Does Mobile Workflow Represent the Future of Business?

PalmerArt150When you think about how business is changing today, it is impossible to ignore the impact of mobile technologies. The adoption of tablets, smartphones and other mobile computing platforms for business use is happening at a rapid pace, and it is no longer simply a case of individuals bringing their personal devices to work. The BYOD phenomenon that fostered the initial wave of mobile devices in the office has given way to a whole new range of smartphones, tablets and other mobile platforms designed specifically for business use.

Meanwhile, the continued penetration of mobile device platforms is only part of the equation. Advancements in cloud-based solutions and mobile application development are dramatically changing the way we do business. Indeed, the number of mobile applications designed specifically for business is growing by leaps and bounds.

According to a study published in 2012 by Frost & Sullivan, which surveyed more than 300 business professionals about enterprise mobile apps, 82 percent of North American businesses already have at least one mobile app deployed to employees. More importantly, 68 percent plan to deploy one or more additional apps in the coming year, and 9 percent expect to introduce more than 10 new apps over the course of 2013.

But the systematic rollout of mobile business applications combined with the ongoing trend toward established “mobility policies” is not occurring as quickly as some might think. The fact is, individuals continue to find their own mobile applications and cloud-based solutions, often doing so without the consent or knowledge of their employer.

There are a number of very important developments resulting from these trends. To begin with, we are rapidly transitioning to a “Bring Your Own Process” corporate environment, where individuals can now make their own decisions about mobile technology and mobile work processes. In many cases, employees are actually circumventing existing corporate policies and work processes in favor of a more personalized mobile workflow. This presents significant challenges for the employer not only in terms of the disruption it causes to existing business processes, but also in terms of mobility deployment, compatibility and security.

Mobility should make things easier

Interestingly, while mobile technologies provide people with 24/7 access to business information, there’s a lot still left to do in order to ensure a consistent and secure end-user experience. “With all this digital content and mobile technology all over the place, the life of the knowledge worker is actually getting more difficult,” explained Steve Schlonski, VP of Technology and New Business Development for Xerox. “It’s not getting easier.”

Mobile technologies have delivered on convenience — the ability to perform certain business functions while untethered from a desktop PC or even the local area network (LAN). Yet few can really say that today’s mobile workflow experience is just as productive and effective as its PC-based counterpart. Just accessing documents from your smartphone or tablet device can be a very difficult and time-consuming experience. File-format problems and compatibility issues are prevalent, especially when dealing with any document format other than PDF. When you involve more complicated workflows moving across multiple applications and platforms, the challenges increase exponentially.

Prior to digital and mobile technologies, business workflow was primarily focused on management and manipulation of information for use in a variety of applications and form factors. Basically, we are rapidly transitioning from document management to content management. “People want instant access to content, and they want it viewable in the format of their choice,” Schlonski said. “So you have to be able to manage the process and the flow of information. It’s not just viewing the content; it’s interacting with it and using it in multiple ways.”

Schlonski says that imaging and printing vendors (such as Xerox) can play a vital role in the transition from documents to content. “Printing is all about taking content and transforming it for viewing it on paper,” he explained. “The idea of taking content and displaying it in the form factor that people want — we’ve been doing that for a long time.” The challenge, of course, is performing that content-conversion process in a way that simplifies and improves mobile workflow.

The digital landfill

A primary goal when it comes to simplifying mobile workflow should be enabling quicker access to the information that is needed. With the explosion of digital content, businesses are accumulating mountains of information — something that Schlonski calls the “digital landfill.” Providing the ability to locate specific content quickly and transforming it for viewing or editing on the user’s device of choice is key to creating more productive mobile processes.

According to Karl Dueland, VP of the Solutions Delivery Unit for Xerox Office & Solutions Business Group, another important aspect of simplifying mobile workflow is providing the ability to quickly and accurately strip out relevant content — even if that content is embedded in a larger document or information database. “That is very important,” he said. “You don’t want to degrade the experience from a usability standpoint. You want to be able to distinguish relevant content from the ton of information that we have to sort through. It is a delicate balance.”

For example, if you have a contract that has been modified and you need a signed approval of those changes, the process today involves sending the entire PDF document to the third party, who must scroll through each page on the mobile device to find and approve the modified sections. “The right way to do that would be to identify those areas within the document that have been modified and only send those sections for approval,” Schlonski said. “You really have to focus on user experience when you’re dealing with document workflow and mobility.”

Secure the content, not the device

Naturally, security is a prime concern for every business looking to deploy a more effective and efficient mobile strategy. As mobile devices become more prevalent in the workplace, employees themselves become a significant security threat. The threat is not necessarily malicious in nature, but with individuals accessing corporate information from devices outside the firewall and sending that information to and from various cloud-based applications, security is becoming a very difficult thing to manage.

“When you think about security, we have figured out a way to allow documents and content to move around these mobile devices and the networks,” Schlonski said. “But we haven’t found a way to track it.” Today, many individuals are basically circumventing the system — in some cases knowingly, and in others, maybe not. “The only reality we have today is that there is no real control in the BYOD environment,” Dueland said. “Everybody wants to find their own way to get things done.”

There is a real need for securing the access to and distribution of content. According to Schlonski, the best approach is to secure the content itself by basically putting a layer on top of the data to grant access to it through an authentication process. This would provide a more transparent approach to security with respect to the individual employee and would actually change very little in terms of the user experience. “If the user has not authenticated in a proper way, you don’t get access to the data,” Schlonski explained. “It’s not about loading lots of security layers on the device itself; it’s all about protecting the content.”

A hybrid environment

Is mobile workflow set to take over existing business processes in the foreseeable future? The cloud is proving to be a source of rapid innovation, fostering usage-based applications in virtually all areas of business process — and these solutions are coming out at a furious pace. With these continued advancements, there is little doubt that companies will look to expand mobile technologies into areas well beyond information access and consumption.

Content collaboration is likely to be the next big wave within corporate mobility and cloud-based solutions. Larger organizations will continue to pursue enterprise mobility platforms, allowing mobile apps to be deployed simultaneously across multiple device types and provide for integrated security and device management.

Meanwhile, paper remains entrenched in many business processes. For the next few years, it is likely that we will continue to see a hybrid office environment, where paper and digital workflows coexist. So much of today’s business information remains trapped inside paper documents, and the conversion from paper to digital format will continue to be a top priority for many organizations. Nevertheless, it is clear that mobile devices are becoming the computing platform of choice among many business users. As a result, the need to migrate to mobile workflows will continue to be a top priority.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Workflow.

Read more of this article in the premier issue of Workflow on June 1.

Read more of this article in the premier issue of Workflow on June 1.

Read more of this article in the premier issue of Workflow on June 1.