Mobile Knowledge Work: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Mobility has become a defining characteristic of knowledge work. A recent Basex survey revealed that more than 40% of knowledge workers work in nontraditional, non-Dilbertian environments on a regular (two or more days per week) basis.

On the road again.

Indeed, knowledge workers have become increasingly mobile and find themselves working from whatever location they happen to be in, be it a home office, the dentist’s waiting room, or an airport lounge.  The range of devices they employ has expanded to include not just desktop PCs and laptops, but netbooks and smartphones as well.

Therefore it is becoming increasingly important to enable access to documents, spreadsheet, and presentations without tying the user to one specific computer or location.

In most organizations, there has always been a kind of second class citizenship for the mobile worker when it comes to tools and support.  Among many managers, the prevailing thinking has always been that people will typically work at the office and, as a result, the best tools are to be found there.  Sometimes tools have been limited on the grounds of corporate network security (a home user could inadvertently put an enterprise network at risk).  But given that a clear plurality of workers work remotely today, this kind of segmentation makes little sense.

It is important to note that, even among mobile workers, there exist different groups, namely those who typically work from the same computer, be it a PC in a home office or a laptop that travels with the worker, and those who work from multiple devices such as public or shared PCs, netbooks, and smartphones.  To boot, one must then differentiate the power users from the occasional users.

At the moment, the former group will most likely have standard Windows productivity software such as Microsoft Office installed on the device.  However, the latter group, whose numbers are growing, will still need to be able to access tools that are more than sufficient to support their work, regardless of device or venue.

Such tools need to provide a variety of functionality, including the ability to create and edit documents (for the purposes of this discussion documents can include word processing documents, spreadsheets, and slide shows), and critically, provide links to corporate data stores to allow the knowledge worker to access files that do not reside on the device being used – and keep files behind the firewall.

Those who are working from home office PCs and laptops will almost certainly have a copy of Microsoft Word to use, but the ability to access files that are stored in a document repository is often limited.  The established strategy to deal with lack of access or poor controls on access has been to maintain local copies of documents.  This is for two reasons: ease of access and to preclude the possibility of someone else opening and/or editing the document at the same time.  Unfortunately, this strategy can lead to more problems than it resolves including a proliferation of document versions and the potential loss of critical work if a machine goes down and is not backed up.

One potential solution may be online desktop productivity tools, a market that has been largely dominated by Google and Zoho.  With the forthcoming release of Microsoft Office 2010, the company is also unveiling a line of online tools that are complementary to their desktop counterparts.  We’ll examine the new offerings next week.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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