Mobility matters. It matters to your employees. It matters to the executives at the top of the company and the managers in the middle. It matters to your customers. Mobility is emerging as the new make-or-break test of CIOs. Do it right, and you can be a hero. Do it wrong, and you run the risk of being on-the-way-out-the-door.

In some ways, mobility is like the weather, but a lot more interesting. Everyone experiences it, and we all have an opinion about it. Like the weather, it can be a great conversation starter -- "Hey, what kind of phone is that?" But what makes mobility interesting goes well beyond the latest downloadable apps for the hottest new smartphones. Part of that interest stems from mobility's growing importance for our users, and part of it comes from the looming question of just how we as IT leaders are going to address those users' mobility needs.

It's the question of the moment. Many in the underground press of the technology industry -- the blogs, e-newsletters and white papers -- have labeled this the Summer of the Smartphone. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer found mobility compelling enough to show up at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where in the course of an interview, he uttered an understatement for the ages: "Strategically, phones are very interesting."

So, what do you do about mobility? I see three possible routes, which I'll label BYOD, Bespoke and Bauhaus. Many IT executives find themselves at the pointy end of the mobility spear. We are at a critical decision point. CIOs are torn between the macroeconomically induced mandate to materially manage costs down and the simultaneous need to keep up with -- if not anticipate and lead -- constituent-driven demand for lightweight, high-design, easy-to-use, secure, very-short-life-span, works-anywhere-in-the-world portable devices and services.

BYOD stands for "bring your own device." In this scenario, IT gets out of the mobility provisioning business altogether and simply accommodates user device choice. Of course, guidelines have to be issued, so that users equip themselves with devices that meet the organisation's security needs.

The bespoke approach, as the name implies, requires more careful tailoring to users' needs. IT becomes a mobility boutique, providing customised device deployments to selected knowledge workers. Such extreme personalisation would have to be reserved for the employees who would generate the best return on the investment.

The third path involves IT lowering the boom on mobility choices and dictating with absolute authority the lowest-common-denominator devices to be used. I borrowed the Bauhaus label from my good friend and mentor Bruce Rogow, who uses the term "Bauhaus IT" to describe a stripped-down IT that has much in common with the Bauhaus school of design of the early 20th century, with its simplified, clean lines in the design of housing meant to be affordable by the masses.

Recently, Mark Hurd at Hewlett-Packard told an appreciative audience at the Conference on California's Future, "Show me a bad IT organisation, and I will show you a bad CEO." That's a very intriguing statement. I would add the corollary, "Show me a bad mobility strategy, and I will show you a bad CIO."

That's something you can't afford. Choose a path and set things in motion now.

IT has evolved well beyond the days when we ran applications on a bunch of boxes. Without a coherent mobility strategy, you risk looking like you haven't kept pace.

About the author:

Thornton A. May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. You can contact him at [email protected]

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