I'm mobile, fly me

A field force brandishing PDAs can give a company an instant lift. But cultural, operational and security issues need to be...

A field force brandishing PDAs can give a company an instant lift. But cultural, operational and security issues need to be addressed to reap lasting benefits. Liz Warren reports

As mobile solutions become more accessible, so pressure mounts on companies to adopt a wireless network strategy. The lure of an instant return on investment is proving too strong for some IT directors, but beware: although wireless devices can be cheap to implement, the total cost of ownership can be higher than you assume.

"It is easy to show a return on investment on paper for a mobile solution," says Mike Silvey, general manager for Europe at mobile systems integrator Dexterra, "but in reality, in many cases, companies never realise the benefits of an operational ROI because the mobile solution costs too much to support over the long term."

Mark Blowers, a senior research analyst at Butler Group, agrees. "For mobile technology, the total cost of ownership is more important than the initial ROI," he says. "PDAs are now quite cheap to buy, but you have to be able to manage the devices, ensure the data on them is regularly synchronised, be able to load the latest version of the client software, and have processes for training people in new features."

According to Silvey there are also technical reasons why the total cost of ownership can prove so high. "Traditional mobile solutions are very invasive in their integration and are tightly coupled and hard-coded with enterprise applications," he says. "It is time-consuming and costly to change them. That will restrict your business or reduce your ROI if you do not get the solution right initially or you want to be able to continually change your processes to remain competitive."

Silvey adds that mobile solutions take longer to roll out than desktop applications and therefore take longer to deliver benefits. "You won't roll out to 450 users on the first day the application goes live. It will probably take at least three months to train users in batches - and only then will you be able to redeploy the resources previously needed to support field staff."

Blowers warns that a lax approach to usability can also derail projects. "Screens and input devices are smaller, so you need to put thought into the interface design," he explains. "A lot of people just replicate what is on the PC, but on a PDA, that just does not work. You need to decide what key information people need to see and how to navigate to additional information when they need it."

Silvey adds that by keeping client application interfaces simple, organisations can release new versions to field staff without the need for retraining.

This is increasingly important as mobile application suppliers start to introduce software that will allow new versions of client programs and patches to be uploaded to devices without the need for them to be returned to base. Blowers adds that data and device management processes in general need to be automated so that users do not have to remember to synchronise to send reports or receive the latest data. "If people have to do it manually, they won't do it, so the data on the device soon goes out of date and loses credibility," he says.

Organisations should also consider carefully whether they need a much more expensive, ruggedised solution or whether a standard PDA device will prove adequate. There is anecdotal evidence that ruggedised devices are far more likely to be treated carelessly, while standard devices are well looked after by users and suffer fewer breakages.

Another concern is security, although Blowers suggests much of the attention is focused on the wrong place. "There is a lot of concern about wireless network security, but the bigger risk is if a mobile device is lost or stolen and it contains proprietary information such as price lists. You need to think about encrypting data and using strong authentication for access. You also need to make sure if you are holding data about individuals that you can show that you have complied with data protection requirements."

Both Silvey and Keith New, vice-president of m-business at mobile systems integrator Aspective, argue for extensive prototyping and piloting of products to test not only the technology but the business processes they will support and the training given to users.

"Telco engineers are very used to new devices, but in facilities management companies you are typically dealing with workforces who are not," New points out. "So you need to be sure training is tailored to your user base."

However, New believes that while mobile solutions are still difficult to implement, it is getting easier to put the technology in place. "Devices are getting cheaper, they are more usable, and there is a wider range of offerings that are affordable and fit-for-purpose," he says.

"The advent of 2.5 and 3G airtime services are making it easier and cheaper to transmit data compared to GSM. In addition, the toolsets are changing. There are still lots of niche players but legacy system providers such as Oracle, SAP, Siebel and Great Plains are moving into this space with better-integrated products."

Silvey cites some of the other ways mobile solutions are becoming more accessible. Suppliers are looking at less invasive integration with back-office systems so that any part of the system can be changed without disruption to the others.

There are also moves to support standard programming tools such as Visual Basic so that end-user organisations no longer need to purchase scarce and expensive specialist programming skills to develop mobile client applications.

Many happy returns

Mobile products for field staff, which offer access to ERP, CRM and sales force automation systems rather than just e-mail and office applications, can deliver return on investment in a number of ways:

  • Reduced costs because direct data entry with real-time validation allows organisations to redeploy their back-office staff to activities that add value
  • Improved cashflow and reduced accounts receivable (and fewer bill queries from customers) as a result of automatic transmission of activity logs and customer sign-off of calls
  • More effective control of the business as managers gain faster access to activity data, allowing business issues to be identified and addressed more quickly
  • Smaller headcounts (or greater capacity without increasing headcount) achieved through the more effective allocation of work and the provision of tools which allow the field force to complete their work more easily
  • Increased customer satisfaction achieved through a field force equipped with access to up-to-date customer information that allows them to arrive with the right parts or equipment to respond to the service call, the ability to order parts or schedule further visits on the spot, and the ability to meet tighter service level agreements, all of which can translate into better customer retention and help to win new customers
  • Increased employee satisfaction comes from giving employees tools which allow them to do their jobs more easily. This can translate into a reduction in staff churn.

Case study: Ikon cuts the paperwork

Ikon, a distributor of office equipment and document management services, has introduced a mobile product to raise its operational efficiency.

"The biggest issue with 700 technicians is communication," says Marco Pezzani, national service director at Ikon Office Solutions.

Ikon hopes the system will improve the communication of work orders to field staff and their effectiveness once they arrive at sites. It has provided employees with access to technical information and a parts ordering application.

Another aim has been to improve the efficiency of back-office operations that feed data from customers to technicians and back again. "Enhancing customer experience will make sure our customers stay loyal," says Pezzani.

Ikon implemented its solution with the help of mobile application supplier Dexterra and kicked off the project in November 2003. A key stage was an extensive field pilot with 15 technicians. This tested three hardware devices, the layout of application screens and whether they were correctly linked, and the geographical coverage of its mobile airtime provider.

Pezzani made sure he included in the pilot some of the technicians thought likely to be most resistant to the new system. He also ran a series of roadshows around the country to explain the changes to the workforce. "That killed off a lot of the rumours and fear factor," he says.

The solution has now been rolled out to half the technicians at Ikon. Pezzani says the main technical headache involved a bottleneck with transferring data once a critical mass of 70 technicians had been brought on to the system. This was solved by installing more powerful servers and a change to the way some of the feeds to and from the mobile devices were handled.

"The biggest issue was cultural change: technicians understanding that they no longer needed to pick up a phone to provide call closure details but that they could do it all through the mobile device."

Initial results suggest the time taken to process paperwork for a call has fallen by half and the overall efficiency of technicians has increased by more than 15%.

Ikon has included a survey as part of the customer sign-off process when a call is closed. "We used to survey customers once a year and get a 2% response. Now we can gauge perceptions on every call. If the customer is dissatisfied, we can find out what went wrong and feed it back to the relevant person to resolve," says Pezzani.

With a worldwide turnover approaching £2.75bn, Ikon turns over about £200m in the UK and employs 200,000 staff here.

Case study: Romec wins contracts

Romec, an operation spun off from Royal Mail, is now one of the UK’s leading facilities management companies.

A new mobile system was a chance to reduce the paperwork burden on its technicians, while increasing the speed and accuracy with which data was captured.

Previously the company had a handheld system which was introduced in 1999, but this was not well integrated with its back-office applications. It was proving difficult to use and unreliable when it came to storing and transmitting or receiving data. As a result, more than half the company’s engineers had reverted to paper processes.

"Our administration centres were struggling to cope with the additional workload, all of which impacted on our cash flow and our ability to produce performance reports for customers and managers," says Stuart Keating, Romec’s IT manager.

The new mobile system has addressed these issues using Panasonic Toughbooks. The A5-sized laptops run the service management module of the GEAC System 21 ERP product used by the rest of the company.

IBM’s MQSeries integration engine provides the relay between the back-office and the Toughbooks, allowing recovery from instances where GPRS connections are lost and data is only partially transmitted.

It also includes automatic software distribution from Tivoli to allow new releases of software to be introduced without all units needing to be brought back to base.

Keating says the main headache in introducing the system was resistance from some technicians, particularly fears that it would be used to monitor them more closely.

"We don’t have GPS or other forms of background tracking in there," he says, "but we have had to work hard to convince staff that is not the case."

As well as reaping the expected operational efficiency benefits, the new mobile set-up has given Romec an unexpected competitive advantage when tendering for new business and retaining existing contracts.

"It is a huge selling point for us: we can support features such as health and safety checks, formal risk assessments for pieces of work and an authorisation process that triggers an e-mail to the relevant budget holder when a technician needs to do something that goes over budget," says Keating.

"That allows us to get authorisation almost instantly so that the technician doesn’t have to return several days later on another visit to complete the work.

"We have won new contracts based on the fact we have this technology."

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