The impact of wireless technology pervades our lives. The ability that it confers to work while on the move has filled airport lounges with executives feverishly toggling a Blackberry or tapping at a laptop or personal digital assistant (PDA).
Recent figures from independent research house Vanson Bourne show 38% of the 400 UK small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) of 10 to 250 employees surveyed use technology to deploy a mobile workforce.
According to the research, commissioned on behalf of network supplier Cisco Systems, more than half of those SMEs have invested in mobile technologies such as virtual private networks (57%) and wireless devices (56%). Nearly all (91%) equip their staff with laptops for flexible working, and mobility strategies enable 22% to trade electronically, beyond traditional UK markets.
The availability of relatively low cost mobile e-mail devices such as Research in Motion’s Blackberry and Windows 5.0 Mobile devices has opened up mobility technology to smaller businesses.
“I think SMEs should cost not being able to work interactively with customers,” said Nigel Montgomery, director of AMR Research for Europe. “SMEs need to look at the difference mobility could make to the efficiency of systems and processes from an increased customer service, efficiency or productivity perspective.”
But building a business case without the scale and resources of a large enterprise can be daunting when wireless devices, software, infrastructure and networking IT is fragmented between different types of technology provider.
Before adopting mobility technology, SMEs should ensure they have a strong commercial case for any investment.
“The technology is of enormous benefit for the capture of data such as orders and appointments. It provides for much better customer relationships, where the mobility of IT systems makes salespeople or service operatives more efficient in the field,” said Montgomery
Some large enterprises cite productivity gains of three to four hours per week per employee as a key benefit from projects that enable working on the move and from home.
However, Montgomery pointed out that translating the simple concept of using a device to access an IT system wirelessly and securely is a challenge for large, cash-rich companies, let alone small ones.
“On the face of it mobility seems like a great idea, but in reality, the mobile device you are connecting your system to is only as useful as the systems themselves,” he said.
Mobile projects can improve executive decision making by providing relevant, real-time data from existing field-force and customer relationship management systems.
“But SMEs often do not have IT systems that are joined-up enough to put effective mobility technology in front of them,” said Montgomery.
The good news, according to Nick Jones, vice-president and distinguished analyst at analyst firm Gartner, is that SMEs can turn a lack of sophisticated IT systems to their advantage.
“The average handheld mobile device, like an iPaq PDA, has a life of about two years, and many such devices are available in the consumer market,” he said.
“Small businesses are not going to be rolling out thousands of these things, and so can be much more agile. A 50-user roll-out for Salesforce.com, for example, is nowhere near as difficult as the 10,000-user roll-out of a dedicated salesforce system.”
The convergence of mobile technologies has widened choice for SMEs, according to Jones. “Even text messaging can help a SME. And staff will start using mobile devices during work as they do out of work whether or not you authorise it – you should be aware of this and prepare for it.”
Areas to consider include horizontal applications such as e-mail, messaging and wireless data transfer, which are not specific to a business process. The applications most often targeted for mobile deployment include more specific scheduling, account management and customer service-focused systems.
Most experts agree that web-based hosted applications aimed at SMEs by suppliers like Salesforce.com or Netsuite take the pain out of integrating information systems with mobile devices, especially as some are releasing versions specifically for wireless access.
But if a company does not have the resources to migrate to a hosted system, Microsoft is creating a wide network of local partner support with its new mobile e-mail platform. This is particularly advantageous for SMEs, given that so many already rely on Microsoft’s operating systems, desktop software and collaborative Exchange server platform.
Beyond e-mail, the latest crop of smartphones offer web browsers, giving mobile users access to existing web-based and e-commerce systems.
But tapping on a mobile web front-end may not suit all applications. Some sectors with strict data retention and privacy laws, such as healthcare and finance, may need more stringent security policies built into the mobile device for wireless management.
Jones suggests looking for providers who offer security as part of a managed service, or investing in third-party software. “There are questions like: do you encrypt the data in the device or enable the over-the-air zapping of data if the device gets lost or stolen?”
Once existing office-based systems and security policies fit the requirements and risk of the commercial case for mobile deployment, choosing the best device and connectivity service provision are just as key to achieving return on investment.
Jones sounds a note of caution about choice of device and connectivity using laptops and third-generation (3G) wireless data cards in particular.
“I would be wary of laptops bundled with 3G data contracts. I have seen deals with the 3G cards built-in. And Siemens has a laptop it is selling for one euro – subsidised with the service contract just like its mobile phones.
“But the wireless technology built into the laptop is not going to last as long as the SME will need the laptop. And even those with good IT departments should not have to know how to update the hardware themselves.”
It is worth noting that mobilising staff does not have to involve wireless data transmission. It could be worth considering converged mobile and fixed-line communications.
Many companies have found mobile voice technology invaluable in areas like supply chain replenishment, where voice-activated warehouse fulfillment allows stock-picker staff to work more quickly and accurately in a hands-free environment.
Converged fixed-line and mobile services are still quite recent, with the likes of Orange and Vodafone introducing business packages, and rumours that BT will launch an enterprise version of Fusion this autumn.
Rob Bamforth, principal analyst with research firm Quocirca, said such technology and services also suit SME requirements. But users may have to wait until the IT and telco companies offer smaller businesses something that really does suit them.
“SMEs cannot afford to leap in and buy something. Large enterprises can invest more rapidly because they have the resources. Suppliers and providers are in the early stages of equipping a mid-market channel,” he said.
There is a consensus that managed services or outsourcing offer a good way for SMEs to invest in mobility.
“I’m in favour of outsourced or managed services, because you do not get stuck with the technology,” Bamforth said. “Pushing the decision-making responsibility out to the experts takes the risk away from the business.”
Industry experts advocate outsourcing small deployments to obtain as much flexibility as possible over system components, terms of ownership and conditions of support and service. Hosted, leased or rented options can also be more flexible than full ownership.
It boils down to how much your business needs to communicate. “If the mobility tool is needed on the data-entry side, the increased accuracy and removal of manual rekeying validate the investment there and then,” said Bamforth.
But he warned, “Look at things like downtime to make sure the technology is employed effectively. Using PDAs during meetings is not necessarily the most effective use of time.”
He suggests developing acceptable use policies that outline what mobile devices can be used for in and outside of work to maximise the success, stability and security of a mobility technology project.
“The technology is out there. It is just a case of finding a solution to suit the individual business, getting good advice and keeping your technology options open.”
SMEs have plenty of mobility options, giving staff everything from basic e-mail on the road, right up to sophisticated access to line of business applications. But they also need to tread carefully, adopt proven technologies and consider cost-effective hosted services.