Data-driven operations and the deskless workforce

At the heart of any organization’s mobile workforce is a plethora of mobile computing devices used by frontline workers to perform numerous business-critical processes, tasks and workflows across a multitude of industries. While the benefits of mobile computing devices for the data-driven enterprise are unquestionable, one key question remains: how are those devices being managed?

It would be an understatement to say that mobile computing has transformed the tasks performed by frontline workers in every industry: order fulfillment and packing in a warehouse, parcel delivery to our front doors, taking our orders in a restaurant, measuring our vital signs at the hospital and boosting quality control on the production line.

Today, specialized mobile technologies used by the frontline workforce across numerous industries are an operational imperative, a sine qua non for optimization-through-digitization. Why? Because frontline workers who are equipped with rugged, mobile devices have an increasingly profound impact on a company's profitability, performance and growth.

Mobile workplace devices used by office and frontline workers may differ in form and function, but from an IT perspective, they are all mobile computers in the end. They just have very different and specific lifecycle needs. Let’s take a closer look.

of organizations plan to begin modernization by equipping workers with mobile devices

Warehouse Vision Study, 2019-2024, Zebra Technologies

The deskless need data, not a desktop

Rugged mobile computing devices come in many forms – handheld, vehicle-mounted, head-mounted – to truly enable the mobile frontline worker. The devices capture real-time data associated with the goods, products and services being manufactured, transported and delivered. This enables improved operational performance and quicker, in situ and real-time problem solving through informed decision making. While a new generation of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G is opening up opportunities for industrial innovation, mobile computing hardware continues to have a transformational impact on myriad business-critical tasks, workflows and processes that underpin operations and that are carried out by frontline workers.

It is estimated that 80% of the global workforce is deskless, but technology investments have, for the large part, focused on the office or knowledge worker. This is now changing. In a drive to digitize data and digitalize workflows, organizations are investing in mobile technologies for frontline workers across every industry vertical, from manufacturing, retail and hospitality to transportation and logistics, warehousing and distribution, as well as public safety, utilities and healthcare.

Gartner predicts that “up to 70% of mobile net new investments will be aimed at frontline workers over the next five years.”1 In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed frontline workers across all industries to their limits, spawning the acceleration of digital transformation initiatives that resulted in a surge in global sales of rugged mobile hardware. In 2021, for example, rugged device manufacturers, such as Zebra Technologies, reported robust, double-digit sales growth, healthy pipelines and equally optimistic forecasts on the horizon.

The management of frontline worker devices requires answers to specific questions

While rugged, purpose-built devices used by frontline workers are built to withstand harsh conditions and even meet specific regulatory and safety requirements, they also have specific lifecycle care needs that are very different from those used by office workers. This has often been underestimated, misunderstood or even overlooked by some organizations. Managing frontline worker devices requires answers to some very specific questions:

  • Do I have an accurate and up-to-date inventory of all my devices, associated warranties and deployed applications used by my frontline employees?
  • How can I detect devices without the accurate OS build?
  • How do I upgrade specialized device applications?
  • What are the risks of cyberattacks on rugged devices with outdated OS?
  • Are all devices used along my global supply chain still under warranty?
  • What are the consequences of an unavailable barcode scanner at the shipping/receiving dock?

So, while mobile computing in all its forms continues to bring enormous improvements to productivity for businesses, each device represents an endpoint that needs to be managed throughout its lifecycle in order to deliver value, provide a return on investment (ROI) and keep devices secure. In today's digital world, no organization can take the risk of equipping employees with devices that are not properly maintained and secured.

In short, mobile technologies such as frontline worker devices are a key step toward digitizing data and optimizing business workflows, but they require proper management and support. Below, we address three key priority areas – control, security and efficiency – when considering the management of frontline worker devices.

Priority 1. Get control of your device fleet

Keeping an accurate and up-to-date inventory of hardware and the associated device warranties is essential. But, according to a report by Ivanti2, 66% of IT managers do not have an accurate record of their IT assets.

This is a considerable number, but also understandable. IT is responsible for an increasingly long list of services to support, and the number of issues they must deal with is rising daily. The complexity, diversity and proliferation of mobile devices across the entire enterprise, along with the associated mobile IT ecosystem, are just a few.

“If you are not managing your technology, you are not managing your business.”

Dr. Barbara Rembiesa, CEO, International Association of Information Technology Asset Managers (IAITAM)

Onboarding and offboarding of employee devices entail properly managing the connected hardware in the IT asset inventory. However, unlike office workers who are assigned their own smartphones and laptops, frontline workers usually share a pool of purpose-built devices on a rotating basis, which can result in misplaced equipment. Spending time looking for misplaced devices can directly impact productivity and customer service.

But misplaced or unaccounted for devices also represent a considerable security risk. Maintaining a full inventory of devices that are on the network is a critical function for the IT department. But according to a SANS Institute survey on device visibility and control3, “94% of respondents did not have complete visibility of assets in the enterprise environment [and] more than half (59%) could see less than 75% of their networked assets.” It's worth reminding ourselves that "it only takes one compromised device to cost billions to an organization. Yes, just one device."4

In addition to tracking the physical location of devices, a device inventory needs to include information about the status of each device's warranty. Without an active warranty, a device will not be eligible for updates from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), and this can have an impact on both ROI and device security.

An up-to-date hardware inventory allows industrial planners to analyze device usage and thus optimize device fleet ROI by ensuring that end users get the maximum benefits of the technology. At the same time, unnecessary investments are avoided because planners can determine the precise number of devices to procure. An inventory also overcomes the problems associated with lost, unused or discarded devices – ghost assets – which can adversely affect the company balance sheet and represent a potential compliance risk.

Devices used across the factory floor, in the warehouse, on the road, in the hospital, on the construction site (or wherever a mobile frontline worker has to be to do his or her job) need to be accounted for, all the time. You cannot control what you don't know. If you have no visibility on your hardware, you can neither attain ROI, nor ensure device security or, in some cases, regulatory compliance.

Priority 2. Enforce the security of your device fleet

According to Microsoft research5, 65% of IT executives identify security and compliance as their greatest challenges when introducing technology to frontline workers. This is understandable given that all devices represent a potential attack vector. In 2019, for example, mobile OS vendors created patches for 1,161 security vulnerabilities.

Common sense dictates that best practice is always to have the latest OS version for any device, since an up-to-date OS is critical for security compliance and avoiding vulnerabilities that can impact the business. However, unlike devices used by office workers, the OS on frontline workers’ rugged mobile computing devices is not typically set to automatically update, as customers want to ensure there is limited or no downtime to their users. Programs, such as Zebra's LifeGuard for Android, deliver regular OS updates (comprised of security patches, fixes and enhancements) and also offer flexible methods for performing OS updates while limiting the impact to the mobile user.

When and if an update is required, however, it is necessary to have a robust process in place and conduct validation tests to ensure that a new OS version will not negatively impact the business apps installed on the frontline worker device fleet.

Needless to say, while up-to-date OS is paramount for device security, it is also essential for enabling the latest device capabilities.

Finally, and as a gentle warning, rugged devices that use an OS that is no longer receiving security updates could have implications for international security accreditations such as ISO 27001 because new, associated security controls may require businesses to maintain their devices, software and apps up to date.

Priority 3. Optimize the efficiency of your device fleet

Organizations seeking to maximize the ROI of their fleet of rugged devices know that a key issue to address is minimizing device downtime (or maximizing device availability) so that service disruption is reduced or avoided altogether. Organizations also want to extend the device lifecycle for as long as possible, while avoiding compromised device security or compliance. In addition to maximizing device fleet lifetime and value, managing device health and longevity helps to contribute to CSR objectives.

Proactive service management on rugged devices enables organizations to:

  • Provide visibility of manufacturing devices along with key indicators
  • Report on business app deployment
  • Monitor device compliance and initiate remediation
  • Identify management problems before they occur
  • Monitor end-user experience for proactive resolution
  • Monitor battery health

Crossing the OT-IT divide

Much ink has been spilled about the tensions that often exist between operational technology (OT) and IT teams. The management and maintenance of frontline worker devices offers a perfect example of this dynamic. A warehouse operations director sees significant opportunities to streamline workflows and boost productivity if staff are equipped with various devices, such as handheld mobile computers, barcode scanners or wearables. The transformational impact of these mobile computing devices for the warehouse extends along the entire service value chain, from shipping and receiving to managing inventory, all the way to picking, packing and staging.

While the benefits of a connected warehouse with devices gathering data throughout the entire operation are clear, IT oversight and management of the numerous endpoints involved in the warehouse data journey are often not as robust as they should be. This is for multiple reasons that vary from organization to organization: IT does not see OT devices as their problem to manage, OT devices require specialized IT expertise that is not available in-house, or IT simply does not have the bandwidth to take on additional workload beyond the extensive range of IT services they must already manage. It could also be an issue of a lack of availability of centralized IT services, which is generally the case for large enterprises with devices being used in warehouses in multiple countries and regions.

Orange addresses the challenges of frontline worker device management

For all the above challenges, Orange Business leverages its proven capabilities in device management and worldwide service scope in mobile IT service management to accompany global customers who want to digitally enable their deskless workforces with purpose-built mobile computers.

As a Registered Alliance Partner of Zebra Technologies, Orange Business helps customers to address the challenges of managing their devices and associated mobile IT with a flexible suite of managed services for Zebra products including, but not limited to, OS upgrades using the Zebra toolbox and customer-specific tools developed by Orange, Zebra device configuration, as well as monthly reporting and device warranty monitoring for Proactive Device Management.

Simply put, large organizations with fleets of frontline and office worker devices to manage across multiple locations, countries and regions can benefit from the Orange Business global service reach and flexible delivery models so their IT teams can focus on supporting innovation and value creation.

1. Gartner Hype Cycle for Frontline Worker Technologies, 2021
2. Ivanti: 7 Hardware Asset Management Best Practices
3. Device Visibility and Control: Streamlining IT and OT Security with Forescout
4. Forescout blog: Do you know every device connected to your enterprise? If so, congrats—94% of businesses don’t!
5. Microsoft Azure Active Directory: Empowering and securing your Frontline Workforce

Derek Austin
Derek Austin

Derek has over 25 years of experience in IT and communications. He has been working in enterprise mobility for Orange Business for the past decade and has seen, first hand, how evolving mobile services and technologies have transformed companies and whole industries. He leads a happy and unremarkable life in the UK with his family, dog and motorcycle.