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Works Without Wires: Capital One Builds Wireless Campus

Most companies are content with a couple of Wi-Fi conference rooms, but Capital One thinks a wireless campus will spur game-changing brainstorms. Is it time to reconsider the potential of wireless?

For some 1,500 employees and contractors working for Capital One Financial Corp., the desk has gone the way of other office dinosaurs, like typewriters and Rolodexes. The first wave of knowledge workers to be outfitted with Wi-Fi-enabled laptops, voice-over-IP software phones, and portable printers can do business from anywhere within the company's 24 buildings in the United States and the United Kingdom.

These employees are the first in a program Capital One calls the "Future of Work," which CIO Gregor Bailar defines as a necessary step in keeping the $1.5 billion-a-year bank and credit-card company competitive. "The Capital One story has always been to look for the game-changing opportunities," Bailar says. Capital One's staff uses a Web portal that automatically routes work processes to employees, making it easy for mobile professionals to do their jobs from wherever they are. "The big push for Future of Work is [that] this is hugely a knowledge-worker environment," Bailar says.

The people that Capital One took from its 15,000-strong workforce to participate in the program, which was launched last fall, work in information-intensive areas such as finance, human resources, and IT. Bailar expects 1,000 more employees to become mobile users by the end of next year. Already the company reports that the program is helping it achieve the three critical goals it was designed for: keeping employees--called associates--satisfied with their jobs, improving productivity, and reducing costs related to real estate.

Wireless access helps Capital One stay competitive by making its huge staff of knowledge workers more productive, CIO Bailar says.

Wireless access helps Capital One stay competitive by making its huge staff of knowledge workers more productive, CIO Bailar says.

Photo by David Deal
Capital One stands out for its aggressive embrace of a wireless infrastructure that extends across buildings and borders and does away with the concept of a traditional desk job. Businesses that require constant mobility on the job--such as hospitals, manufacturers, and retailers--have been gradually adopting wireless networks for daily work for several years. But for companies where desks and work cubicles are the norm, going mobile generally stops at giving salespeople a cell phone and maybe a laptop they can use in public Wi-Fi spots, or equipping some conference rooms with wireless-access points for guests or contract workers to use.

Capital One's deployment is more ambitious, extending from standalone buildings to a 360-acre, eight-building campus, with wireless-access points covering coffee rooms, cafeterias, and more traditional workspaces such as offices and conference rooms.

While Forrester Research predicts that 64% of U.S. companies are upgrading or deploying wireless LANs in 2005, just a small percentage of those are multicampus deployments that provide wireless access to large portions of a company's workforce. Most IT execs still don't buy the argument that large wireless-network deployments provide enough of a productivity boost to make them worth the extra expense and security and management headaches.

Yet the growth of Wi-Fi hot-spots in public places such as airports and cafes is making people more accustomed to the ability to connect wirelessly. The number of publicly available hot-spots in North America will reach 20,400 this year, according to research firm Gartner. The Yankee Group predicts that 1.5 million people will pay to use commercial Wi-Fi hot-spots by the end of this year. And components of wireless infrastructures are creeping into the workplace, as more businesses choose wireless-ready laptops and PDAs when making upgrades.

But there are challenges to unplugging a company's workforce. Even though equipment prices are declining, many companies still find it difficult to justify the cost of a full-blown wireless infrastructure when the wires in place work just fine. Capital One declines to put a price tag on its initiative, but the cost of access-point hardware to support 12 users is about $800. Forrester says companies can expect to spend $3,000 per switch, $9,000 for a management tool, and $8,000 for intrusion-prevention software to secure these networks, which are inherently easier to piggyback onto or crack into than wired LANs. The threats include employees installing unsecured access points without the IT department's knowledge and competitors scanning buildings from parked cars.

Another factor inhibiting takeoff is that most vendors haven't consolidated wired and wireless network-management tools, so companies have to deploy different systems to monitor wireless LANs. Generally, they also have to manage each campus wireless LAN separately, although that's changing with the increasing availability of wireless LANs that can be centrally managed.

Productivity won't necessarily improve, either, if a company doesn't have processes in place to support working online. Capital One employees use a Web portal to access the company's PeopleSoft and other workflow applications. "It really has been transformative. People expect things to happen fast, to be efficient, to be working toward workflows instead of moving paper around," Bailar says. (For more on Capital One's application environment, see "ERPzilla," July 11, p. 30.)

Elena Malykhina began her career at The Wall Street Journal, and her writing has appeared in various news media outlets, including Scientific American, Newsday, and the Associated Press. For several years, she was the online editor at Brandweek and later Adweek, where she ... View Full Bio

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