Mobile and wireless technologies can deliver significant benefits to small and medium-sized enterprises. According to Forrester Research, 60% of companies using wireless technology report higher productivity and 40% see improved customer service. An additional 20% say wireless has helped their business improve logistics.
The downside for SMEs is that there are a bewildering number of options when it comes to mobile computing. It is possible to spend anything from a few hundred to millions of pounds on any combination of mobile hardware, software and networks. But how do you know you are getting value for money?
Certainly you do not have to be a big organisation to reap the rewards of mobile technology. Hepworth Heating, an independent heating service company based in Derbyshire, has rolled out mobile computers to its field service engineers, who use high-speed GPRS data cards to access real-time stock and ordering information.
"Our engineers used to fill in paper reports that were posted or faxed to the office," says Keith Mathers, Hepworth's customer service director. "Now they can fill in reports on the handheld and send them back instantly."
Mathers believes the company's mobile project paid for itself within six months, thanks to careful forward planning. "Before we bought any hardware or software, we sat down and agreed on what we wanted to achieve, then invested on that basis," he says.
To get mobile technology right, it is vital to start with a business aim rather than a technical solution, says Adrian Tatum, mobile solutions director at IT services supplier Computacenter. "A lot of SMEs think that mobile computing is all about Blackberry devices, but that is coming at it from completely the wrong direction," he says. "You need to know where you want the business to go, what information that will require and how quickly you need it."
So, the first step in any mobile project should be to ask what you want to achieve. More contact with customers? Faster logistics? Better customer service? Once you have a business goal in mind, think about how mobile could help to achieve this goal.
According to Forrester Research, there are certain sweet spots where mobile technology tends to deliver the biggest and fastest benefits to the business. For example, providing warehouse staff with wireless access to inventory applications can make stock reporting more accurate and reduce the time taken to meet customer orders.
Giving sales staff wireless access to customer ordering applications means they can check stock, calculate discounts and arrange payment schedules while they are still at a customer's premises. Wireless is also a good option where staff do a lot of work in the field.
"Our research suggests that companies that do not do this sort of upfront planning spend more than twice as much on mobile computing as a result," says Forrester analyst Carl Smiley. "Knowing what you need means you are less likely to spend money on unnecessary technology later."
Smiley says thinking about how sophisticated your needs are is more important than automatically investing in the fastest, shiniest technology you can find. So, do the sales staff need real-time access to the CRM application, or is connection once or twice a day enough? Will they mostly be sending or receiving information? Do they need to access the full database or will they mostly look at one or two pieces of information?
Having this knowledge before you approach technology suppliers means you have a far better chance of choosing the right hardware, software and services, says Smiley. For example, you might find it cheaper to access small amounts of information often, using SMS and mobile phones, while GPRS cards in tablet
PCs could be a better option where larger amounts of information are being transmitted and viewed.
Broadly speaking, the choice of hardware ranges from small mobile or smartphones to full-sized laptop computers. In between, there is a wide range of handheld computers or PDAs, offering various screen sizes, battery life and operating systems.
At this stage, consider who will be using the hardware, and how. "If your staff are familiar with Windows machines, it is probably worth looking at Microsoft Pocket PC or smartphones," says Eric Lesser, an associate partner at IBM's Institute of Business Value. "That will dramatically reduce training costs and increase the likelihood of them being used."
Similarly, if your staff are not technically literate and do not routinely use computers in their work, you might be better served by rugged touch-screen devices that run simplified applications and require no training.
When choosing software, it is possible to buy mobile versions of most popular business applications from companies such as Oracle, Sybase and Microsoft.
Alternatively, where mobile workers only need access to selected features of an application, you could opt for a thin client architecture or a custom web-based application that pulls together information from multiple back-end systems.
If your investigations suggest you need a custom application, or you want to integrate data from multiple back-end systems, you will probably need to call in an integrator or specialist developer, says Tatum. "Most SMEs do not have the technical resources to do that kind of work, but it does not mean they shouldn't," he says. "The benefits of that type of integration often far outweigh the costs of a consultant."
The third, most important choice of mobile technology is network access. Many mobile operators offer packages specifically designed for SMEs that include a certain amount of mobile bandwidth per month. If your employees are going to be accessing the network remotely from hotels or warehouses, it may be more cost effective to build your own wireless network using a widely available Wi-Fi kit.
However, it is important to remember that these upfront costs are only a small proportion of the likely total costs. As a rule of thumb, these costs account for 30% of a typical mobile project, with the remaining 70% including items such as training, maintenance, security, management and integration.
"If you have a workforce where the devices are likely to be dropped or lost, it is important to factor in the cost of replacing and reconfiguring them," says Tatum. "If you have expensive devices, it might be worth investing in a thin client architecture or web-based application that the mobile workers access remotely."
The final step in planning a mobile computing project is to consider training and management. Poor planning in this respect can be disastrous. Research conducted earlier this year by IBM found that many mobile workers felt isolated, overworked and mistrusted by their employers.
"Often, people do not set expectations clearly at the outset," says Lesser. "It is important to provide training for mobile workers and their managers to spell out how communication will be conducted, when people are expected to be in touch and how quickly they are expected to respond to messages they receive on the move."
In many cases, deploying mobile technology means asking employees to make big changes to their working habits. For example, field service engineers at Hepworth used to choose which jobs they completed and in which order, but now head office calculates the most efficient option and directs staff accordingly. Removing this kind of autonomy was unpopular until Hepworth met with staff and explained the reason for the new system, says Mathers.
"It is important to ask people how they feel about the technology, and think about how you will support them," says Lesser. "Cultural issues and good training matter just as much as - if not more than - the choice of network technology or hardware."
Steps to mobile success
Save costs by choosing established products. The price of new mobile devices usually falls by 25% in the first six months.
Standardise. Allowing employees to choose their own laptops, phones and PDAs will increase support costs enormously.
Look for service discounts. Buying handheld computers from your network operator, for example, may be cheaper than buying the two separately. Further discounts may be offered if you commit to the network for a set period.
Buy more devices than you think you will need. Spares will come in handy if the project is successful and needs to be expanded, or if your staff are more clumsy than you thought.
Case study: Cruising to greater efficiency
Two years ago, only 30% of bookings with cruise company Norwegian Coastal Voyage came through high street travel agents. Today, thanks partly to the use of mobile technology, bookings from the high street are up, accounting for 50% of the company's business.
"For a small company, it is more efficient to market our services through well known brands on the high street," says John Smith, head of finance and IT at Norwegian Coastal Voyage. "So we hired a team of sales executives who basically go up and down the country knocking on travel agents' doors and drumming up business."
The sales executives spend most of their time on the road and used to access e-mail whenever they returned home or to a hotel. However, this sometimes meant missing out on potential business.
"If a travel agent contacts us looking to cut a deal, and does not hear back, they will go to a competitor," says Smith. "It is also inconvenient for the executives to spend four days on the road and then come back to 200 e-mails that need to be dealt with."
To address this issue, Norwegian Coastal Voyage approached consulting group Doherty IT Solutions to help develop a mobile system. Since the company was already using Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Windows Server 2003, Doherty recommended using Hewlett-Packard's iPaq handhelds fitted with Bluetooth cards, together with mobile phones.
This worked well for 12 months, but staff found using a phone and a PDA cumbersome. They now use a Windows smartphone, which is a lot less clunky, says Smith. "It is also great because it is Windows-based, so there is almost no training."
Mobile IT allows sales executives to make use of dead time between appointments, and also means customers experience better service, says Smith. "Now we know messages are being dealt with promptly and we are not losing potential business," he says. "For not very much cost, we have radically improved our business prospects."