“And the best part of my new corporate job is that I get a free iPad (or similar mobile device)!”

Like many of you, I’ve heard versions of this statement on an accelerating basis of-late. It begs the question: why are enterprises handing out mobile devices on such a regular basis to new, and oftentimes nearly all, of their employees?

There is also a land rush to allow employees to bring their own devices. This is the ultimate freebee for the enterprise, but for employees, this will start to cloud the area of “when am I at work or not?”

Getting off track a bit, a new Smartphone or tablet is a cool perk, but the optimist in me wants to believe that it’s also a way to encourage genuine collaboration and increased productivity within the enterprise. Whatever the use-case, it’s clear that the “mobile enterprise” is well upon us, so let’s take a look at some of the practical ramifications and use-cases:

The Road Warrior and UX

You know who you are -- you might be in five airports this week alone and have a mix of bosses and employees in several countries. In theory, wouldn’t it be great to have an ultra-lightweight device that enables you to easily stay in contact and collaborate with all those co-workers, across the miles, let alone the new business opportunities you’re trying to close?

We’ve all seen the ads touting this potential, but is there a real-world UX priority to make this happen? The answer: sort of, but there’s a lot of work to be done. It seems that every company outside of Apple has recently gotten religion on design -- consider how many times during the past couple of months we have heard this coming out of Redmond!

As within the broader enterprise landscape, employees can often access enterprise activity feeds and other “social lite” elements from their mobile devices and can obviously download documents via email or some cloud-based applications. But is genuine collaboration and document sharing really part of the mobile enterprise right now? Not quite, but I’m optimistic that we’ll be there soon. This is definitely worth watching and could be the basis for a whole series of articles.

As I’ve alluded before, secure document sharing is a critical step in enterprise collaboration and the stakes are pretty high. Beyond the convenience of being able to collaborate from any place, anytime, enterprises have be comfortable that their data -- especially in verticals like finance and legal, where confidentiality is paramount and most likely regulated -- is 100 percent secure and with zero exceptions. On the front end, mobile employees demand a UX that is easy and intuitive while not sacrificing confidentiality parameters so key to their businesses. We’re not there just yet, but stay tuned!

Is Always-on Always Good?

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That really cool mobile device can also be a curse, especially for employees who might want to unplug for just a little while. I’ve heard of many instances in which a “Wow, look at this great device I got through my company,” quickly transforms into “Wow, I have my work/company with me 24/7 now.”

What can we, as an industry, do to mitigate this?

From a UX standpoint, as we build applications geared toward mobile enterprise collaboration, we should also empower employees to define what their work hours are on a given device -- that is, actually use the device as a way to reinforce work/life balance. I know, it’s idealistic, but from a practical standpoint we’re already seeing this being done and I think this functionality can and should be built into any social collaboration solutions that involve the mobile enterprise.

Tactically, this means applications that can be "silenced" during designated hours, enabling employees to check-in on something if they wish to do so, but not be bombarded with a 24x7 stream of alerts, requests and so forth. “Presence” can and will be a disruptive force if you are being pinged with repeated “hey, are you online?” queries while watching that movie with your kids or partner.

There are several studies addressing this in greater detail and it’s worth bearing in-mind for those of us who might otherwise design solutions assuming that an always-on enterprise is more productive.

Hardware Race Outpacing the Enterprise Software Reality

Whether we’re talking about stalwart Apple devices or newer tablet entries being contemplated by Microsoft, Google and Amazon, one thing rings true for those of us focused on enterprise collaboration and UX development: the “Hardware Race” has zoomed past the reality of software and UX development needed to help corporations and their employees fully realize the benefits of the mobile enterprise.

We’ve all seen the dog-and-pony shows associated with the newest devices, whether touting the latest lightweight materials, the convenient sizes and the pie-in-the-sky use-cases. The fact is, these devices will only take enterprise employees as far as the underlying software and UX development will allow.

So as exciting as it is to contemplate the potential use-cases associated with a 10-ounce tablet device made of bulletproof titanium, it won’t really matter if we don’t have software and UX to match this promise. The average employee (we call them corporate clients) just wants it to work -- “I check my mail here, project status here and move on to the next task,” without interruption.

Finding the Balance

It is all really exciting, but there is some immediate risk of overstating the potential of the mobile enterprise, especially if you’re dealing with bosses who are looking for short-term payoff. At a tactical level, functionality like genuinely secure document sharing needs to be air-tight for the mobile enterprise to really flourish and we as an industry just aren’t quite there yet.

From a quality-of-life standpoint, we also need to balance the desire for increased collaboration and efficiency with the real need for employees to have a work/life balance. Tablets and other mobile devices are taking the “Always On” culture to new levels and all of us can have a hand in ensuring that employees can check-out or flip the “Off” switch, from time to time.

We should all be energized by the possibilities of the mobile enterprise, but as with the broader world of enterprise collaboration, we have a ways to go. As the pace of development intensifies (and you know those competing hardware guys are cranking as we speak), we as UX developers can add strategic value by being a voice-of-reason in this arena.

What is certain is that we as an industry have to increasingly keep mobile clearly and realistically in mind as we work fast to address the broader and exciting promise of social collaboration fostering improved enterprise productivity.

Image courtesy of caliber_3D (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more of Kevin's thoughts on the Social Enterprise:

-- 4 Myth-Busters: Making Some Sense of Social Business