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When Should Businesses Adopt Tablet Computing?

Like many new technologies, the tablet has entered our lives so quickly, and assumed such a prominent place, that we have only begun to think about its potential business applications.  In “Deciding When to Use Tablets for Business Applications,” Pierre Berthon, the Clifford Youse Professor of Marketing, Information Design and Corporate Communications at Bentley and his collaborators, Leyland Pitt and Karen Robson of Simon Fraser University in Canada, analyze the potential for tablet use in business and make helpful recommendations to executives who may be considering when and how tablets “can add value to an organization and complement an existing information system infrastructure.”  The article appeared in MIS Quarterly Executive.

The authors begin by comparing and contrasting the characteristics of tablets (chiefly the iPad) with laptops and smartphone devices. After noting that tablets and smartphones are almost always used only by their owners, they consider such features as weight, screen size, battery life and ease of use for such tasks as entering information. Their point is not to declare one device superior to the others, but simply make clear their relative strengths and weaknesses.

In addition to these basic factors, the authors also analyze what they call the “4-Is” and the “3-  Cs.” The “4-Is” are the ways in which people interact with devices:

  • Inscriptive: inputting information
  • Informative: reading, watching, or listening
  • Interactive: editing or using graphics
  • Isolative: storing information

Historically managers (and their IS devices such as PC’s and laptops) have focused on contextual information – that is information about something. This can take the form of a map, picture or report. This information is general, impersonal and objective.

What tends to be overlooked is that this type of information is only useful when complemented by another type of information. This other type of information has traditionally come from the user, so it tends to be overlooked; it is implicit in the use of contextual information. What is this other type of information? Well consider a map of Boston; what other types of information make it useful? Well information such as one’s current location on the map, where one wants to go and mode of transport.

This other type of information we term contextive information, and it tends to be specific, local and subjective. What makes devices such as the iPad and iPhone so different from traditional IS devices are that they start to automate the provision of contextive information. Thus the iPad can provide contextive information such as location (on the earth), orientation (in space), speed, direction, acceleration etc. In future such devices will provide subjective information such as the user’s mood and cognitive load, and inter-subjective information such as social and cultural setting.

The “3-C’s” refer to the abilities of the devices:

  • Configure-ability refers to the ability to change the configuration of both input (inscriptive) and display (informative) of information.
  • Consume-ability refers to the ease with which information can be consumed or interacted with. Both the configure-ability and the consume-ability relate to the inscriptive and informative elements outlined in the 4 I’s model.
  • Context-ability, on the other hand, refers to the awareness of context, such as time and place, and therefore relates to the contextive and contextual elements discussed above.

The features and capabilities of the two groups are related and mutually dependent, and will influence any decision to use a tablet in a business setting.

Because tablets have already begun appearing in the workplace, and Berthon and his collaborators suggest that “Decision makers seeking to introduce tablets into their own organizations could therefore benefit by identifying successful tablet applications in other organizations and adapting them for their own use.” The authors cite several examples that represent one of the “4-I’s:”

  • Inscriptive in medical settings, enabling doctors and nurses to record patient data
  • Informative, for example, a restaurant menu app that allows diners to review dishes using photographs and quickly scan recommended wine pairings
  • Isolative, such as when an engineer or technician saves manual and guides as pdfs rather than carrying heavy printed volumes.

The authors conclude by observing that iPads are “the world’s first truly ‘personal’ computer and are already changing the face of corporate computing” and offering several guidelines to assure that the “deployment of tablets provides business benefits.”   These include:

  • Regularly scan relevant media for examples of effective uses of tablets in business, including such websites as Engadget, CultofMac and AppleInsider.
  • Consider the Inscriptive (input) and Informative (output) functions, and the interactions between them.
  • Compare the 3 C-Abilities of tablets versus other mobile device, recognizing that even small changes in the devices’ capabilities may affect how they are used.
  • Envision the needs of your customers and employees using relevant strategic or business process models.
  • Envision employees accessing the organization’s information systems via mobile devices.

We have only begun to think about the potential business applications of tablets.