Amidst an uncertain budgetary environment and little incentive to take risks on new technology, federal IT departments have been through a hard couple of years. Yet, each federal agency still has its own complex goals and relies on both employees and technologies to meet them in a timely manner.
As dependence on mobile devices soars in the federal market, there is an operational imperative in identifying the right technologies to enable rapid, critical communications so that employees don't waste precious time while on the go.
A thoughtful strategy married with careful technology selections can have a decisive impact across an enterprise, affecting the overall health of an agency.
[Setting things in motion: Why The Industrial IoT Must Be Mobile.]
Mobile capabilities have, at times, been viewed under a negative light. Some decision makers might argue that a distributed workforce can be less efficient when not engaging via a single, scalable platform. Others simply fear charge and traditional migration times or non-governmental grade security. Worse, consumer apps brought into an agency may create more room for error in document sharing and access.
Yet most federal IT leaders will agree that a strong mobile communications strategy ensures that critical issues get relayed and resolved efficiently. They see that those communications can be scalable, secure, and valuable when it comes to identifying weak links, top performers, and additional areas for improved efficiencies.
There are a few reasons why I see the government continuing to invest in mobile communications. Full disclosure: I see this from the inside out as an adviser to Lua, which provides its mobile-first communications product to the Department of Defense.
Employees are driving mobile device and app selection
Government decision makers responsible for mobile device selection have two main objectives when it comes to which devices to support: simplicity and security. We're entering a period, however, in which employees have greater influence over which smartphones are deployed across the workforce. Whereas simplicity might once have been synonymous with a single OS or OEM, today it is more commonly associated with bring your own device (BYOD) or choose your own device (CYOD). Simplicity is gained by letting each individual use his or her preferred device.
Many decision makers today have acquiesced and agreed that forcing all employees to use a single device type means you see varied levels of adoption versus enabling them to choose the one they enjoy using.
It's easy to see that employee preferences are being taken into account when it comes to hardware choices. We're also seeing software trends that have proven "sticky" with consumer apps making their way into applications designed for the enterprise and the government. Successful apps today are tasked with delivering a powerful user experience in a simple user interface. The rising weight of employee opinions when it comes to the choice of mobile devices and software is the first reason I believe government agencies are going to continue investing in mobile. They need to get the right technologies to their employees, versus attempting to strong-arm adoption of insufficient, legacy systems.
Government-level mobile security is non-negotiable
Federal employees require access to information within a secure environment. In a recent IDG survey conducted for CSC, 57% of IT executives named mobile clients and unmanaged devices as their top security challenge. These concerns are not unfounded; a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey shows that in 2013, 4.5 million smartphones were lost or stolen in the US, and 64% didn't even have 4-digit screen locks enabled. The government must maintain military-grade, AES-256 encryption to reduce the ways employees can transfer information out of the agency network.
For mobile solutions providers, becoming trusted by government agencies and passing the latest certification test for working with them are not to be taken lightly. The standards for working with government agencies are, understandably, some of the highest in the world. On the positive side, this non-negotiable requirement narrows the field for federal IT workers in terms of the technologies that they can choose from. If federal agencies do not provide powerful, simple communications solutions to their increasingly mobile workforce, they run the risk of employees using personal applications such as SMS or WhatsApp, thus creating massive information security problems. A 2012 Forrester study found that 53% of respondents had chosen to use their own technology for work. Presumably, they felt their employer did not provide an alternative that met their needs. The federal government is not immune to the negatives of consumerization, along with its positives. A centralized, streamlined solution could go a long way towards alleviating the security risks of rogue technology deployments.
Mobile scalability and usage visibility mean sanity
As mentioned previously, mobile device dependency is increasing consistently. As a result, continued scalability across constantly growing and changing teams is top of mind in federal agencies. Large federal enterprises must ensure all employees are connecting through the same scalable channels versus a patchwork of non-sanctioned and untested products. As the organization changes, employees must remain continuously connected and, to do so, the technologies of choice must become a part of users' daily habits.
An ideal mobile communications suite for federal IT buyers has features that make the addition and management of large groups of employees seamless. None want to answer for the costs of having to switch technologies if a team reaches a scale that a given technology can no longer support.
These same technologies must offer peace of mind to managers who are leading teams of geographically distributed employees. Control through visibility into messages received and read, periods of greatest communication, and who is engaging in those conversations are all valuable to government managers. When communication is critical, not knowing if instructions have been effectively relayed and received can induce unnecessary stress.
Federal IT departments often find themselves with a surprisingly limited selection of technologies. First came hardware alone: push-to-talk devices (walkie-talkies) and early consumer devices like Blackberrys, which, in my experience, are still prevalent across the federal government. Then came a number of established technology vendors such as Microsoft and Cisco, as well as enterprise social networks like Yammer and Salesforce Chatter. They entered the market with mobile app versions of existing desktop Web products that were not optimized for the mobile user experience. Square peg, round hole, so to speak. As such, these technologies have not met the specification that will drive continued investment in mobile devices and technologies across the federal IT decision makers.
Today's federal employees, and those providing them the right technologies for their complex jobs, demand multifaceted communications capabilities, from messaging to talk to content sharing, compatibility across chosen devices and mobile and Web platforms, trusted security, accountability, and scalability. Only with the "third wave" of emerging solutions will these requirements finally be met.
Find out how NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory addressed governance, risk, and compliance for its critical public cloud services. Get the new Cloud Governance At NASA issue of InformationWeek Government Tech Digest today. (Free registration required.)Stephen Rodriguez is Managing Partner of Coldon Strategic Advisors, which supports venture capital funds and technology startups with defense applications. He has thirteen years of international business experience, including in Afghanistan and Colombia, having previously ... View Full Bio