Companies still aren't building many apps for the workforce - but that's about to change
Enterprise Applications

Companies still aren't building many apps for the workforce - but that's about to change

This is a contributed article by Adam Fingerman, Chief Experience Officer and cofounder, ArcTouch


Like many in the mobile industry, I took a moment to reflect as Apple's original App Store recently turned 10 years old. Undeniably, its introduction in 2008 represented one of the most important milestones in personal technology. There are now millions of iOS and Android apps available in the app stores, along with an ecosystem of companies devoted to delivering mobile services and experiences.

Despite some occasional click-bait headlines and hyperbolic stories about "app fatigue" and "app saturation," mobile apps are still in their infancy. Especially in the workplace. The millions of apps already available cover the vast majority of needs in our personal lives. But what about apps for our work life? Companies have barely touched the surface.

Consider United Airlines. In 2017, the company shared its plans to provide a "suite" of mobile apps to its workforce. While the company hasn't released details of how many employee apps it has completed to date, I can imagine dozens of valuable use cases for how mobile could augment employee tasks -- helping them be better at their jobs and making work more rewarding.

I recently experienced one. While taking a United flight, a crew member came up to me and knew my name. I noticed she was using an iPhone and I asked about her app. She explained that she could see some customer information by seat assignment -- things like frequent flier status, birthdays, and food allergies. Details that would allow her to better service passengers.

I'm sure most executives agree, there is huge value in workforce applications like these. But workplace applications continue to lag. Our 2017 study on enterprise mobile user experience showed that only 12% of U.S. office workers were using company mobile apps for their job.

So, what's the holdup? Why aren't there more companies building successful apps for employees? We believe the following three barriers have been slowly eroding — and will pave the way for the proliferation of workplace mobile apps:

1.   The chasm between ‘easy' and ‘efficiency'

One reason we believe enterprise mobile is set to explode is that platforms for building mobile experiences are maturing fast. And this mobile platform evolution is helping skilled development teams build apps with increasing efficiency. But there's a downside. There are several "low-code" development platforms that boast of how virtually anyone, including non-developers, can build apps.

This can foster a sense of overconfidence among internal IT teams. As Forrester analyst Michael Facemire once told CIO magazine, "It's more common to see folks that say they can do it, [but as the project goes on they realize] it's not really working out." The end result can be projects that go on for several months before it's clear the challenges are insurmountable without mobile expertise. Project sponsors then face a choice: Hire outside help to save what has become a problem project — or kill it entirely. At that point, projects are more likely to be killed than resurrected.

The reality is that there's a big chasm between efficiency and easy. Building a very basic proof-of-concept app using a low-code platform might be doable for anyone with some technical experience -- but customizing anything, let alone building and publishing commercial grade mobile applications, isn't easy. You still need skilled developers and mobile UX experts to create great apps that address a specific business need.

However, many of today's platforms can help increase the efficiency of an experienced developer or app development team. For example, take Xamarin. We're big fans because Xamarin allows companies to design and build mobile apps in a single code base (C#) — and publish to the two leading mobile operating systems, Android and iOS. And since we first started using Xamarin in 2012, this cross-platform development platform has matured greatly. Xamarin was acquired by Microsoft in 2016 — and shortly thereafter, the Xamarin tool-set was bundled as a part of Microsoft's Visual Studio. Earlier this year, Microsoft unveiled Visual Studio App Center. And recently, Microsoft acquired GitHub, a massively popular platform that helps developers and teams manage their software releases.

This maturation makes Microsoft's Visual Studio App Center (with Xamarin) a compelling one-stop shop for mobile developers -- because it offers a lot of efficiency. But it's not easy. As more executive teams understand this distinction, more successful mobile projects will follow.

2.   Budgets stuck in IT

Another blocker to the development of more mobile apps in the enterprise is that the need for specific applications arises within the line of business. But historically, IT groups have managed the technology budget for the workforce. This has affected mobile related projects more than other types because app development is more complex than most projects.

This is changing. Analyst firm IDC is forecasting that the line of business (LoB) will outspend IT across global business for the first time in 2019.

That means projects will be prioritized and funded by the line of business. And in many companies, IT will become more of a consulting and production group to help manage projects rather than a purchasing agent. We also believe the LoB will be more likely to prioritize mobile projects than IT groups that may be reluctant because they don't have the in-house mobile skillset.

3.   Lack of priority for employee engagement tools

As the tech industry continues to drive explosive economic growth, the challenge of finding and keeping top talent is daunting. As HR analyst Josh Bersin wrote, "Many studies show that the total cost of losing an employee can range from tens of thousands of dollars to 1.5-2X annual salary."

Historically, companies have focused on salaries, benefits and other economic perks as the primary means of keeping good talent. But there's a growing recognition that technology and tools will help people become more successful in their work — and find it more rewarding. This includes having the right kinds of mobile apps that can make work more rewarding.

Joelle Kaufman, CMO of Dynamic Signal, recently told CMSWire that she expects an increase in mobile technology in the workplace over the next few years. "We will see even more adoption of intelligent communication technology with a focus on mobile, so businesses can ensure employees are engaged and informed with relevant, timely, personalized news."

So, how do you build apps at scale? An MCoE

As those three barriers continue to crumble and our thinking about workplace mobile apps evolves, there's still one more challenge that stands in the way of companies successfully proliferating the workforce with useful, engaging mobile apps: How do you build apps at scale?

After all, a typical enterprise has many types of workers, and dozens of use cases that each are opportunities to build mobile experiences. So, how can companies efficiently and expertly fulfill these needs?

In 2013, the term Mobile Center of Excellence (MCoE) began to surface, as forward-thinking companies started to recognize the mobile opportunity and the importance of having a clear strategy to truly mobilize their workforce. The concept was ahead of its time — most enterprises couldn't have taken full advantage of it if because mobile technology simply wasn't mature enough. But as the technology has evolved, and the barriers above are crumbling, the time for the mobile center of excellence has arrived. 

Part of a MCoE's charter is to leverage maturing mobile technology. But the real key is to extend platform thinking beyond the technology and create a specialized team, process and assets — a centralized and highly proficient mobile operations center that is chartered with building and maintaining mobile apps at scale. (We cover this in great detail in our free ebook "5 ingredients for a successful mobile center of excellence")

Of course, the cost of a dedicated MCoE to build and maintain mobile apps for employees, is no small commitment. But for today's enterprise, mobile phones and devices are arguably as important as (and may even be replacing) computers. You might say an MCoE today is like the computer HelpDesk of yesterday. 

The next 10 years of apps

Today, there are nearly 6 million mobile apps in the Apple App Store and Android Play. Not bad for 10 years of work. Put another way, that's an average of more than 1,500 apps published per day.

But I really do believe we're just getting started. Especially in the workforce. For every app a company makes for its customers, I could easily envision a dozen different apps the company could make for its employees. And as we celebrate the 20-year anniversary of the App Store in the year 2028, there's no doubt in my mind we'll be talking about the millions of mobile experiences companies have created for their employees. And though it may have a different name within different companies, the Mobile Center of Excellence will be at the center of it.


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