In a recent discussion thread about tablets vs. Ultrabooks, several TechRepublic members questioned the need of portable computing for the majority of office workers. Initially, it was tempting to dismiss this question as irrelevant in a tablet-related blog, but it's actually an extremely important discussion and should provide the initial talking point as your organization considers tablets and its larger computing needs.
There are several matters to consider as you reflect on what device would best serve your workers. I believe computing should be approached as an experience rather than a set of tools. Superficially, that might sound like some wishy-washy consultant-speak, but different "experiences" will indeed merit different technological tools.
For example, the salesperson who spends more time in an airplane or seat of their car will have a very different experience interacting with your corporate infrastructure and data than a desk-bound call center rep or an executive who spends the majority of their day shuttling between meetings. Before even considering what seems like basic questions around laptops vs. desktops vs. tablets, consider the classes of users in your organization, how they currently experience your enterprise IT, and how that experience could be made more effective.
When you start thinking of how people in your company interact with your IT resources, you can begin dividing these users into various classes, each with varying requirements. Most companies will end up with three to six classes, which might range from mobile knowledge workers, to remote personnel, to desk workers or shop employees.
Similarly, as you consider each class of workers, you can independently assess their IT needs in the context of experience. Most warehouse or production floor workers might acknowledge production orders or perform inventory counts on paper or on a banged-up shared terminal on the shop floor. Based on what information they consume and generate, it might become clear that a different IT tool could dramatically improve their computing experience.
Segregating users by experience will vary by organization. One company's warehouse might dramatically benefit from the latest handheld technology, while another is actually more effective pushing paper. Since experience considers your unique environment, you can make decisions in the correct context rather than pursing what vendors or technology writers suggest.
Consider the different types of portability
Each class of user physically moves through your organization in a different manner. A "desk worker" in one class may spend moments at his or her desk and the rest of the day shuttling between meetings, needing frequent access to internal information and the communications infrastructure. Another class of "desk workers" may sit in front of a single terminal for the entire day. In the first case, a standardized laptop with abundant docking stations might be worth the additional cost -- but in the second example, that would be an unnecessary expense.
This distinction of various classes of users becomes increasingly important as you consider tablets in your organization. For many companies, the commoditized laptop market has made a basic notebook the weapon of choice for every user. Since the tablet market is still emerging, issuing a standard tablet to each and every employee makes little sense.
Organizations that are preparing for a test deployment should look for classes of users whose computing experience would benefit from increased mobility (even if they rarely exit the physical building). As you roll out larger tablet deployments, targeting a better computing experience will guide your hand more credibly than single considerations like mobility. While the jet-setting salesperson seems like an obvious candidate for a tablet, the lowly shop employee might gain a dramatically better computing experience in your particular organization.
I was certainly guilty of making assumptions about portability in my previous column, and I appreciate the feedback that brought that to my attention. Adding portability and mobility to your list of items as you consider the various classes of users in your organization will guide potential tablet deployments, increase your understanding of the various types of people IT serves, and suggest further improvements to their interactions with your services.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at email@example.com, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.