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November 3, 2009

Mobile Everything

Why am I not surprised that KT Corp., South Korea’s biggest phone and Internet company, more than doubled its profit as a result of its June 2009 merger with its wireless unit? By buying out KT Freetel Co. and bundling wireless services with high-speed Internet and fixed-line operations, KT is pumping up its wireless presence—and wireless revenues—essentially mirroring what SK Telecom and LG Telecom is doing.

According to Kevin Cho at Bloomberg, “KT, SK Telecom and LG Telecom in September announced plans to reduce voice and data rates, and subscription fees and tariffs for long-term customers. The operators are competing for users by offering bundled services.”

Whereas many companies are throttling back when it comes to installing more conventional unified communications systems, providing a combination of mobility and the Internet appears to now be a vital necessity, something that ranks up there with 401(k) plans and healthcare. The tremendous success of the iPhone, perhaps even more than the Blackberry, demonstrates how mobile technology was until recently lagging behind the increasingly mobile workforce. (It was just a year ago this month that a J.D. Power and Associates survey rated the iPhone #1 in customer satisfaction among business wireless smartphone users, with a score of 778 out of 1,000 regarding performance, ease of operation, physical design and handset factors. Subsequent surveys pretty much show the same thing.)

Actually, the current economic downturn has accelerated the growth of mobile communications and iPhone sales. Companies can’t afford to create full-time positions with medical benefits, so they draw upon part-timers, who increasingly aren’t anchored to a desk in the office. When a large number of companies follow this strategy, workers find themselves timesharing their activities across several organizations, which in itself demands increasing physical mobility. It was back in 1990 that the academic Charles Handy, in his book, The Age of Unreason, came up with the term “portfolio worker,” or one who engages in multiple jobs or contracts, perhaps in multiple fields, but certainly with multiple companies. As Handy wrote: “For portfolio workers, money comes in fits and starts from different sources. There may be a bit of pension, some part-time work, some fees to charge or things to sell. Portfolio people lead cash-flow lives, not salary lives.”

Portfolio workers lead portfolio careers. As Dawn Chipman wrote in “A Glossary of Managerese” in Across the Board (November 1993), “Portfolio workers…may spend a total of one week a month consulting, two weeks working part time for a major computer manufacturer, four days a month working on a book they're writing, and then another chunk of time studying. The result is a less secure but more fulfilling career.”

Such portfolio workers—which over the years have been called freelancers, free agents, one-man bands, road warriors and scanners—no longer resemble traditional employees, but rather the vendors that they used to deal with as employees. They’re now mini-entrepreneurs. They no longer occupy a self-contained organization, but are immersed in a market environment. They must deal with clients and customers instead of humdrum jobs and employers. To some this is a fulfilling experience; to others, it is “the New Insecurity.” Labeling the concept of a composite career with the term “portfolio” suggests that people should resemble their investments. Just as you spread risk around by investing in different kinds of stocks, bonds and real estate, so too should you work for different types of companies so that your career resembles a diversified portfolio. It supposedly makes for a more secure career, but, unlike stocks, bonds and real estate, human beings can suffer from the pangs of uncertainty as they continually attempt to sell themselves in the marketplace.

One of the consequences of all this is, of course, increasing mobility and the need for mobile multimedia devices. Although the Internet allows people to work out of their home office, mobility continues to be an increasing factor. Even supposedly deskbound employees at major corporations regularly find themselves roaming the landscape, be it to a meeting room, branch office, seminar or client location.

A “consequence of the consequence” is that one’s “personal space” disappears. As you hold and use an iPhone, communications by a person can come closer to you than the actual person doing the communicating—right into our “pericutaneous space.” Moreover, one is always selling one’s services to someone, and is always in a sense working, and of course communicating. The long-term affect of all this pervasive communications technology on the human psyche is only now being explored. It most likely interferes with interpersonal relationships and who knows what else.

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