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  • 01.15.06

Making Mobile Manageable

Wireless technology is fast becoming an essential facet of doing business for both large and small companies. Here’s how it can improve the way you do business.

For Chris Consorte, CEO of Integrated Direct LLC, a lead-generation marketing firm based in Mineola, N.Y., this was the last straw. While out pitching his company’s services to potential clients, he received an urgent phone call from an existing client who needed information from Chris in order to complete an important transaction. Fast.

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“You’re X miles away from the office and nowhere near a physical wall” to plug in your laptop and access your database, Consorte remembers. Not being able to provide for his client was very problematic. “Your client can lose trust that you can deliver anytime,” he says.

To supply his current client with the critical information, Consorte walked away from attracting the new one. It was the fourth time Consorte had lost potential business this way, and it was to be his last. Consorte decided to go wireless. Using wireless technology, Consorte had a better chance of servicing current clients while on the road, by bringing his laptop with him and using the growing number of Wi-Fi hotspots across the country.

Consorte believes he is following a trend that is here to stay. As working from the car and home becomes more common, working remotely is becoming more accepted and less perceived as unprofessional, he says. Consorte predicts that mobile employees–and offices–will continue to become a “more accepted way to generate revenue.”

Indeed, wireless technology is fast becoming an essential facet of doing business for both large and small companies. An August 2005 Forrester study revealed that more than half of all companies now employ the use of BlackBerries or some other wireless e-mail service, a greater increase than expected over 2004.

The adoption of wireless technology goes beyond e-mail today. It is utilized for almost all business tasks, ranging from sales and customer relations to logistics. Businesses in many industries have increased their general use of wireless technology, but companies in utilities and telecommunications, retail, media, and manufacturing appear to have become the earliest adopters. Employees in distributing and manufacturing companies, for example, now carry small electronic devices with them as they check inventory in warehouses, and keep track of the movement of products in real time, rather than recording data later at their desks. Quality control inspectors can instantly submit their reports as they walk through a facility. In retail, some stores are rid of long checkout lines because wireless devices allow cashiers to complete sales transactions from anywhere in the store.

Businesses of all types can benefit from incorporating wireless technologies into their operations. Here are some advantages to going wireless and how the technology can improve your business’s productivity:

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  • Easy accessibility. Wireless Fidelity, or WiFi, hotspots are becoming easier to find. From coffee shops to public parks, hotspots are popping up everywhere. Additionally, new broadband services allow users to access the Internet through their cellular telephone entry points. In plain terms, this means that you can access your company information anywhere through the Internet, including from the shoulder of the highway. Although cellular telephone entry provides an Internet connection that is too slow and too inconsistent for regular use at this point, PricewaterhouseCoopers principal Joe Rizzo, based in New York, predicts that the ability to access a high-speed, constant Internet connection from anywhere is “right around the corner.” One such technology, WiMAX, is gaining ground around the world as a viable way to stay connected across long distances. The standards-based wireless technology ensures compatibility between the hardware and applications developed by various vendors and providers to ensure constant connectivity.
  • More productive company-wide and ad hoc meetings. “We can put so much more content into our agency-wide meetings because people aren’t in line for each other’s computers anymore,” explains Marianne O’Connor, CEO of Sterling Communications, Inc., a high-technology public relations agency based in Los Gatos, Calif. With a wireless network, all of O’Connor’s employees can now view each others’ presentations on their own computers, rather than crowding around a particular workstation. The time required to set up meetings is also reduced, since employees do not need to upload their information onto any specific computer, in order to present it to their colleagues. This is particularly useful for companies with mobile employees and multiple offices. All employees can now take part in company-wide meetings on the fly, and see the same information from their computers, no matter where they are.
  • Growth and office reconfiguration. This is a valuable asset for any business whose employees often move from office to office. “A wireless network is much more convenient because our employees don’t always sit in the same place,” O’Connor says. Because no constraints are placed on office configuration due to wiring and Internet ports, the possibilities for internal arrangement are endless. For growing companies, CEOs can focus on growing their workforce with fewer logistical concerns using wireless networking.

However, the rise of wireless technology and its many advantages does present a number of concerns, the largest of which is security. With your company’s and clients’ confidential data traveling through thin air, the threat of unwarranted access, either malicious or accidental, is very real. Here are some other topics you should consider in order to ensure that your wireless technology is used to its greatest potential while protecting your business’s critical assets.

  • Know why you want to go wireless. Although the initial costs of wireless service installation and maintenance are decreasing, the prices of additional software and support for wireless network management and security can cause your company’s IT costs to significantly increase. For instance, a virtual private network, or VPN, which employees can access from outside the office can be password-protected to ensure the information on the network remains safe. Any increased cost from setting up a VPN or other wireless solutions could be easily accounted for by increased productivity, but careful planning is key. Make sure you have a plan for how your company’s increased productivity will balance this new cost.
  • Examine your IT department. New problems and possible security breaches will inherently accompany the development of your business’s technology use, so try not to assume that your current IT plan will still fit. Once you install your new wireless network, “Do you know how you’re going to operate it?” asks Greg Murphy, chief operations officer of AirWave Wireless, a San Mateo, Calif.-based wireless network management software company. “This is where people tend to fall down,” he says. Murphy advises business owners to be realistic about their IT departments’ capabilities. He says that adding a wireless network on top of your company’s existing infrastructure can introduce “a really incremental set of problems,” based on security, access, and management issues that you never had to worry about before. For example, you will need to implement new policies on how much of your information will be accessible to each employee at various locations, since some Wi-Fi hotspots are more secure than others. You will also need to think about what kind of wireless access your guest users will have, and consider the new security threats that come with wireless use, such as non-employees accidentally accessing your data through an insecure wireless network, or to hackers developing new ways to see your information.

    Most security concerns can be fixed by installing security protocols specifically designed for wireless networks, such as Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) or Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA and WPA2). You can also thwart many security breaches through simple measures like firewalling and password-protecting your networks. However, increased security measures could necessitate the need to hire more IT staff specially trained in maintaining wireless networks or purchase new management software that is designed for companies with wireless networks. At the very least, you should expect to make appropriate changes to your network support and security policies.

  • Don’t lose yourself amid the BlackBerries and laptops. Mobility in the workplace can often find its way into your home, and some find that being so accessible to clients and colleagues intrudes on their private lives. “Learn where the ‘off’ switch is. Clients may expect you to be on all the time, but balance these issues,” advises Eric Zimits, managing director or Granite Ventures, a venture-capital firm based in San Francisco. Balance, a common problem already for small-business owners and entrepreneurs, will be even more prevalent as the mobile workplace becomes more common.

Despite its potential risks, Consorte has increased his company’s use of wireless technology since acquiring a wireless network a year ago, and he isn’t looking back. “Why be a slave to your desktop when you can bring your company with you and be a force to be reckoned with wherever you are?” he asks. Like increasing numbers of small-business CEOs, Consorte is expanding how he does business and thinks beyond the brick and mortar. “If your possibilities are endless, your profits can be too,” he says.