I don't know if, as Tim Cook claims, innovation on the PC is dead, but it's for sure that tablets are fundamentally changing enterprise IT. Many organizations, such as the Air Force, which recently procured 18,000 iPads, consider the tablet to be the ideal form factor as it strikes a balance between workability and portability.
In Disney's "Tron" an evil computer program seeks to enslave all to the "system" while the hero Tron "fights for the users." This battle is being played out as tablets and other technologies put the power in the hands of users, enabling unprecedented agility.
Here are 6 ways the tablet promises to alter IT and reshape the enterprise:
#1: No more treating customers like numbers. In recent years we've seen the human touch too often replaced by automation. Tablets have the potential to reverse this, so that we may see the human touch actually improved by technology. British Airways, according to reporting by Minda Zetlin, has given senior crew members iPads equipped with a customer service app that gives them real-time, detailed passenger information. So if you flew with British Airways last year and the flight attendant spilled coffee on you, the next time you get on they'll know to take extra care. According to Zetlin, British Airways continually solicits feedback from users for improvements, and regularly releases updates, such as the ability to quickly identify customers whose seats have been downgraded due to overbooking (so that they can take care not to spill coffee on them either).
You can see how putting this kind of info in the hands of the front line through a user-centric, portable device could benefit just about any organization. IT infrastructure and all other enterprise resources are channelled straight to the customer-facing employee, placing the entire organization's intelligence at their fingertips. And, as companies become increasingly collaborative through social media, the information available to the front line becomes all the more rich and valuable, incorporating the perspective of every single team member who plays a role in serving a specific customer. The more the flight attendant knows about the customer, the more pleasant they can make their experience.
#2: The "office" may be more of a concept than a place. We'll still have the nifty offices, if for no other reason than to make a good impression on clients. But the "office" will become much less about where you're going and more about what you're doing. It's a shift we're seeing already with the rise in telecommuting. However, the effect of tablets will not so much be to push people to work from home, per se, as to encourage them to work from wherever it makes the most sense to be at the moment. In many cases there'll still be concrete advantages to having teams physically in the same location. However, the mobility afforded by tablets makes the options for team combinations and gathering locations infinite.
#3: On the job training will become ubiquitous. In former years, training was hindered by the fact that you had to disrupt your work and go somewhere to train -- who has time for that? In the last decade e-learning enabled you to integrate training into your work regimen ... if you worked exclusively from a desktop, that is. But, as we've discussed in this blog before, the recent explosion of business technology makes constant training a necessity for everyone, and not just those who work at computer terminals.
Now, with the advent of tablets, you can train anywhere, anytime -- you don't even have to be sitting down. Apple's efforts to enrich the school experience may equally benefit the enterprise, where there's often a particular need for training that isn't tied to any particular location. The ability to access an e-learning portal through a portable device such as an iPad means that training may become integrated into every employee's daily work regimen. And, if context is the key to effective learning retention, the implications of tablet-based learning may be huge, as it allows training to take place in the moment and location that it is most relevant.
#4: Enterprise solutions will shift fundamentally in design. Take for instance the simple fact that, unlike desktops, tablets can be equipped with censors and GPSs. Enterprise software designed for these devices may take on an entirely different function -- you currently enter data into enterprise software, but if it's designed for an iPad, the device itself might actually capture the information. For the enterprise, this may lead to an explosion in productivity, but it may also lead to an explosion in data that companies can mine for intelligence.
#5: IT's biggest concern: Connectivity. Stephen Lawson recently quoted Mike Spanbauer of Current Analysis: "Tablets hold great promise because of portability and long battery life, but they place high demands on networks because they are so often used for multimedia consumption."
In this environment, everything hinges on connectivity. Enterprises need to take action now to ensure that they'll be able to provide adequate capacity, or everything -- including all the benefits of a mobile, social workforce -- will come to a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard screeching halt.
#6: We'll complete the shift in the IT model from technology-driven strategy to strategy-driven technology. If you were to boil down Steve Jobs' philosophy to a single point, it would have to be emphasis on putting control in the hands of the user. Making technology effortless to the user ultimately erases any barriers to a full shift from technology-driven to strategy-driven IT. Think of it like ergonomic features on a car -- the less of your brain power that has to be devoted to mechanically operating the vehicle, the more you can focus on your ultimate goal of getting to your destination. Similarly, by offering technology that frees the user from operational constraints -- tablets are a huge leap forward in this direction -- employees brains are freed to think about what they really ought to be thinking about: how to best accomplish your organization's goals.
So, like Tron, CIOs who want to be on the right side of history need to be sure they too are fighting for the users, not the system, by embracing mobile technologies like tablets, and building a culture and infrastructure that fully leverages the flexibility they afford.
Eric Berridge is co-founder and principal of agile business consulting firm Bluewolf, which provides lifecycle innovation, cloud implementations, IT staffing, managed services and other services to sync business and IT for efficient, adaptive performance. He also co-authored the book "Iterate or Die" along with Bluewolf co-founder Michael Kirven.