Get your (mobile) thinking straight

Updated: Oct 29 2012, 09:10am hrs
The growing tide of mobility brings huge and often unexpected opportunities with itbut to avoid being swamped, CIOs need to do some strategic thinking upfront

Vasanth Balakrishnan

The world has fallen in love with mobile technology; that much is plain. There are nearly six billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide, with more being added daily. Even though the vast majority of those phones are still feature phones, virtually all new phones connect to the Web as a minimum. And smartphones are getting ever cheaper: emerging markets are leading the way with innovations such as Huaweis $80 Android smartphone for the African market, and Datawinds $46 Android tablet for India.

What all this means is that a greater and greater proportion of the population has access to versatile devices with truly formidable computing power. Mobile has moved beyond voice communication to become the popular arm of computing. One could even think of it as the democratisation of IT: cheap mobile devices and a much more accessible network are allowing millions to leapfrog into the digital age.

Asia is at the forefront of this mobile revolution, and now almost 18% of total Web surfing in the region is performed on mobile devices. India is leading the charge, with almost 50% of internet activity occurring on mobile devices. This startling growth opens up a number of opportunities for Indian businesses, both internally and externally. Externally, its obvious that mobility opens up new ways for companies to interact with consumersbut, it must be remembered, consumers who are now empowered. In a sense, this is simply a replay of what happened in the first internet revolution via PCs. Mobility makes comparison shopping for products and services possible and now, with the advent of mobile social media, consumers have a powerful voice.

One example of this new consumer power is the ability of consumers to report on bad (or good) experiences on social media sites; that is, without the cooling off period returning to a PC would ordinarily entail. Also, via apps like Foursquare, smartphone users can bring friends to locations they recommend.

Companies intent on building profitable relationships with customersand which ones arentmust have a strategy for engaging via the mobile channel. For business the possibilities of building a channel to customers that is with them all the time, are legion. Not the least of these opportunities is the opportunity to access much more detail about customer behaviours in real time, thus making true location-based marketing a possibility.

With information about a users whereabouts, savvy marketers can target related offers. For example, a person using his or her smartphone to pay for a train ticket at a Mumbai railway station might be receptive to information about timetables, accommodation specials at the destination or even a cappuccino in the station restaurant.

But, as many have found, the rules of this engagement are wholly different. For one thing, the communication channel is two-way, and its often excruciatingly public when things go awry. The point is clear: interacting with mobile customers happens in real time, so theres no time to think. Have your strategy, including guidelines and responsibilities for staff, clear before you begin.

The take-up of mobility also opens up two other important communication possibilities for business: with members of the extended supply chain, and with employees. Although enterprise mobility is currently a very small marketestimated to be worth $250 million at present it is expected to reach $1.7 billion by 2015. Focus areas are expected to include the use of telematics to manage objects fitted with communication devices, such as factory instrumentation and vehicles, smart metering and workforce automation. Initiatives like these can make enterprises much more productive, and speed their response times to changes in the market.

Employees have had cellphones for ages, as a rule, but the advent of the smartphone has opened up a new realm of functionality. Employees are now increasingly expecting to perform their work on their own mobile devices. This development is fuelling the work anywhere, anytime phenomenon, with significant productivity gains.

The recent Accenture CIO Mobility Survey 2012 indicates that CIOs in emerging markets are more likely than their counterparts to focus on mobility than their peers elsewhere. However, as the survey also makes clear, the opportunities of mobility come at a price. Chief among CIO concerns is security, with 50% of respondents citing this as their number-one concern.

Its not surprising then that the Accenture Technology Vision 2012 identified new ways of looking at security as a key trend for the next three to five years. Our opinion is that corporates will begin to build a second line of defence by using analytics to understand threats better and responding in real time.

Put simply, the three necessary elements of a mobile strategy require CIOs to decide which platforms to use and which development tools, and what the companys attitude to devices will be. It means identifying which areas of the business are most affected in order to prioritise development efforts. And finally it means maintaining a strong strategic oversight so that the strategy is constantly revised as the mobility market shifts.

One thing is clear: CIOs will be relying on the development of comprehensive standards to help them keep control of an increasingly heterogeneous hardware and software environment.

Weve only just begun to scratch the surface of what mobility can enable but success will only come to those who spend the time thinking through their strategies upfront. The other key success factor will be the realisation that, in the mobile space, innovation is constant. This means that these three steps are not a single process, but must be integrated into the way that companies operate into the 21st century and beyond.

The writer is senior executive technology, Accenture India