Why you should embrace the cost of mobile

Compared to the extra labor companies get from workers, mobile management expenses are trivial

Vendors love to scare IT over security, control, and cost issues, and the rise of modern mobile devices in the workplace -- whether BYOD or corporate-issued -- is a favorite whipping boy from vendors whose answer to all ills is, of course, to buy their products. Though the vendors' warnings jeopardize their own "spiraling costs" claims, anything goes in sales, right?

A closer look at the numbers reveals why so many corporate managers have told IT to get out of the way when it comes to mobile: Its adoption boosts the bottom line -- even when you spend more to try to control it. By my calculations, you get 10 to 25 times the return for every dollar you spend. That's a no-brainer in support of mobile adoption. And you'll get better ROI if you take the next step and think about investing in mobile proactively, not simply trying to manage (read: control) it.

[ Updated for iOS 5, Android 4, BlackBerry OS 7, and Windows Phone 7.5: Learn how to manage mobile devices in InfoWorld's 42-page Mobile and BYOD Deep Dive PDF special report. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights via Twitter and with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

The economics of mobile management
Take a recent report by Azaleos, which resells the AirWatch mobile device management (MDM) product. It noted that IT labor costs for supporting mobile users were expected to rise to about $339 per year per user in 2013, as companies implemented MDM or expanded the number of supported platforms and capabilities in their MDM tools rather than rely on just the included mobile management services in Microsoft Exchange (which cost $229 per user per year to manage in 2011, according to the Azaleos report). Another MDM vendor fond of scaremongering, BoxTone, claims the IT labor cost is $555 per user per year, near half of which is allegedly for support calls. 

That sounds like a shocking cost increase, doesn't it? Never mind that the labor cost increase claimed by Azaleos is driven solely by IT deciding it wants more control over mobile devices, not from user actions. Plus, the same report says companies are already spending $294 per user this year, thanks to increased MDM adoption, so the projected delta isn't as large as the report highlights depict.

Add in the cost of the MDM licenses, which range from $60 to $180 per user per year. Assume you also pay the data plans for half your users -- people in jobs that truly require mobile access, such as sales and field support -- to add another $360 per user per year for generous data plans ($60 of data per user for that half of your user base whose data you pay for). Figure an employer subsidy on the devices every two years for half the employees; that's another $75 per user per year on average ($300 per employee whose data you pay for). That's a grand total of $834 to $954 per user per year. If you believe BoxTone's mobile support cost claims, which I do not, that cost rises to $1,084 to $1,204 per user. Keep in mind: BoxTone likes to use worst-case examples as its norm for all employees, and it favors selling its expensive support management tools over cheaper, more effective methods like user training and higher proportion of self-responsibility for user-chosen technology.

Now factor in another recent report from Good Technology that shows the average mobile employee works 7 hours per week more (unpaid) than employees not provided mobile access to email and other work resources. That's 30 hours per month of free labor, or 336 hours per year -- assuming they don't work via mobile over the 10 typical holidays or 10 typical vacation days they get each year, which of course they do. Figure an hourly labor cost average of $40 outside the big cities, and companies get $13,440 in free labor per user each year that costs them between $834 and -- perhaps in poorly run companies -- $1,204 per year in mobile device, data, and management costs. That labor cost can easily triple in many locales, making the ROI of mobile much greater than my conservative assumptions here.

These are just the hard costs. The soft benefits such as improved customer and supply chain satisfaction and greater operational efficiency add value as well. There are soft costs, too, such as the possibly heightened risk of data breaches as more corporate information is moved onto mobile devices and cloud services that may not be as locked down as Windows PCs can be made to be. I say "possibly" because despite all the fearmongering by security vendors, I've yet to see real data on the incidents or costs of security intrusions and data breaches attributable to mobile device usage -- believe me, I've been asking for such data -- which tells me the actual risk doesn't support the vendors' fear-oriented claims.

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