posted 19 Jul 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 10
Your say: KM and the mobile workforce
As workforces become more peripatetic, organisations are gradually making moves to equip employees with the appropriate tools and knowledge to support a mobile culture. However, the mobile workforce has been active for some time and yet few distance workers feel sufficiently prepared to deliver their best to the customer. Rebecca Cavalôt finds out why companies are still playing catch-up and how the remote workforce is suffering.
As I sit at my laptop at home preparing to write about the mobile workforce, it dawns on me that this is a phenomenon that I myself am a part of. With a large proportion of us frequently working out of the office and travelling, the need for KM initiatives to extend to mobile workers has existed since business trips and customer-site visits began. However, the demands on the mobile workforce have increased exponentially. It seems organisations that previously considered the cost of extending KM to mobile employees as prohibitive are now embracing more inclusive strategies.
So what’s changed? Companies are beginning to invest in their remote workers in line with client demands. At Burson-Marsteller, a public-relations and public- affairs firm, 90 per cent of the workforce is considered ‘mobile’. Employees travel to increasingly remote locations for longer periods of time. As Vanessa Colomar, director of knowledge sharing world-wide at Burson-Marsteller, points out, customers now demand this level of commitment. “Employees must deliver the highest levels of counsel regardless of where they are located to avoid losing clients,” she says. Extra pressure to perform on location comes from shareholders, who are demanding improved margins. “Issues of supply and demand affect any industry that delivers services or products through a distributed workforce,” says Mark Davis, vice president of customer service, global mailing division of Pitney Bowes, a provider of office technologies and solutions. Extending KM to mobile workers can no longer be considered a minority want; it has become a majority need.
It would seem that the remote workforce is expected to perform as effectively on the road as it does in the office. Jim Bair, senior vice president at Strategy Partners, an IT market research and consulting company, has explored various technologies, products and approaches to support personnel in the ‘mobile mode’. Despite his efforts, he feels that the internal KM capabilities that were in place prior to the explosion of dedicated commercial products on to the market still deliver the best results. “We continue to fall back on tried and true technologies such as e-mail, shared files and web-based private portals,” says Bair. He believes that the multiplicity of new approaches can actually be a hindrance, particularly in a small company where maintenance can be problematic.
Mobile working is apparent in all industries and sectors and the mobile worker comes in many shapes and forms. It follows that organisations need to consider different systems for different types of employees. “Managers and auditors need general access to information. Field-service workers on the other hand, need information specific to their jobs,” says Pat Brans, manager of strategic alliances at iAnywhere, a provider of mobile technology solutions. At Pitney Bowes, mobile workers are starting to define their own KM requirements, and Brans agrees that this is an important consideration: “In the best cases, workers are included in the requirements definition.” It is imperative, he says, that companies meet the needs of their employees and respond to user requests and suggestions to improve remote KM strategies.
Of course, in order to do this effectively, organisations must invest both time and money. Davis insists that the benefits to management far outweigh the initial effort and cost outlay. “Improve service performance and productivity,” he says, “and you will improve communications between customers and employees.” Mobile workers with just-in-time access to information and the ability to utilise it while on the road can respond to a client’s need as effectively as if they were in the office. “The benefit is that we do not ever lose out on capturing new information, regardless of where employees are located,” says Colomar. Ideally though, knowledge needs to flow in both directions. Giving the remote worker access to corporate information is essential, but inputting information learnt on a site visit to a KM system is equally important. “After all,” says Brans, “where does a customer get its best knowledge? Directly from the customer site.” Knowledge-management systems can only function well if knowledge is fed into them as well as taken out.
Theoretically, delivering tailor-made knowledge-management strategies to a mobile workforce will increase productivity. However, problems appear to arise when trying to emulate an office environment on the road. “Almost anything you extend to workers in the field is going to be a subset of what is available at the desktop,” says Brans. Both Davis and Bair agree that mobile-device form and functionality are, as yet, sub-standard, and the reliability and robustness of tools and strategies need to be improved before the mobile worker is functioning as effectively on location as he would in the office. Despite this, new IT-based KM systems that claim to meet the mobile challenge are constantly materialising. Still, many organisations are unsatisfied by the solutions available to them, perceiving them to be limited and fairly immature. Bair is unimpressed by technology such as the mobile-phone browser interface. “It is difficult to see current phones or ‘palm pilot’ technology meeting KM challenges,” he argues.
Among companies that have a large mobile workforce, the consensus appears to be to keep it simple. Colomar has found that the intranet at Burson-Marsteller has been fully capable of supporting virtual communities of practice, which keep professionals involved in discussions when they are on the road. She advocates taking the web interface one step further. “Employees can create their own extranets to collaborate on documents with clients and colleagues,” she explains. Communicating in real time is crucial to ensure customer satisfaction.
Technology is not the sole stumbling block; companies must also deal with cultural issues that arise from implementing a mobile KM system. Many mobile professionals are used to working ‘offline’, drawing from data that has been downloaded prior to a client meet. Davis voices concerns about the effect the pressure to work online could have on employees: “They may feel that Big Brother is now looking over their shoulders.” Reporting activities are crucial to knowledge flow and workers may need motivating to report in real time. “Distractions are almost impossible to overcome unless there are serious rewards and consequences,” Bair maintains. Companies need to regulate knowledge input for remote workers in the same way it is monitored in the office environment.
Another major challenge is user acceptance of the knowledge-sharing system. It is not that remote employees are reluctant to share knowledge; rather, making the time to retrieve or enter the necessary information can be difficult when travelling. Educating workers on how to use mobile applications is essential. Davis advocates constant communication with users when developing a new strategy. “Analysis sessions, workshops and training sessions do pay off,” he insists. Trust is also imperative. “The cases I’ve seen work best are those where the group knows each other,” says Brans. “This facilitates an exchange of information where those who are more ‘techie’ share tricks with others.”
Even if the trust between colleagues is apparent, it appears that, to date, vendors and solution providers have yet to satisfy the requirements of the mobile workforce. While there are tools available in the marketplace that boast combinatorial technology intended to save money in device support, the reality is that users are frustrated by these tools’ inability to deliver the goods. The mediocre nature of mobile technology has pushed mobile-inspired initiatives onto the back burner. “Many senior executives remain sceptical about actual ROI,” says Davis. Until vendors can satisfy their far-flung customers, the future prognosis is grim. Bair is holding out for wireless technology that will support fully functional access and dreams of portable devices and speech-recognition systems that meet the mobile challenge. Above all, there is a need for speed, as real-time knowledge sharing is now the key to customer satisfaction.
The future of knowledge management for the mobile workforce lies with the workers themselves. Solution providers need to address the specific needs of remote staff in order to bring on-the-road technology up to scratch. Once the products are available, management can involve mobile workers in knowledge-investment plans to meet company needs. “The best source of knowledge is the worker in the field,” Brans maintains. Expansion can be achieved when organisations realise that delivering knowledge to the workforce, rather than bringing the workforce to the knowledge, is the modern mantra of choice. Only then will business be rewarded with opportunities that go beyond the office walls.
Jim Bair, senior vice president, Strategy Partners International
Pat Brans, manager of strategic alliances, iAnywhere
Mark Davis, vice president of customer service, Global Mailing division, Pitney Bowes
Vanessa Colomar Moody, director of knowledge sharing world-wide, Burson-Marsteller