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Mobility Matters – A Few Ways Mobile Devices Change Business

Submitted by on January 18, 2010 – 10:04 amOne Comment

This is a cross-post from my recent article in Forbes:

I often hear executives struggling to understand the power and promise of mobile devices as it relates to their business. “I would never want to receive an ad on my phone for nearby pizza,” they say. Or, “The iPhone is a small percentage of the phone market. What does it have to do with my business?” This is a bit like looking at the emergence of the railroads in the 1800s and saying, “I have no interest in going to Chicago. What’s the big deal?”

Here are a few ways in which mobility matters:

With mobility, coordination replaces planning. As communications protocols accelerate to real-time (think Twitter) we are seeing more work processes move to approaches that favor just-in-time coordination over advanced planning. It is more efficient and more flexible. In software development, this is called the Agile approach where developers code in short, iterative loops, constantly processing the feedback to refine the end product. In product development, this is Fast Cycle Time. In organizational design, this is real-time collaboration and the flattened organization. In the Army, mobile communications are reconfiguring the traditional command-and-control hierarchy, pushing decision-making to the soldier in the field who has the most information about the situation at hand. The implications go beyond military maneuvers. With a workforce able to remain in real-time contact anywhere, possibilities emerge for new management techniques and an increased role for employees.

As we find ourselves tied to mobile devices, coordination will increasingly become the organizing principle that defines how we get work done; we will become a network of spontaneous gathering, loosely coordinated agents in constant contact.

Mobility is not about phones and it is not about computers. Most of us don’t consider how much sensing intelligence is packed into a smart phone. The iPhone is a rich portable computer with on-board sensors capable of gathering huge volumes of data. Specifically, it is a location-aware (GPS), motion-aware (accelerometer), directionally aware (compass) visually aware (camera that can gather visual input of the immediate environment), sonically aware (microphone and speakers), always-connected (wireless or 3Gs) handheld computer. In short, the iPhone does a whole lot more than display information. It is an environmental sensor.

This is an enormous leap forward when our devices are not only connected but actively accepting input from the world around them. We can track our own behavior, monitor our own health and get things done together (e.g., crowdsource maps of our neighborhood). At the far end of the spectrum, the iPhone is being used as a medical diagnostic tool. Doctors without borders, indeed.

Meet your new laptop. Apple has not only opened a programming interface that allows developers to create applications that reside on the iPhone, the company has recently opened up the hardware interface. This means that, soon, attaching a keyboard and screen (among other things) to your iPhone literally will be a snap.

The staggering increase in processing and storage capacity per-square-inch, allied with the development of flexible OLED screens and palm-sized projectors, will allow our mobile devices to do more than our PCs. The mobile device is headed to dethrone the laptop as the de facto standard gear for knowledge work.

The new marketplace here, there and everywhere. Much of the future of commerce will lie in micropayments made at the exact moment of impulse or need–from music to subway tickets and so on. Smart phones now have bar code and QR code readers that allow the phone to act as a scanner (to find the exact product), research assistant (find the best price online, check product ratings) and shopping agent (buy the product on the spot). If you are a retailer, you are now facing a customer with more choices, information and bargaining power than ever before. You will need to rethink your value beyond simply carrying inventory.

In the developing world, where technology constraints often inspire innovation, people are forming alternative currencies, mainly in the form of sharable minutes on their mobile devices. This means, for example, that I can transfer 10 minutes of talk time to your phone in exchange for something of equivalent value–say, a spare part or carton of milk. The most basic peer-to-peer exchange of funds has already gone mobile in certain parts of the developing world.

Getting things done. Mobility is about how your customers are increasingly getting things done–from shopping to reading to wayfinding. Understanding how mobility will change your customer is key to understanding how you will stay relevant.

If you are a product manager, or in R&D, what can the iPhone teach you about product design? What can mobility developments in Africa teach you about constraint-based innovation? If you are in marketing or customer service, what can your younger employees teach you about your next customer? Consider doing a bit of reverse mentoring and prepare to be stunned.

If you are a senior executive, ask yourself how you plan to handle the management challenges as your workforce gets even more disconnected from workplace.

Staying informed about the incredible work occurring at the margins is one of the keys to getting to the future first. Don’t write it off. Embrace the big idea. If you want to talk about it, call me on my mobile. It knows where to find me.

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