Feature

How mobile IT adds up at BDO

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For accountancy firm BDO Stoy Hayward it was vital that implementing mobile IT across the workforce combined efficiency with the right work-life balance. John Kavanagh investigates the challenges and benefits

When Caroline Woolley takes a taxi from a client meeting back to accountancy firm BDO Stoy Hayward she connects to the company's e-mail system and sorts out her messages using a Blackberry handheld device. If she does that for merely 20 minutes just once a month the cost of the device and communications are covered.

This closely measured return on investment is typical of a textbook introduction of mobile working by BDO in the last year. Some staff have laptops fitted with 3G mobile data communication cards, and in their case the costs are covered if they do just an extra 40 minutes of billable work a month.

"The return on investment is easily covered. For example, I'm out and about every day this week," says Woolley, part of the forensic accounting team, which works on jobs such as fraud and tax investigations.

BDO Stoy Hayward, the UK arm of BDO International, started looking at a formal approach to mobile working for its 2,700 staff last autumn. It has 80 IT staff in London running Windows systems, with Peoplesoft for the main business applications and IBM Lotus Domino for messaging.

"Many people already had laptops and typically found a phone line at a client site to dial in, but that can be difficult," says Graham Knight, head of technology. "Staff used their own mobile phones on company business and never got round to claiming the expenses.

"Assignments were getting bigger, so senior people were visiting more and more clients and increasingly waiting around airports, sitting on trains and staying at hotels. They had to wait until they got home or to a hotel room before they could catch up on e-mails, check changes to their diaries and so on. This was starting to affect work-life balance. People wanted connectivity, especially while commuting or travelling between client meetings, so they could use that dead time to get all their day job done during the working day."

Last October, the IT team started working on mobile strategy. This included looking at products and suppliers and talking to business units about the needs of different levels or groups of staff, how laptops or handheld devices with wireless communication might help them, and how devices might actually be used on the road or at a client's office. Costs and payback were part of the consideration from the start.

"It's all about fitting the device to the job needs rather than a blanket policy of giving everyone a 3G datacard for a laptop," Knight says. "For example, auditors tend to be based at clients and need a laptop, while others have different needs."

BDO ran trials of mobile devices, mainly Blackberrys, with four network operators and 30 staff from across the company. "All the suppliers were very helpful and did the trials for free," Knight says.

"We chose Orange, purely on commercial flexibility: we wanted a longer-term partnership - we've gone for three years - but we were uncomfortable about committing to specific device numbers and types over that time. We also wanted flexibility around charging: we didn't want to be penalised if some users went over their data limit while others were far beneath it."

The contract with Orange is put at £2m over three years, including 430 Blackberrys, 1,200 laptop 3G cards, 1,200 mobile phones and all calls.

BDO wanted to standardise on equipment as much as possible.

It has 2,000 laptops, mostly from Dell, and 1,200 are now fitted with a Novatel wireless communication card, supplied by Orange as its 3G Mobile Office Card. Each card is configured to work only with the BDO network, and that, plus a combination of password, card number and other secret features, means that if it is stolen it cannot be used with any other laptop, and the BDO laptop's access to the network can be blocked centrally.

BDO was new to handheld devices and looked at various types, including Pocket PCs and the Palm Treo. "It became abundantly clear that the simplest device from IT's perspective, in terms of remote deployment and management, was the Blackberry," Knight says. "It came into its own during deployment, when we rolled out 250 in a fortnight. IT controls the passwords and can wipe the memory remotely if the device is lost or stolen.

"Many users have raised the point that although you can read Word and Excel attachments on the Blackberry you can't edit them, and we've talked to the supplier, Research In Motion, about this. To an extent it's made us think about giving some users both a Blackberry and a laptop with a 3G datacard."

BDO chose the Blackberry 7290, the latest model at the time. "It's pretty good for people who are less technical: they get going in 10 minutes," Knight says.

Three mobile phone models were offered to staff. "We chose a standard voice and text phone from Nokia, one from Sony Ericsson with some extra features, and a gadget phone from Orange," Knight says. "Many people went for the simplest one: they just wanted something they could talk on. Other phones offer the internet and so on but you fiddle around working out how to make a simple phone call."

BDO looked at running a virtual private network over the internet but settled on a fixed data link between Orange and its own systems. Knight says this provides more predictable performance than the internet and is more secure and simple for users.

Knight was pleased with the roll-out, which went "relatively smoothly", thanks not least to preparation. "The IT department pretty much came to a stop for the six weeks of testing and roll-out, but we were rolling out nearly 3,000 devices in that time. On the security front the Blackberrys have quite a good encryption module, and we naturally have firewalls and so on, and we did a lot of security penetration testing on devices and systems. If you get things right up front you have less pain later," Knight says.

Certainly support has not been a huge issue. BDO fits the 3G datacards to the laptops and Orange sends users the Blackberry package with welcoming letters from Orange and BDO. BDO trained some of its own IT staff to support the mobile users and set up a special team during the roll-out but they are now part of the normal helpdesk.

"The equipment and systems typically work straightaway," Knight says. "We get the usual questions such as problems getting a 3G signal in some areas, and how to do roaming for services in other countries."

Training has helped keep support down. BDO put together some online computer-based training. Orange set up training sessions and had a stand at BDO offices so people could informally ask questions and try out devices. More than 60 half-hour training sessions were run and individual training was also available. End-users get a quick reference card. "No one's ever going to read the manuals," Knight says.

Security was part of the training - and BDO regularly e-mails reminders on this issue. "We remind people that it's not a free device to be lent to anyone," Knight says. "You are responsible for it and how it's used and who by. A couple got left in cafes in the first fortnight - people were just not used to having them - but it's now down to about one every three weeks and tailing off. If someone kept on losing one we'd have to look at charging them.

"We monitor usage. For example, we don't really want people making private international calls. We block certain web access. You can go too far on these things. If someone wants to buy something online, OK, if they're putting in the work hours. But if they were downloading masses of music we might have a word. It's a bit like people using the office phone and PC for private calls and web use. You can't be too restrictive."

He adds, "Every six months we'll review the service quality and how devices are being used. We've already revised the deployment process a couple of times to make it simpler for staff to connect. We constantly review devices as they come out. We're going to measure professionals' billing time to see if it is increasing. That will enable us to look at the payback and help when laptop users come back and say they also need a Blackberry, or if they want to swap from one to the other."

Users went live in March and usage quickly took off, doubling in the second month and then quadrupling again in the next three months.

"The statistics show there was a real need," Knight says. "Staff have said they can now do their e-mails on the train before they get to work. They can work at home if they have to wait for a plumber. They can keep in touch with the office while out and about."

As one of those users, Woolley highlights both this last point and flexibility as key benefits. "If you're in and out of meetings and you only have five minutes here and there to contact people, it can be hard to get them on the phone, so e-mail is very useful. On a recent case abroad, I kept lawyers uptodate by e-mail between meetings and checked my diary. We have a shared system so you can check what's been booked. If I fix meeting myself it's synchronised back to the office system for everyone else to see.

"I prefer to carry a Blackberry and a mobile phone: it's convenient and small and light compared with a laptop. I have a laptop at the office and e-mails go to both devices; if you delete from one you have the option of it being deleted from the other too.

"There are convenient features such as the fact that you can dial a BDO office extension rather than having to call a switchboard - this is an Orange service - and you can get incoming calls diverted to any phone, without callers knowing the difference," Woolley points out.

"After an afternoon meeting I don't need to go back to the office to check my e-mails but can go home and check them on the way.

"I can use the dead time of travelling, and if I'm waiting for a particular e-mail at the end of the day I don't have to sit at the office but can get on with my social life and just check that the e-mail has arrived."

Woolley adds, "Some people say mobile technology starts to encroach on your own time - but I find it actually gives me a bit more of my own time."

 

Going mobile: the checklist

  • Examine suppliers, products and services
  • Examine the needs of different types of end-users and match devices to those needs
  • Draw up a business case and calculate return on investment
  • Run trials of different mobile devices and service suppliers
  • Consider impact on IT infrastructure
  • Do penetration testing on security
  • Look at support options: inhouse, contracted out, contracted in
  • Set up informal arrangements for users to try devices and ask questions
  • Offer short training sessions
  • Promote work-life balance aspects of mobile working, especially the ability to use travelling time productively
  • Send users a package that works straight out of the box, right down to making sure the battery is charged. Include a brief reference card on device facilities

 

IT at BDO Stoy Hayward

  • 80 IT staff in London, few in Manchester and in Southampton to support 16 regional operations
  • Central Windows systems: Peoplesoft and IBM Lotus Domino
  • 2,000 laptops, mostly Dell; 1,200 have Novatel Wireless 3G wireless data communication cards, supplied as the Orange 3G Mobile Office Card
  • 430 Blackberry 7290 hand-held devices with screen and keypad
  • 1,200 mobile phones
  • Orange contract: £2m over three years, including hardware and communications charges.

 

Company snapshot

BDO Stoy Hayward is a UK-based accountancy firm and part of BDO International, the world's fifth biggest accountancy group, which has operations in 105 countries. BDO Stoy Hayward provides services from auditing to investment management, tax planning and business restructuring.

In its last financial year its fee income rose 11% to £188m. It has 2,700 staff and is growing.

It is the only accountancy firm in the Sunday Times 2005 list of 100 Best Companies to Work For.

It was named Employer of the Year for 2004 by Accountancy Age magazine and it has been in The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers list for the last two years.

In these awards it has been praised for its active promotion of a healthy work-life balance, which Graham Knight, head of technology, says is reflected in the £2m spend on technology to support mobile working.


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This was first published in September 2005

 

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