MOBILE MANAGER The Unplugged Executive – Why mobility sparks brain cells

Research proves it: cubicles cause brain damage. Or at least they stop the brain working. Research from Princeton University professor of psychology Elizabeth Gould shows that the brain stops producing new neurons in unstimulating environments.
Gould’s research shows that “the structure of the brain is incredibly influenced by one’s surroundings”, according to an article in Seed magazine (quoted on the Creating Passionate Users blog at http://headrush.typepad.com).
The upshot of the research for managers is that the working environment can have huge impact on creativity, productivity and morale.
Neurons aside, there are other powerful forces changing the places in which we work. Mobile technology is setting many formerly desk-bound workers free to work anywhere, anytime. At least that’s the possibility.
Martin Butler, Telecom’s head of corporate and medium enterprise marketing, sees two key factors that have driven businesses towards remote working. “On the supply side, there’s quite tight labour market,” says the former economist. “Companies are investing significantly in knowledge and experience, both formal and informal.” They are leveraging mobile technology to suit employees’ lifestyle requirements, as well as employers’ needs.
Butler also says technology offerings are becoming simple enough to use every day. “You’re only going to use tool if there’s convenience factor that makes it worthwhile,” he says. “If it’s convenient, it’s likely to become habit-forming.”
He has point. But how well are companies making use of their investment in mobile technology? Vodafone’s director of business markets Phil Patel got shock when he visited large corporate that had recently switched to mobile-only phone usage.
All staff were equipped with top-of-the-line devices that combined phone with PDA (personal digital assistant). Yet when Patel asked the manager for someone’s contact details, the manager pulled out notebook – one made of paper and cardboard.
This company is typical of many that have the technology but not the know-how. “In New Zealand we buy tools but don’t use them,” says Patel. “Change management, HR and technology are all involved in maximising return on investment.”
The need to bridge the gap between technology and knowledge is the reason Mobile Mentors exists. The private company, part of Auckland’s Icehouse business incubator, works under exclusive licence to Vodafone, training large corporate clients at no charge to the client.
Mobile Mentors’ founder Denis O’Shea developed the idea while working at Nokia, where he saw increasing complexity in products and increasing frustration in users. O’Shea’s aha moment came when he was researching user needs: “One customer said, ‘I just need someone to sit down with me for one hour’,” he says. business was born.
Many more aha moments have followed, as clients discovered the hitherto hidden features of their mobile devices. Mobile Mentors asks each client for feedback – what they found clumsy, what they found compelling and what they’d like to change – and universal complaint has been difficulty of navigation.
“Often people are upgrading from simpler phone with few features to much more complicated device,” says O’Shea. “They can’t find out how to do the simple things they want to.”
Telecom, too, has personal team of trainers, the Phone Ranger Group, who train Telecom’s account and technology managers as well as key clients. For medium-sized and larger companies, says Butler, the team takes ‘train the trainers’ approach, recruiting power users within the company, or the IT manager and team members. “It creates critical mass of knowledge, which has ripple effect,” says Butler, who acknowledges the vital role training plays. “If our devices and services aren’t perceived to be useful, we’ve missed the boat.”
It’s no wonder people need training on many of the devices coming out – it’s not that they’re hard to use, it’s just that they can do so much it makes the average mind boggle. From the famous Blackberry (nicknamed Crackberry for its addictiveness), to Vodafone’s new iMate JasJar, or Telecom’s Apache, to the hp iPaq – all of which combine phone, email, familiar programs like Word and Excel, and videoconferencing – devices are able to do more than ever before.
One very important feature is security, says Simon Molloy, hp market development manager for mobile products. “It is big issue that’s been neglected by vendors and users in the past.”
Molloy says improved “foolproof” security is being introduced that can’t be overridden by the user – which has been common problem. Other measures include “remote kill” – remotely wiping the information on device when it’s lost – and fingerprint identification.
Vodafone’s Patel says companies are choosing technology based on what the end user will do with it, rather than one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, some workers may need laptop with wireless internet connection, while others with less data-intense work may need only Blackberry or similar device.
One thing’s for certain, says Patel. Email is the “killer app” people want to make sure their device has, whether it’s big or small.
The proliferation of small devices has not erased the importance of the humble laptop. In press release, Callum Eade, country manager for Toshiba Information Systems Division, says notebooks have outsold desktop computers in the consumer market for some time, and he predicts the business market will follow this trend in 2006.
Chris Quinn, group gm of Gen-i, speaks from the back of cab in Seattle on rainy Monday night. thoroughly mobile manager, his favourite piece of equipment is his Tablet PC, type of laptop released in New Zealand in 2002.
Like normal notebook, the Tablet PC’s screen folds up or down, but it also twists around, letting users lie the screen flat and write on it, as they would piece of paper. Quinn finds the Tablet’s compactness essential on domestic flights where space is at premium, and also in meetings when taking notes.
The Tablet PC is just one tool in Quinn’s arsenal that lets him work anywhere as if he were in his office. The increased simplicity Butler talked about earlier isn’t that of individual devices, but instead simplicity of being able to access information immediately. “In the next two weeks I’m in the US, Europe and back home in New Zealand,” says Quinn, “but I’ll be working as if I were at my desk.”
“It’s what everyone who works in more than one location needs,” he adds. “You can work anywhere – you’re never in situation where you can say, ‘sorry I can’t do that’.”
That’s challenge and an advantage, admits Quinn. “While it can mean you’re always at work, it can also free you up to attend to your family. It comes down to discipline, and discipline is down to the individual.”
The company can also help set boundaries, says Jarrod Haar, senior lecturer in strategy and HR management at Waikato Management School. “Getting emailed outside office hours is fine if it’s one-off,” he says, “but it becomes problem if it’s systemic.”
He says the trend towards staff being “always-on” can lead to burnout and exhaustion, which is bad not only for the employee, but also for the employer who must then deal with staff turnover.
Haar says the leadership must come from the top, with definite guidelines set and stuck to. He also says it helps to acknowledge extra work an employee does when they are “always-on”.
Telecom’s Butler says boundaries become especially important when dealing with global project teams who work across different time zones. “If you don’t consciously establish protocols that manage the personal time of respective staffers, it becomes 24-hour treadmill,” he warns.
We have an advantage in New Zealand, though, in that our culture values family and leisure time. “Lots of people decide to base themselves in New Zealand because we have that kind of work-life et

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