Mobilise your forces

The age of mobile IT is upon us, says Jenny Sener, and IT directors must address a number of challenges for successful take-up and deployment

The age of mobile IT is upon us, says Jenny Sener, and IT directors must address a number of challenges for successful take-up and deployment

There is absolutely no doubt, according to Jenny Sener, director of ICT at OCS, that IT mobility has arrived, and is growing fast.

OCS (One Complete Solution) is a UK supplier of property support services and has rolled out BlackBerry devices to managers so they can manage mail, diaries and contacts. 

OCS has also rolled out over 200 GPRS cards to enable remote, flexible working for managers and sales people.  

A project is under way to provide a mobile work scheduling system to some 70 OCS service engineers within the technical division. A PDA-based quality management system has been developed for use in OCS’s airport services.  Another major mobile project is being planned for work scheduling within the hygiene division.

"Mobile solutions and wireless technology are huge," says Sener. "There are 1.5 billion mobile phones worldwide, $3.5bn worth of PDAs will ship by the end of 2004, and shipments of laptops are forecast to rise by 13% next year, over half with Centrino chips with inbuilt WiFi.

"Gartner reports businesses as just being at the start of the growth curve in deploying mobile IT. They predict the average business will be doing 80% more mobile applications over the next year than in the previous year."

But while such statistics show that the mobility growth curve is up, it's still early days.

"The Economist Intelligence Unit reports that of 300 global companies surveyed recently only 18% had actually rolled out big mobile projects," says Sener. "So although there is a lot of talk, hype and pilot schemes, we are still at the start of the growth curve”.

But the need to get serious about mobility is incontestable, she says.

"The reasons are compelling. Mobility has a huge impact on decreasing costs and increasing productivity and flexibility. The combination of cost reduction and value add equals increased competitiveness. Mobility can slash time, paperwork, overheads, staff and rent on premises, and has a huge potential improvement in service delivery, speed, flexibility and customer satisfaction. It has significant implications for cash flow, where a digital signature by a customer can initiate an immediate invoice.

“The vision is ‘coalface to core’ in one digital hop. It is better to incorporate mobile technology within an information strategy rather than let it creep in through the back door.”

Sener says the benefits cited in a Forrester report by companies for mobility projects delivered so far are: improved productivity 60%, real-time information 40%, improved customer satisfaction 36% and improved logistics 20%.

But there are two major challenges to overcome: technical and workforce. 

"Don't underestimate either," warns Sener.  The mobile environment is complex both in terms of technology and its impact on business and staff.

"There are various baskets of mobile technology. In the first basket we see always-on packet technologies like GPRS and 3G enabling roaming working. Within OCS both GPRS cards in laptops and ADSL lines have had a major impact on creating greater workforce flexibility, enabling roaming working and home-working.  This in turn has an impact on the responsiveness and economics of the business.

"In the second basket of technologies we have 802.11b, 802.11g and other flavours and WiMax. London is already number three worldwide for wireless hotspots, after Seoul and New York. Even I was surprised to find so many hotspots in Crawley, where we're based!

"The impact of WiFi will be interesting. Telcos have invested so much in 3G that they have to claw back their investment.  Current 3G pricing tariffs are high and it will be interesting to see if the development of WiFi will prove a 3G killer or not.

“Then there is the growing plethora of other wireless technologies, such as ZigBee – tiny wireless devices which will increasingly be placed in industrial and domestic sensors, and which can extend WiFi meshing. There is Bluetooth for access to near-range mobility, such as printers. GPS brings another important dimension as a worldwide radio navigation system.

"Finally, on the largest scale of all is the satellite broadband network, with the latest round of BGan satellite launches next year promising to provide connectivity across the whole earth, except at the poles.”

The other side of the mobility coin from the technology is the impact these technologies will have on those who use them.

"There are two types of users," says Sener. "Knowledge workers and process workers."

"Knowledge workers are the road warriors and the managers, who are relatively easy to satisfy with mobile solutions.  We have given them GPRS cards and BlackBerrys and they are happy as Larry."

The only problem, she points out, is that such devices can sometimes be viewed as toys for the boys, with users anxious to be seen only with the latest gizmos. This can lead to a wasteful techno arms race.

Process workers – mobile staff such as delivery drivers or field engineers – using PDAs to record deliveries and work carried out, are a more complex and demanding group when it comes to the provision of mobile solutions.

"These users can see ‘Big Brother’ in mobile devices, which are capable of time- and date-stamping their activities and tracking their movements. Reactions can be highly negative, and this sort of reaction can kill a mobile project stone dead."

Conversely, some may expect too much of mobile devices.  "They think they can do everything – even make toast."

Sener's advice, from her own experiences at OCS, is to cultivate mobile technology evangelists in every group of workers who are going mobile.

"If staff are not comfortable using mobile technology, we identify an evangelist, treat them as special, bring them into meetings, get them involved, and so they can then make mobile technology something wanted, not resisted, amongst their colleagues."

It's absolutely essential, she stresses, that mobile users find the technology valuable for themselves. 

"You've got to answer the 'What's in it for me?' question if you are to deliver a successful project.”

Making jobs easier, faster and more hassle-free with less paperwork and calling into offices and depots is an obvious benefit, but there are others. GPS, for example, can make workers feel safer, as they know their position is always known to someone else. And engineers who are paid on piece-work can see just how much they are earning through the day, by getting their PDA to tot this up for them in real-time.

But it isn't just a question of winning over hearts and minds, crucial though that is for IT mobility to be successful. The technology challenges are significant and the management and support challenges even more so.

"If we want 'coalface to core' mobility, then the big challenge is to get end-to-end transaction processing, linking the remote worker to the heavy-duty back-end system. We need end-to-end resilience, from the handheld device, through the GPRS system, the corporate firewall, the server, the back-end database and then back out again to the remote worker.

"Scalability is essential when you have hundreds of devices out in the field. You have to install the pipework to get them into your back-end systems. We're currently putting in dedicated 2Gbyte pipes to support GPRS access from mobile devices.

"Security is also a very real issue, involving things like authentication, software firewalls and VPN tunnelling."

End-to-end remote connectivity also requires disaster recovery provisions to enable the workforce to operate if the mobile solution were to go down.

"Battery technology is a disaster! It just can't keep pace with the speed of mobile technology development. However, I have hopes of fuel cell technology coming along, which may well be in high-end laptops from early next year. This fuel cell technology is becoming increasingly miniaturised and may soon be available for smaller handheld devices."

Personal devices are also physically vulnerable to both theft and damage. "We looked at ruggedised devices, but there were serious cost implications. XDA2, for example, is around one-third of the cost of the ruggedised equivalent.

“However, the risks of physical damage can sometimes be overplayed and there is some tentative evidence that when devices are given to operatives, they feel they are special, and they look after them." Conversely, warns Sener, "accidental" physical damage can be seen as a way of obtaining an even fancier device by the boys' toys brigade.

But the biggest headache in deploying mobile technology is in support and management.  "When you have hundreds of devices you need to be able to enable remote configuration and device lock or support costs will escalate."

The cost profile of mobile deployment makes the headache clear. 

"10% of the cost of mobility is in the devices – the rest is in the infrastructure and management costs to deliver the technology. You may think a device is 'only £200' but that's just the tip of the iceberg. 40% of the costs are in development, redesigning the business process for mobility, networking and security, but 50% is in management and support. That's the killer"

The choice of device can seriously affect costs.

"We've handed out over 200 GPRS cards to road warriors and set up over 200 ADSL lines so they can link in from home via VPN to our secure network. We trialled iPaqs first of all, over l8 months ago, but it was a major deployment problem because of all the changes Compaq kept bringing out. All the new versions and changes to GPRS configuration just absorbed far too much IT resource for deploying these devices in significant numbers."

Instead, OCS has now started to deploy XDA2 devices for mobile engineers. 

"They are much easier to configure and control for large deployment. We're using Nexus software from ThreeX, a GE company, as middleware so that we have a single application layer for doing remote configuration and lock-down for the diverse solutions we offer our business divisions. The choice of enabling middleware is key.

“It is important to ensure each solution is fit for purpose, remembering that simple equals low cost. Use a thin-client browser approach to provide manageability, security and lower data costs, as small volumes of data are replicated between client and server.

"We're also exploring using digital pens from the Swedish company Anoto. We are pilot-testing digital forms for input into our SAP payroll system. These forms are printed on a special digital grid paper onto which the digital pen writes.   The data is then captured by OCR. We are working with SAP to develop an interface to feed this data into our SAP payroll system. This would enable us to reduce the cost and time of payroll administration significantly.”

Sener is also looking at radio technology for inanimate objects as well as people. 

"We use barcodes, for example, in our laundry business. However we are looking at RFID but need it to become much cheaper to be viable. With companies like Wal-Mart and Tesco starting to mandate RFID for their suppliers we'll see the cost coming down markedly, I'm sure. Implanted ZigBee micro devices are also something to watch, and may challenge RFID in some applications."

OCS's approach to mobile rollout is on a project by project basis, deliberately so. 

"In terms of cost justification we are taking it business process by business process rather than blanket applications. Each mobilised process has to be evaluated on its own merits. For example, our boiler maintenance engineers are now getting XDA2s for job scheduling. We are piloting a PDA-based quality management solution for our airport workers.”

However, because mobile technologies are evolving so fast, the business case for mobilising any process has to take into account the inevitability that the device could well become out of date before the benefits have been fully delivered, and even before the telco contract expires.

"The potential benefits of mobile working are so great that business won't care about the hassle and cost to IT if it is necessary to change and update devices," warns Sener.

Despite the challenges – technology and workforce – there is no question, believes Sener, that mobile IT is going to make a huge impact on business. Nor is there any reason to delay.

"The technology is proven, the costs are coming down, the telco vendors are offering more manageable bundled data costs, and remote configuration and security are coming under control.

"Mobility will be ubiquitous, just like the internet, so it's far better for us to drive a mobile strategy rather than be dragged along into the mobile era."

Jenny Sener is director of ICT at OCS

Challenges of Mobility

  • Technology is highly diverse, fast-evolving, competing and confusing
  • Business processes will have to be redesigned for mobile workers
  • Devices have short shelf-lives
  • Battery technology lags far behind the pace of device development
  • Choice of middleware to give a uniform wrap to applications is key
  • The greatest percentage of mobile project costs is in the management and support for mobile applications (the cost profile can be improved by remote device configuration and lock-down)
  • Telcos are currently over-focused on mobile voice, rather than data comms
  • Mobile workers may resist devices that time- and date-stamp their activities
  • Handheld devices are vulnerable in terms of being broken, stolen or lost
  • 'Road warrior' users may endlessly crave the latest gizmos
  • The coalface-to-core remote-to-back end link must be seamless, resilient and secure
  • Mobility must be scalable to be successful, and the multiplier effect means that secure corporate bandwidth must increase dramatically
  • Back-end systems may need redesigning or adapting to mobile input and real-time response
  • The success of mobility uptake will mean business makes ever increasing demands on IT for more and more mobility.

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