Mobile SMB solutions

You want to mobilise your business, but what is on offer to help you do this?

As a rule of thumb, the smaller your company, the more likely it is to be equipped with mobile technology.

While this may seem counter-intuitive to many, the benefits provided by devices as commonplace as mobile phones are convenience and productivity and this is particularly useful to very small businesses trying to manage not only their daily workload but also trying to pull in new business.

By the same token, however, the larger your organisation, the more expensive start-up, running and support costs are likely to be. This is due to the larger number of mobile users and range of applications they need; for example, sales staff require access to office-based systems, the ability to send and receive emails and access to company applications and databases, all of which adds to the complexity of the solution.

Leif-Olof Wallin, an analyst at Meta Group, explains: "The smaller [your] organisation is, the quicker it is to adopt mobile technology. It's in the mid-sized organisations that you see the most push-back. This is due to cost, and because they often don't have the skills in-house to support it."

Nonetheless, says Celia Hyde, Commercial Director at IT services and consultancy firm Small Business Computing, mobile technology and the necessary network and security infrastructure related to it are now much more affordable than they were even a couple of years ago.

"The main inhibitors to mobile adoption are a fear of the costs involved. Many companies assume they're very high and so don't investigate further. But today the technology is relatively cheap and as bandwidth continues to improve in terms of pricing and availability, working away from the office is becoming much more of a possibility," she says.

However, it is important to consider the ongoing costs of providing remote access to your company's network.

"With a computer at home connected via a DSL [broadband] connection, this is not an issue because it is a fixed annual cost. Accessing email, the network or the internet while on the road, however, means using GPRS or a WiFi hotspot, both of which incur charges on per usage basis and are typically charged depending on the volume of data being sent or received," Hyde says.

To minimise these costs it is advisable to shop around before you set up the system, in the same way that you would when selecting tariffs before purchasing a mobile phone.

As your organisation grows, however, it may also be advisable to put policies and procedures in place to provide staff with guidelines on appropriate behaviour, says Kevin McCarthy, account manager at Online Computing, which provides systems and services to London-based companies such as yours.

Performance bottleneck

Upfront training on how to use systems effectively and securely is also advisable - the more knowledge users can get in the beginning, the better.

In terms of infrastructure needed to support mobile working, a bare minimum is a suitably-sized connectivity pipe such as DSL broadband or even a leased line. This will ensure that downloading or uploading data does not become so slow as to be unusable, according to Clive Longbottom, Service Director at analyst house Quocirica.

It may also be necessary to reconfigure and clean up your existing internal network, which includes organising workgroups effectively, to ensure it can cope with the increased load and does not become a performance bottleneck.

Secure remote access also has to be provided by deploying such offerings as virtual private networks (VPNs) or thin client software, while other security technology such as anti-virus software and personal firewalls on laptops will help safeguard the network against viruses being imported accidentally.

Applications-wise, email and collaboration software such as instant messaging or an intranet are crucial for communication purposes, while access aggregator services such as those provided by iPass and GoRemote are useful to provide your organisation with a single bill, no matter how or where staff have accessed the internal network, while making it quicker and easier for them to do so.

A key factor to bear in mind when going down the mobile route, however, is to plan for it rather than let it creep in via the backdoor, Longbottom warns. "Mobility is big for most SMBs, but in many cases it happens unplanned. It creeps up on people, but if you ask them what their mobile strategy is, they'll say they don't have one because they're not doing it - even though their sales people are using the technology out in the field," he says.

This can cause problems ranging from little or no security being in place, even though mobile devices are generally the weakest link in any security chain, to the creation of myriad support issues. The latter problem often happens because of a lack of standardisation - staff may end up buying a raft of incompatible equipment on expenses.

Hyde explains: "Just because two items of hardware are wireless, for example, doesn't mean that they're able to communicate with one another - one may be based on Bluetooth and the other on WiFi. There are also three versions of WiFi on the market, so older devices may not be compatible with newer equipment."

As a result, Wallin says, it is inadvisable to go part of the way when evaluating mobile technology. "A half-baked solution creates frustration because it cannot be supported properly, and the organisation can waste money without getting any benefits," he warns.

Implementing a mobile strategy, on the other hand, enables you to introduce the technology in a controlled and cost-effective manner based on its business benefits.

Optimisation

Concomitant to this is the need to optimise your current IP infrastructure in line with what your company requires from the system and the business processes it will support.

Such optimisation may include the need to re-purpose applications to ensure that they can be viewed easily by mobile device users or it may require the centralisation of the database underlying your sales force automation or contact management packages.

Longbottom explains: "A sales force needs to be able to operate against live data, which they can't do if they have to synchronise to get hold of it. Also, if they only have the inventory information held on their own devices, different people may end up selling the same thing several times, whereas by keeping the data central, it works on a first-come, first-served basis."

Nonetheless, he warns that organisations should be wary of the hype in the mobile technology market and be careful not to simply buy new and trendy gadgets that are likely to be forgotten in a matter of months.

"Start from what the business needs and then look at what will be needed from a mobile technology point-of-view to facilitate those business processes. That's the recipe for success," Longbottom concludes.

Case study: Ableflame

"Mobile technology is the way forward. The costs are not overwhelming and the benefits are substantial. When we looked at how much time it would save our engineers and how much we'd save in administration, travel and fuel bills, it was clear that the advantages greatly outweighed the costs," says Steve Rose, Managing Director of Ableflame.

Ableflame is an engineering firm based in Redditch, Worcestershire, which repairs and maintains central heating systems in social housing belonging to local authorities and housing associations. It employs 23 staff, some 17 of whom are engineers in the field. Each was provided with O2 XDA II personal digital assistants in March. 

As well as running the ubiquitous Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003 Pocket PC Phone Edition-based packages, the devices also include a bespoke gas maintenance application developed by ESB New Technology in conjunction with Ableflame and O2. 

Moreover, because they have always-on GRPS internet connections, they can be set up to receive and send data at pre-set time intervals so the engineers don't have to do it manually. Multiple choice job reports that automatically fill in relevant fields also ensure that documentation is completed and sent to the organisation's server, which is hosted at a secure location in Kent, in timely fashion.

Customer data is further protected by securing the devices with passwords and PIN numbers, while costs are kept down by banning overseas calls, monitoring itemised phone bills to ensure no abuse is taking place and by having service operator O2 restrict access to websites not deemed appropriate.  But, says Rose, the fact that engineers no longer have to continually phone the office to find out the location and nature of new tasks has also helped cut costs, while the fact that documentation is now always up-to-date means that Ableflame is "24 hours ahead of where we used to be". 

"We've made time savings of about 30% across the board, which has freed up some of my and my partners' time to go and look for other business and concentrate on forthcoming tenders and contracts," says Rose.  But he also feels that the move has increased the company's competitive advantage over its rivals.  "Many local authorities are looking at best value propositions, and with this type of technology improving each week we can move forward and, hopefully, offer more for a lower price than our competitors," he says.

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