The Mobile Workforce – Where We’ve Been

This is the first of a three part blog series exploring the mobile workforce: the past, the present, and the future. I’m taking a risk by starting in the past and, combined with my last blog, this might make me seem like a old timer wishing for the good old days, but to understand the mobile workforce of today and tomorrow, you need to understand what it looked liked yesterday.

When I first left college, I took a summer job working as a field runner for a tomato cannery. My job, along with a few others, was to drive around from field to field, inspecting the harvesting efforts, taking samples for testing, and generally ensuring everything was going smoothly as the crops were picked, trucked, and delivered to the factory. Each of the runners was given a vehicle to drive, a Citizen’s Band (CB) radio, a pager, and a mobile phone. The entire job was built around communication needs and keeping ahead of potential problems. Fields were widely spaced through the California central valley; we covered an area over a hundred miles across in some parts. Although we needed to stay mobile, it wasn’t always possible to meet up and talk face to face with my managers. I might go days without seeing them. It was a very important job – the harvesting season was short, work continued 24 hours a day, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of produce were being handled daily  – and yet it was trusted to a green seasonal employees with no relevant work experience, and very little training. This was only possible because mobile communications, and therefore the mobile workforce, was just starting to become possible.

Did you ever wonder why radios didn’t become more popular as a mobile workforce tool? They’ve been around in a portable package since World War II. Yet, despite decades and additional miniaturization advances, radio was always relegated to transportation and military use where there was no alternative. Well, if you’ve never had to communicate over a CB radio, let me tell you: it doesn’t work like in the movies. It takes a certain conversational cadence to make yourself heard and to convey more than a few short sentences understandably. Listening is even more difficult. Picking out the meaning from the distortion and static takes a practiced ear and wasn’t something I ever managed to master. During my work that semester, I used the CB radio maybe twice, both times when cell phone coverage was unavailable. Radios began, and remain today, only a method of backup communication when phone coverage isn’t available. Even the push-to-talk (PTT) features built into many modern mobile phones are used primarily only for quick, short messages that don’t require a longer phone call.

Paging was the next option for field runners. That summer was, one might consider, to be the peak of pager use in the workforce: two-way pages were starting to be sold – promising the ability to dramatically boost mobile workforce options, alphanumeric paging was becoming more common allowing textual messages rather than numeric codes to be sent, and pager coverage areas were becoming widespread. Although pager communication (for us) was one-way and numeric only, it still allowed quick messages to be sent. A simple, laminated code sheet could be used to lookup the meaning of the pre-defined numeric paging codes. The best thing about the pager was that it allowed communication even when the intended recipient wasn’t immediately available. As you can imagine, paging and phone coverage was spotty in places, and even the CB had distance and interference issues, not to mention the fact that we were often out of our cars and the “mobile” technology at the time was so bulky that we couldn’t carry more than a pager around with us. Text messaging wasn’t an option back then and the mobile phones that were available didn’t have nice features like voice mail notification and call waiting. Sending a page was often the only alternative to calling a person over and over again until they picked up.

I’m not sure that the mobile phones we used were technically “cell” phones. They were contained in a black leather bag about the size of a lunch box and the phones themselves had an antenna the size of a carrot. Battery life was so bad we had to keep the things plugged into the car at all times. Reception was fine and you could have a regular conversation with someone if you were in a coverage area. But amenities that we take for granted today, like a stored contact list, text messaging, and email were nowhere to be found. These phones were the opposite of smart phones. Most common cordless household phones have more features today.

Yet, despite these limitations, this was a revolution in terms of the mobile workforce. Coordinating, communicating, and dispatching workers while they were outside the confines of an office was incredibly more cost effective and efficient that the systems of the past. Just like the cannery I worked for, companies around the country and around the world were just beginning to wake up to the possibilities of mobile technologies. It would take just a few small technical advances and some healthy competition from some familiar names and newcomers alike to bring the mobile workforce to the present day, but the seeds had been sown.

In my next blog installment, I’ll review the current state of the mobile workforce, including the latest advantages, the continued roadblocks, and the general enterprise mindset.

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