Five truths of the Mobile First CIO

Mobile represents a technology shift that impacts enterprise IT in direct and indirect ways. It isn’t solely an IT shift, however. The stakeholders are varied and vast – human resources, legal, line of business managers, sales and support teams, field workers, and individual employees of all stripes are touched by, and therefore invested in, how mobile transforms the workplace and work itself.

CIOs and other IT leaders cannot afford to procrastinate around enterprise mobility or squander the opportunities that mobile offers. Doing so means losing influence as a whole, losing control of the technology that they are ultimately responsible for in almost every organization, and even losing the job. A CIO or IT department must be a trusted advisor, understand the needs of their organization, and actively engage with every stakeholder – all the way down to individual workers if warranted.

Here are five truths that CIOs and IT managers must understand and accept if they want to survive the transition that is already at their doorstep.

Truth #1: Mobile is a requirement, not an add-on

Mobile devices as we know them today snuck in the back door as users simply brought their own devices to work or demanded the devices they felt they needed. Most CIOs assigned an individual or small team to “handle mobile.” This was effective at first, but it isn’t an ultimate solution.

This approach is like having your furnace die on Christmas Eve and buying a bunch of space heaters to keep your family warm. It will be effective as a temporary fix and avoid costly repair or replacement on a major holiday but you will still need to invest in the cost of a new furnace and get it installed ASAP. This can also be an opportunity since you’ll likely find a more efficient furnace model, could switch fuel sources to save money, or opt for an HVAC system that also adds central air to your home.

CIOs should look at mobile as a systemic part of their organization, infrastructure, and strategy – it is not an island unto itself. It needs to be the new, more efficient system offering central air. It is not the standalone space heaters. Employees see mobile as their way of getting the job done in the most effective and efficient way. For them, mobile is the primary way of working, not an add-on, and CIOs need to be thinking the same way.

Truth #2: Apps must be reimagined for mobile, not simply ported

Four and half years ago, at a friend’s wedding, a former colleague of mine asked me if it was possible to put a state-wide management system onto an iPad. The system remains the most bloated and monolithic Win 32 app I’ve ever seen. I was momentarily speechless because the only option I could think of was VDI and this monstrosity was so bad on a PC that I couldn’t bring myself to contemplate using it via VDI on any mobile device. 

The primary problem with this particular app was the overreach of its design. It was created to serve too many diverse functions and to be used by people in dozens of different job roles in hundreds of different contexts. The only truly effective way to put it onto a mobile device would be to break each of those functions into separate task-based apps, each designed for specific users and use cases. Doing that would require a complete reimagining about how it was used in each individual context and the needs of each type of user.

VDI might have worked as an ungainly stopgap measure for getting this app onto an iPad. The problem, however, is the experience would likely have been so poor that many of the intended users would probably just continue to take notes on paper and manually enter them on a PC later.  A bad app would have been made even worse by relying on VDI.

This challenge exists across any organization with legacy enterprise apps. Many of these apps were designed years or decades ago, were designed specifically for use in PC environments, and were designed to meet only defined specs or functional needs. User experience wasn’t a core requirement in many cases and there were few, if any, context-specific aspects to app design since they were largely used in a desktop context.

The rules of desktop user interfaces and user experiences don’t translate well to any mobile device and translate to smartphones particularly poorly. Mission critical apps need a fundamental reimagining for mobile. Whether rebuilt as native apps, HTML 5 apps with native wrapping, or purely web apps optimized for mobile, a redesign will be absolutely required. Remember that you are mobilizing the business process, not necessarily the existing app.

VDI can provide transitionary mobile access to legacy apps, but it will never be ideal for the end user. It will always be something that end users put up with because they have no choice or until they find a way around the app(s) in question.

Reimagining a business process is not easy. Rather than looking at the current desktop app, it can be helpful to dig out the original specs and RFPs for these legacy apps (provided they’re still available) and go back to the drawing board with what the app was supposed to accomplish in the first place rather than try and shoehorn its current existence into a mobile one. This allows mobile enterprise apps to not only be designed specifically for mobile use, but it also offers the chances to refine and improve the functionality and usability of those apps in general. You should make sure, of course, that these requirements still match the current needs of the organization. Many legacy apps were built to support legacy business processes.

Prioritization is key. Most organizations have a large number of legacy Windows apps. Work in concert with the individuals that care about these apps so that you can prioritize based on business and end-user impact.

Truth #3: The enterprise IT stack is being fundamentally reshaped

Mobile OSes are fundamentally different than traditional desktop OSes. App sandboxing with protected file systems and operating system kernels contrasts sharply with the traditional norms of open file systems, constant system patching, and monolithic device imaging.

Applying a traditional PC security model to mobile simply doesn’t make sense because it ignores many of the strengths, particularly around management and security, that mobile platforms offer compared to legacy Windows systems.

iOS was the first to establish this model. Windows Phone and Android followed. What is new is that these mobile-oriented models are making their way into desktop computing. Apple transitioned OS X to function very similar to iOS in all of these ways over the past few years. With Windows 10, Microsoft is making a similar transition. The mobile method of security and management will become the standard method for all endpoints (as noted in Gartner’s 2014 report: Managing PC’s, Smartphones and Tablets and the Future Ahead) - This will radically reshape the needs, functions, and processes of IT in the next few years.

Truth #4: Mobile needs to connect IT with every aspect of a company

IT has traditionally existed as a somewhat opaque department in most companies. Although IT has always been charged with facilitating virtually all aspects of technology within an organization from each user’s PCs, to network connectivity, to services and app development, the actual interaction between IT professionals and staff of other departments has typically been limited to just the help desk.  Ask the average employee or even the average manager what IT’s real function is and what all the IT staff do every day and you’re likely to get a partial answer or something like “I don’t know.”

This lack of interaction and understanding goes both ways. Most IT professionals don’t have a deep understanding of business functions or how employees use technology to do their jobs. As a result, specs, feature lists, and RFPs become the only point of true IT-business interaction, which limits IT’s relationship with the rest of the organization and the opportunity for effective innovation.

To truly harness the potential of mobile, IT needs to be tightly integrated with every department, understand its role within the larger organization, and have a solid knowledge of its jobs and needs of the broader employee base. If IT cannot provide solutions that meet those needs, users and managers will source their own tools in the form of third-party apps and public cloud services. In a Mobile First world, there is little barrier to doing so without IT’s involvement. Shadow IT is the best indicator of where IT is not meeting the needs of the business.
The only sustainable way to combat this and to preserve IT’s role in these types of decisions is to collaborate with every department, division, or business within an organization. This has to be active collaboration and it requires a deference that IT has generally never needed to show (and in many cases hasn’t). To be effective in this new shared power structure, IT must essentially intern within each line of business, understand its needs, and cooperate on meeting them effectively.

Truth #5: It is time to reimagine the CIO

The skills that made a CIO successful in the past are not necessarily the skills that will do so in the future. Mobile offers the opportunity to reimagine the role, skills, and mindset of the CIO. The CIO is still a functional leader but, more importantly he or she is a collaborator, a learner, a coach, a translator, and a trusted advisor. In-depth knowledge of technology is not the core requirement.

CIO metrics also change. Agility, speed, and collaboration matter. Employee enablement, satisfaction, and self-sufficiency become the goals.  These changes mean that, unlike the traditional CIO who was promoted or hired after a career as an IT professional, developer, or engineer, the Mobile First CIO can realistically come from a wide range of professional backgrounds.

Mindset matters

Is mobile the biggest IT challenge of this decade or a step function for company productivity and transformation? It is both. Some IT leaders will see mobile as an incredible opportunity to impact the business and advance their careers. Others will see it as a risky proposition that brings chaos into the organization. Every one of us falls somewhere on this spectrum. The place we fall defines our mindset and is a leading indicator of whether we will embrace these changes and innovate or fight these changes and fall behind.

Ryan Faas