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By Nicole Summers

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 20 years since the world’s first “smart phone” was released. Back in 1994, the “Simon” offered a touch screen and new “apps” including a calendar, a calculator, a notepad and even fax connectivity.

Two decades later, the features and functionality of smart phones have refined and expanded to the point where today, these devices are capable of tackling challenges that previously only super computers could support. Not surprisingly, smart phone popularity has also skyrocketed. By the end of 2014, projections estimate there will be more than 7.7 billion mobile devices in the world – more devices than there are people.

But for the past seven years, in some respects, the world has been playing catch-up. When the iPhone launched in 2007, apps were still a new frontier. Suddenly the lid was blown off the potential of just how “smart” a smart phone could be. Since then, the rise of mobile devices and applications has changed how we communicate, share and even live. It’s no surprise mobile is now also changing how the enterprise runs and, essentially, how we work.

In fact, mobile is becoming a major business priority. Eighty-one per cent of companies surveyed believe mobile capabilities will fundamentally change the way they do business. Eighty-four per cent of CIOs rate mobile solutions as critical areas of investment. New trends are also emerging as organizations have expanded their view of mobile applications from what was initially a business-to-consumer (B2C) proposition to a business-to-business (B2B) model, and now toward a third wave of business-to-employee (B2E) applications.

The result: from connecting staff in the field to linking up with a home office, companies are leveraging mobile to better enable employee collaboration and productivity.

Keeping connected

The enterprise that strongly embraces mobile will unleash empowered employees, reconfigure individual workflows and stimulate skill acquisition. A proof point is demonstrated by Apple and IBM now collaborating to develop mobile solutions geared specifically to help organizations in various sectors re-imagine the way they enable employees. This partnership signals a shift in moving employees away from “random acts of mobility” to mobility that means something for business. While email, scheduling and texting may have formed the lion’s share of employees’ mobile activity in the past, the future will look quite different.

According to a leading industry analyst firm, Gartner, employees using mobile applications in the workplace will double by 2015. That number will only increase with the introduction of the iGen demographic into the workforce. iGeners multitask across five screens daily, and spend 41 per cent of their time outside school on computers or mobile devices. Mobile capabilities and enablement will be critical to iGen when entering the workforce.

Big potential

Using mobility to enable a more productive workforce is an important goal for many organizations, and more than half of organizations who embrace this trend reported a greater than 10 per cent gain in employee productivity as a result of their mobile efforts. It is critical for organizations to be thinking about mobile first, as increasingly it becomes the dominant channel for business – both inside and outside the enterprise.

Imagine a truly mobilized workforce enabled by the unprecedented power of data and analytics. Imagine a field worker, slowed by an unexpected issue, automatically connected with a remote expert. Safety incidents could be predicted and avoided using continually collected data to determine safer processes and push brief tutorials out to employees – in context – as needed. That same field worker could take a photo of a piece of broken machinery, connect with an expert real-time and ultimately provide real-time, on-site repairs instead of driving back and forth to a site office to diagnose and connect with an expert.

Immediate accessibility through mobile will enable employees to confidently and continuously stay connected, even while on the road. Mobile will give healthcare workers the ability to respond to critical patient updates without delay. Mobility will help sales personnel access key account information for their clients regardless of location.

Today the real potential and ROI of mobile in the enterprise is still unrealized. Enterprises can see the potential, but to be effective and valuable, apps and devices must be integrated into an organization’s processes and into the workflow. Beyond calendar and email, mobile must connect into all the systems of record to fully unleash its potential.

Overcoming the challenges

Of course, there are a few challenges. Many business processes were established in an era when companies tightly controlled every aspect of their operations. Mobility disrupts those established linear flows of work and information.

As well, mobile enables and encourages transparency and agility into the enterprise. As a result, B2E apps give employees the means to gather information and make decisions on the spot and, ultimately, the opportunity to act. Organizations will need to embrace the change and establish policies, practices and training programs to transform the enterprise.

Everyone is talking about mobile and the mobile revolution has created a new energy and excitement across industries and markets around the globe, but we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. The real value of mobile in the enterprise is re-imagining work that transforms industries and professions.

For today’s employers, mobility should not be about the device. Instead, mobility is about exploring what an organization can do differently and more effectively now that employees and customers use mobile technology. It’s time to get creative, it’s time to innovate on mobile business and it’s time to drive the next wave of transformation. Like the 20 years that have passed since “Simon” was launched, it will be exciting to see what the next 20 years bring for mobile.

Nicole Summers is associate partner at IBM Interactive.

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