Equipping your field team

Swift access to information in the field helps both staff user and customer. But avoid setting up complicated systems and involve...

Swift access to information in the field helps both staff user and customer. But avoid setting up complicated systems and involve end-users in the decision-making process

Few would disagree that a truly mobile workforce, integrated seamlessly with HQ, is becoming a real business must-have. But with the plethora of technology available, making the right IT decision on the network depends on a host of usage, need and compatibility issues.

First, decide on the level of automation required. If you need real-time data transmission, then GSM or data networks like Ram Mobile should be first choice. If it's purely a case of communication taking place at the end of the working day, however, depot communication and/or modem links to home field-workers may be sufficient.

Making your technology decision ultimately depends on how much information you need to access/transmit and your future plans regarding fieldworkers as profit-generators. Where fieldworkers are in contact with customers, there is a clear opportunity to add greater value to your service and improve customer satisfaction and loyalty if they can deliver enhanced service through swift access to information.

Mobile computers are significantly more versatile than palmtops or laptops, providing GSM capability, barcode scanning, credit-card swiping, signature capture and many other capabilities that can improve customer service.

Having decided on the communication need, the next step is to consider the operating platform. Be flexible on choice of operating systems and do not stick firmly to in-house standards as this may not be the most appropriate mechanism for delivery.

Ideally, select an industry-standard operating system from Microsoft - choose from Dos, Windows 95, Windows 98 or Windows CE - and review your choice of operating system in conjunction with your programming language.

For example, Delphi offers rapid application development with the ability to integrate lower-level code. However, Delphi is not supported under Windows CE. New operating systems like the latter may be the hot topic, but do consider more stable and tested systems like Dos and Windows 95.

Simplicity of operation is critical. For best results, the graphical user interface (GUI) should be specific to the end-user. It is a real mistake to present users with complex applications or to shoehorn applications designed for 640 x 480 displays or larger on to smaller devices.

While complex user-interface components may seem attractive, they are unlikely to deliver in the field. When designing the GUI, favour pick-lists, check-boxes and radio buttons over free text entry.

Freehand response units are painful for fieldworkers to use and provide management information that is useless back at HQ.

Looking at programming, tread carefully with complex constructs such as Com/DCom and the sophisticated relational database management system (RDBMS) as they are the first things to break when the mobile-user piles on the pressure.

For most blue-collar mobile workforces, resilience of hardware and speed of response are more valuable than fancy features.

In the mobile environment it's important to store business-critical data using fast-access, solid-state media, and to be able to write transactions to those media immediately.

Don't cache data in volatile DRam, as batteries can die without warning. Be warned that many commercial off-the-shelf products use cacheing in the assumption that the application is used on slow-access, spinning hard drives.

In the field, coverage and throughput are also key. The best UK mainstream technologies that approach true national coverage are limited to 9,6Kbps.

Remember this is without the data-loss due to protocol and roaming, so the effective data rate is much less. Decide early if your system needs to work when no mobile coverage is on hand.

Most coverage claims also rely on ideal atmospheric conditions and no geographical obstructions. Here a pure browser-based solution such as wireless application protocol (Wap) will not deliver.

Last, and most important of all, involve users in the requirements-gathering, choice of platform and user interface design - otherwise forget it!

John Klinker is managingdirector, Intermec Technologies UK, which specialises in automated data capture and mobile computing solutions

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