Why mobile pilots fail

man on mobile phone

Even common mobile devices pose policy and management challenges in agencies. Most mobile pilot programs fail to evolve into operational programs.

Conducting a mobile pilot project is easy. Expanding a mobile initiative beyond its test boundaries is the hard part.

There is no shortage of mobile projects in the federal government; the Defense Department alone is juggling as many as 50 of them. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s bring-your-own-device pilot helped cut costs as many employees substituted work-provided devices with their own. In August, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided to give tablet PCs a test run, in hopes that employees in the field would have better mobile access, CIO Darren Ash said.

But despite the abundance of mobile pilots, so far there has not been a clear correlation between a project and real-life implementation, Tom Suder, president and founder of Mobilegov, told FCW.

“I’d say less than 10 percent of pilots become operationalized,” he said. “But I’d call it evolution, not a successful pilot, when an agency tries out a pilot and then much later down the road implements it.”

Why do so few pilot projects see broader implementation? Kathleen Urbine, senior vice president of the Enterprise Solutions Group at DMI, said device management and security often derail mobile plans.

“Well-defined pilots with clear objectives are very successful,” she said. “Where the challenges come in is what you do after the pilot? How do I move this pilot into production?”

Urbine said officials need to consider three main points to ensure that pilot programs can successfully make the transition to widespread implementation:

  •  Clear goals should be established through a collaborative effort.
  •  All stakeholders should be involved, including those in operations and the business unit.
  •  Security needs to be a cornerstone, with the project’s security posture aligning with the organization’s mission.

“Once you have a successful pilot, everyone wants it to go to production,” she said. “But in order to go to production, you need to know how to manage the program, deploy it and ensure security.”

A holistic approach, with engagement from the CIO all the way down to the end users, should be a priority from the beginning to avoid wasting time by pursuing an unsanctioned pilot project, said Suder, who serves as industry chairman of the ACT-IAC Advanced Mobility Working Group.

“Stealth mode only gets you so far; that’s why so many of these mobile pilots fail,” he said. “You need to bring in all the elements of the ecosystem into the pilot.”

It is also essential that each pilot project have a strong advocate. Suder recalled an occasion when he worked on an agency mobile project that did not have a leader who could deliver the necessary buy-in. “We ran into roadblock after roadblock because there wasn’t a strong champion,” he said.

Mobile pilot projects differ from other smaller-scale projects because of the number of stakeholders. “You have so many people involved: network people, IT people, legal and labor unions, to mention some,” Suder said. “This is a new type of work environment, and it requires the involvement of many.”

A software project, for example, does not need the involvement of labor unions or the legal department, he said. Mobile, on the other hand, is a new environment “with more unknowns and many more variables,” he added. The rapidly changing mobile marketplace also has an impact. “Some players get shaken out, so you want to pick industry partners that are going to be around,” Suder said. And funding is a crucial factor. Agencies will lose or not be able to use mobile device management vendors, and less money will be allocated toward research and development in the mobile space, he said.

Mobile pilots also present unique challenges when you consider that the PC-based model has been developed and refined over the past 25 years, said Dan Barahona, vice president of business development at WatchDox, a provider of secure access and collaboration solutions.

“Mobile has gone from zero to widespread adoption in a matter of years,” he said. “Three years ago, there were zero tablets; now they’re in virtually every organization. Windows-based PCs represent less than 50 percent of the market for the first time since 1985. As a result, the mobile ‘stack’ hasn't had the time to mature, and management and security solutions haven't kept up.”

Planning for a mobile pilot is a balancing act, and a solid strategy involves looking at usability, manageability and security, Urbine said. “You want to look at solutions that don’t take away from the inherent functionality of that device, but at the same time, you have to make sure you can safely deliver data and manage it,” she said.

Recently, the focus has shifted from how to maintain and secure the devices to how to protect the information stored on them, Urbine said.

“Last year, there was a lot of emphasis on securing the end product. That’s shifting now,” she said. “The end devices are becoming a commodity — people bring their own device to work — so what the government wants to do is ensure the security of the data and the information that’s being delivered through that endpoint device.” Barahona agreed and said mobility is about much more than small form-factor devices; it forces organizations to rethink their IT strategies.

“Data security is especially tricky in a mobile world,” he said. “Device-centric security approaches don't help secure data when IT no longer owns the device or when data needs to be shared externally.”

Like Urbine, Barahona said more and more agencies are looking for data-centric security technologies that allow them to focus on what matters most: the data, not the hardware.

“Of course, this security can’t get in the way of usability, hence the tension between what users want (Dropbox) and what IT wants (data vaults),” he added.

One last consideration when developing a mobile pilot project is flexibility, Suder said. “Always have a Plan B and Plan C ready,” he said. “Plan on short-term contracts because prices are going to drop and the price per user will decrease. Think about price protection.”

In a July 2012 interview with FCW, Government Printing Office CIO Chuck Riddle said much the same thing when he stressed the need to be prepared for a fluid marketplace.

“Whomever we choose for [mobile device management], we want to make sure it’s an entity that’s well suited to handle whatever is coming next,” he said. “We can’t just make the solution choice based on today’s environment. We’ve got to look ahead.”

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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Reader comments

Mon, Dec 10, 2012

Much of a pilot's problem is the initial set up. We have seen Mobile Active Defense pilots of a few hundred devices completely installed in half a day. The key is technical accuracy - then the MECS Servers are almost plug and play for total mobile security, not merely MDM.

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