Install Angry Birds on your work iPad, this CIO insists

Credit: vernieman via Flickr

Like many IT pros, Dean Moore, the director of architecture for Sunbelt Rentals recently turned to the iPhone and iPad as user-friendly ways to empower a mobile workforce.

Mobility was an especially potent cocktail for Sunbelt, an equipment rental company where a considerable number of employees spend their entire workday traveling from worksite to worksite in a pickup truck -- which doesn't leave a whole lot of opportunity for opening and closing a laptop. 

But where a lot of CIOs rule their employees' tablets and smartphones with an iron fist, Sunbelt takes a different approach. Moore asks -- insists, actually -- that employees load their iDevices in the field with as many games, personal apps, songs, and movies as they'd like. 

To understand where Moore is coming from, it's important to take a look back at Sunbelt's road to mobility. 

As recently as 2009, Sunbelt Rentals' 800 field employees were using three-ring binders to track sales territory, note leads to follow up on, keep tabs on equipment condition, and consolidate marketing collateral. Hardly ideal, but up until the Apple iPhone came along, there wasn't a much better alternative. 

Moore was attracted to the iPhone's "beautiful software interface," and once the App Store made third-party apps a reality in the summer of 2008, his team used the second half of the year to develop a custom enterprise app to empower workers with real-time information pulled from Sunbelt's ERP, CRM, point-of-sale, and other enterprise systems.

By March 2009, all of Sunbelt's delivery drivers and salesmen were armed with iPhones loaded with the company's custom Mobile SalesPro app, and the sales team's productivity spiked. Moore's team was so successful, in fact, that Apple itself held Sunbelt up as a shining example of enterprise mobility on the iPhone platform. In 2011, Moore expanded the iPhone fleet to include iPads, with Sunbelt IT constantly iterating and improving on the app. Now, Sunbelt is supporting more than 4,000 iOS devices in total, including both company-owned and personal devices.

Key to Sunbelt's mobility success, Moore says, is the fact that his team spent a long time -- too long if you ask Sunbelt's board, he jokes -- working with salespeople in the field, finding out what they do and what would be useful for them. When mechanics, drivers, rental agents, and the entire salesforce felt like part of the process, they started to take ownership and really help guide development of the app. 

Sunbelt employees often find themselves on construction worksites, sometimes in hazardous conditions, and the ability to pull up-to-date information on sales leads, strategic materials (like a brochure), and contracts can not only help close the sales cycle with better business intelligence, but can also save lives, thanks to a central repository of official safety videos that demonstrate proper usage of rental equipment. 

That up-to-date requirement drove Sunbelt turn to file-sharing service Box to boost collaboration. When Sunbelt was hosting assets internally, it caused a huge headache for IT staff and workers alike. Anybody out in the world had to VPN in just to access on-premises servers, which slowed down the process and just caused one more thing for administrators to, well, administrate.

But with Box as the glue holding Sunbelt's mobility strategy together, everything is available to everybody all the time with no downloads necessary. That meansSunbelt HQ does not have to push out information as frequently. Instead, Sunbelt associates are pulling information more.  

Which brings us back to the beginning. Moore positively glows when he talks about all the progress he and his team have made in leveraging mobility for tremendous boosts in efficiency. But all this effort would be wasted if employees forgot their shiny new devices at home.

So Moore and Sunbelt's executive team came up with a win-win solution: If Sunbelt workers are allowed to do whatever they want with their iPhones and iPads, they'll use them more, be less likely to forget them at home when it's time to leave for work, and will probably be faster on the trigger with answering e-mails and filing reports. Meanwhile, the workers themselves get the unexpected perk of a fully unfettered iPad, care of the company. The only restriction Sunbelt sets is that any Apple device being used for work needs a 4-digit PIN that also encrypts the data at rest before it can get on the mobile device management (MDM) system. Otherwise, do what thou wilt is the whole of the law.

So won't encouraging an employee to load Angry Birds on their iPad cause a productivity problem? Not according to Moore -- after all, a worker who's going to goof off is probably going to goof off anyway, and ensuring productivity (and delivering reprimands where needed) is what the existing management structure is for. In short, Sunbelt trusts its employees to be professionals, and that trust seems to have paid off. 

"It's been a wonderful journey. It's just the start for us," Moore says.

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