactions. I think he meant that while we’re on the phone, we can’t use body language or facial expressions to help us communicate.
So if we have no body, what are we left with? I can think of three things. We have our ideas – the things we want to communicate through the device. We have our consciousness – our ability to hear what the person on the other end is trying to say. And we have our relationships – the way we feel about the person on the other end, how we’re hoping to change or grow in the way we live or work together.
As we explore the impact of mobile computing on enterprise IT, I would suggest that the best technologies should help or improve in one or ideally, all three of these areas. The best mobile technologies should help or improve our ability to express our ideas to another person. The best mobile technologies should help or improve our ability to absorb and understand the ideas of other people. And the best mobile technologies should help or improve the way we manage our various relationships.
Speaking of relationships, mobile technologies have obviously changed the one between users and enterprise IT departments. The role of IT departments was once to help train users to best take advantage of the technologies they were given. That’s not happening as much today with mobile devices. You won’t walk into many corporate classrooms where someone’s showing employees how to turn on a tablet. Instead, the role of IT is becoming an enabler – adapting the technology to best take advantage of the situation in which users need to do their work. It’s less about making corporate IT user-friendly but about making consumer technologies enterprise-friendly. That’s why we created MobiBiz.
Throughout our sessions yesterday a few key messages emerged. There was a startling lack of IT policy around the use of mobile devices. But even before you can get to that, there was an uneasy recognition that few organizations fully understand the state of mobility among their ranks today – how many devices are out there, what’s being used and how they’re using them. Much in the way we recommend companies do a self-assessment to determine their “risk appetite” before devising a security plan, enterprises need to do more up-front work to figure out their mobility appetite, though in this case it’s harder because it’s not about getting direction from the top but involving all employees in the dialogue.
All day at MobiBiz yesterday we kept hearing that mobility was “inevitable.” I keep wondering what, exactly, is inevitable. That there will be a huge number of different devices and platforms? Sure. That the changes this brings will be frustrating to IT and other parts of the business? Certainly. That there’s a lot of long-term potential? I hope so. But let’s remember that there’s one thing about mobile technology that’s not inevitable: the IT department’s response to it. I hope MobiBiz gave everyone who attended something they can use to begin formulating a response that makes sense.