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E-mail is just the start for harnessing mobility to sharpen your organisation's cutting edge. Alison Connolly looks at other...

E-mail is just the start for harnessing mobility to sharpen your organisation's cutting edge. Alison Connolly looks at other mobile applications that create maximum value with minimum hassle

With the plethora of mobile devices available, executives on the move can have access to company e-mail wherever they happen to be. But e-mail alone is not always enough and users are starting to look for something closer to the functionality of their desktop PCs.

Lester Hewett, senior software architect for Avanade, believes many executives want the convenience of instant messaging. "Instant messaging enables much faster communication between people and gives the ability to reach out to anyone in an organisation, know instantly if they are online and ask questions," he says.

With the ability to integrate the use of documents, workers can access information and solve queries quickly, but Hewett says many people use public networks to discuss corporate material. He advises companies to extend their e-mail and communications policies to include instant messaging. "Companies need to form policies on what can be discussed and transmitted and draw up acceptable use and practice guidelines," he says.

The use of public networks for discussing and transmitting corporate data may trouble some IT and security professionals. The launch of Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005 will allow companies to integrate internal instant messaging with public gateways to make external instant communications even more accessible - a bonus for those wanting instant online meetings with customers and business associates.

Hewett says products from suppliers such as IM Logic and FaceTime make it possible for discussions to be scanned. He foresees the creation of user "federations" - associated users or groups within organisations who want instant messaging discussions and whose communications can be encrypted and controlled with traditional security.

"For mobile users wanting to connect to outside customers, it would be advisable to provide encryption from a personal digital assistant (PDA) linking via 3G or GPRS over instant messaging into the company network," says Hewett. The conversation would be channelled to external users through the company IT infrastructure.

Collaborative workspaces

Another use of mobile technology is collaboration. Simon Reynolds, head of collaboration at content management developer Vignette, says the real power comes through allowing users to work together, whatever their location, via secure online workspaces.

"Collaborative working is moving away from the local information silos within a PC or company, so that all the information is accessible any time, anywhere, through a web-based workspace," he says.

Such workspaces can provide a storage place for documents associated with a project or a group of people. Groups of users or company departments can subscribe to relevant information and have access to discussions and documents linked to it.

Users subscribing to a topic can be notified if additional documents are stored in that area, or when other users are having discussions that include certain keywords. Reynolds sees this as empowering users to make the most of e-mail. "We can change the e-mail model so you are notified about information relevant to you, instead of what other people view as important to you."

Vignette's content management technology also allows every document stored in the portal to be opened and indexed and designated websites checked to see if they have relevant data. "It can be forwarded to your Blackberry and an SMS message sent to your mobile phone," says Reynolds.

Beyond communication

Extending mobility beyond sharing documents leads to the integration of back-end systems with mobile applications and interfaces. Many businesses see a big advantage in mobilising their fieldworkers and giving them more information at a customer site.

Handheld devices can provide access to personal information manager applications with contact details, diary, notepad and e-mail functions, but connecting these to more vital business systems such as call centres, ordering and billing is where the mobile world is currently headed.

Robert Diss, senior consultant at C&C Technology, sees this as a natural progression. "Adoption of mobile e-mail makes other mobile products more accessible and creates opportunities to implement applications in facilities management, field sales and service, transport and customer service," he says.

Sue Forbes, vice-president of marketing for mobile service supplier Good Technology, agrees. "There is a transition taking place from just mobilising e-mail, calendar and contacts towards a broad array of business applications. Workers need more data at their fingertips wherever they are.

"Offering true wireless access to proper enterprise applications has been relatively slow to come about. To make it workable you need the right devices, the right mobile data networks and the software to connect them together. I do not think all these pieces were realistically in place until 2004."

Less overtime, more productivity

The approach companies are taking to providing mobile access to these systems varies. Scottish Water has spent £2m on CRM software from Oracle to replace three disparate legacy systems following a merger of water authorities. The project has provided the company's 250 network service operators with ruggedised laptops to access customer information and geographic information system (GIS) data on the move.

"We had three different legacy systems offering basic call handling and log-in without any mobile capabilities," says David Brown, head of IT at Scottish Water. "We wanted to be able to make timed appointments with customers and the Oracle system gave us clever use of appointments and resource management." The service operators previously received appointments and job lists via a paper-based system or through phone calls.

Now the information on the laptops synchronises automatically during the day over the GSM network, providing job lists, customer information and GIS data to the field staff. Brown says, "The service operators have much more information when they go to customers. The system enables them to make an assessment of the problem and send data back to the call centre."

Scottish Water forecasts a return on investment on the project, implemented in 2003, of 250% in two years, with investment payback expected in nine to 12 months. About £11m in cost savings are expected by April 2005. "A lot of cost savings have been associated with reduced overtime and greater productivity," says Brown. "Previously, service operators were making about two appointments a day, now it is seven to eight."

Low-cost, low-tech

Martin Taylor, managing director of software supplier Impact Applications, says new technology lets companies provide information to key mobile staff. "Always-on mobile connectivity is available through a mature, affordable and easy-to-use technology: GPRS. Take 'zero-client' software, which uses the familiar web browser pre-installed on all smartphones and combined phones/PDAs, connect to the back-office using GPRS and you have a low-cost, low-tech method to deliver constant, real-time knowledge to fieldworkers.

"With no client-side software the implementation is simple: users require a user name and password. There is no problematic synchronisation of information between client and server and, critically, there is no expensive upgrade process."

Impact Applications' customer Northern Gas chose this system when it equipped its sales staff and engineers with mobile devices as part of the process to computerise the company. "We had a single 386 PC running the business with a database, no access to reports and reams of paper," says Jim Lynch, marketing communications manager at Northern Gas. "We needed a system to manage the business operations, from the customer enquiry through to finance, where the job is closed."

Mobile workers use laptops and PDAs and connect to the web via a standard browser. A Pin code activates the device, which is connected via the GPRS network to the server, where the system maps the company's sales, supply chain and customer service processes.

"There was a lack of IT knowledge in the business, so any system had to be simple," says Lynch. "We knew if it was over-complicated we could frighten users. We transferred the paper-based system straight into the computer so it is very similar and we have had to do very little training."

Sales staff receive updated schedules and on customer visits they have automatic access to postcode-based pricing and can calculate orders from specific suppliers. The system can generate orders from suppliers by e-mail or fax. Engineers are sent job details and can pull up the original contract and modify the order. Lynch says,"The system automatically calculates the commission and payment for each rep and they can review their commission and see if they are meeting their targets. Sales managers can see what is happening and finance has a total overview of every job."

Lynch says companies should not be put off such systems. "An off-the-shelf system would have cost about an initial £80,000 plus many thousands of pounds for user licences, but we have spent about a quarter of that. It is all about control from a business point of view," he said.

This article is part of Computer Weekly's Special report on enterprise mobility, produced in association with Intel

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