Surfing the mobile wave

At many companies, internal customers have gotten ahead of themselves -- and IT -- in the rush for the latest mobile devices, unaware of the challenges they pose. "They don't realize it takes infrastructure, a wireless signal and a whole bunch of things before you can use a handheld," says Hap M. Cluff, director of IT for the U.S. city of Norfolk.

For IT, trying to guide the flood of mobile adoption is like trying to channel a tidal wave through a funnel. But CIOs are attempting to quickly identify the best values, limit support and security headaches, and make sure everyone knows the rules.

Whatever it takes to be in touch on the go, businesspeople want it, and they want it now. In fact, employee demand for mobility forced significantly more mobile technology deployment in 2005 than companies had anticipated, according to Ellen Daley, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Personal devices and other mobile technologies that IT is unaware of are hard to control and, therefore, hard to secure, Daley says. Mobile hardware can sneak in through departmental budgets, sidestepping IT's scrutiny, and before you know it, they're connected to the network. "That puts a stress on the company from a security perspective [and] a standards perspective," Daley says.

To get ahead of the wave of personal devices, William Lewkowski, CIO at Metropolitan Health, discourages the proliferation of a variety of devices in favor of a few that are easily supported. For example, IT supports the Palm operating system on handheld devices. Employees may use other software, he says, but they must go through IT to make sure it will work. And for security's sake, employees are allowed to download to their handhelds only low-risk information, such as their schedules.

Other companies base their approaches to mobile devices on need. For example, at Ford Motor, senior executives have a demonstrable need for BlackBerries, says Vijay Sankaran, IT manager for enterprise technology. "These people go from meeting to meeting," he explains. With a BlackBerry, they can scroll through their e-mail and calendars and use phone features without going back to their desks.

Sankaran says the number of things you can do with a BlackBerry is very limited, making it more secure from a corporate IT standpoint. The more features, capabilities and services a device has, the more security holes that it comes with, he explains. Some CIOs use the power of the purse to keep mobile devices under control. "We don't allow our associates to bring in their own equipment," says Patrick Law, vice president of infrastructure at American Modern Insurance Group. Personal mobile phones, which can't connect to the company network, are the exception. Anything else has to be acquired through the help desk.

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