Moving data access and business intelligence into the field
Think of mobile computing, and smart phones, 3G, Android, iPads, iPhones, tablet PCs, black boxes, BlackBerries, RFID tags and readers can demand your attention. There is so much happening in the world of mobile computing, and the pace is only going to speed up.
Today’s business leaders and chief information officers are faced with a number of decisions related to mobile computing, ranging from the simple choice of whether to embrace mobile computing now or wait, to more complex decisions such as what mobile platform to use (for example, Apple’s IOS, Android or Windows), and for what it will be used.
Because of lower-cost and higher-speed mobile-data networks, lower-cost smart phones and a broader selection of enterprise mobile applications in the market, the time has come to examine these opportunities, separate the hype from reality, and understand how mobile computing will create genuine value for your business.
In approaching these issues, businesses need to answer the following questions:
1. What business processes or specific employee functions will benefit from the introduction of mobile computing? How and how much will they benefit?
2. What applications are needed to support these business processes or employees?
3. What applications are available in the market, what “platform” is needed to run them, and what are the other complexities relating to existing IT systems (for example, integration, security and data readiness)?
4. How should they be deployed and how can we get employees motivated or excited about using them?
How mobile applications create value in a business
In this context, mobile devices may mean any wireless data-collection, communication or presentation device, ranging from smart phones to RFID tags and readers. However, the focus here is mainly on personal computing devices such as tablet PCs and smart phones.
Consider the following capabilities for creating business value:
_ An ability to provide an enriched visual experience.
We all looked on in awe when our favorite publications and periodicals began appearing on the newly released iPad. They were able to integrate print, images, videos and sound in a high-resolution format. This same high-definition, interactive, multi-media functionality is available in digital sales kits that allow sales representatives to present products ranging from home furnishings to complex electrical-generating equipment in a clear, easy-to-use interactive format. This enriched visual experience provides a much more compelling selling experience than traditional print catalogues.
_ An ability to access information (or data) whenever you need it, anywhere.
One of the beauties of mobile computing is having relevant, accurate data at your fingertips to support your particular business activity. Using a customer example, this may range from having up-to-date information about your customer’s buying habits and product preferences to information about competitor activities in the areas surrounding your customer’s location.
_ An ability for users to collect relevant data at source at the time of an event and to move through the process chain quickly.
This may range from collecting information for your customer’s next order and sending it wirelessly to the sales supervisor to collecting up-to-date information about product inventories in your warehouse using a barcode reader attached to a mobile device.
_ An ability to enforce process or policy compliance
This may range from ensuring that field sales staff have up-to-date information about current pricing, promotion and discount schemes to ensuring that field sales and service staff are actually where they are supposed to be.
How mobile applications can create value in your business
Here are four steps for Thai organisations to consider when planning the adoption of mobile computing technology:
_ Start with your business, not with the platform. Understand what processes in your business can benefit from mobile computing.
It is so easy to be wowed by the latest smart phone or tablet PC. However, it’s important to keep a clear headed, practical approach when identifying mobile computing opportunities.
Start with the value-chain processes (customer interactions and sales, order fulfillment and logistics, product manufacturing, warehouse management) and the business-analytics processes in your organisation. Using traditional process-scan techniques, identify the business issues, pain points or areas where your company is not meeting customer service-level expectations.
2. Understand how a process can be improved by mobile computing and understand the value of that improvement.
Once you understand the root causes of these issues and pain points, ask which of them could potentially be improved by the use of mobile computing.
For example, an industrial products company operating in Thailand was disappointed with the mean time from when a product was delivered until payment was collected. The company analysed its order-fulfillment process and discovered that it took three to five days from the time of product shipment before the driver returned with a signed delivery order. One reason was that their third-party drivers were taking other jobs on the return trips, and since a delivery order with the customer’s signature was required to bill the customer, invoices were being issued four to six days after the shipment was delivered and payments were being delayed by an equivalent number of days.
The company is now looking to equip the truck drivers with a mobile point-of-delivery system that will allow the customer to sign on an Enterprise Digital Assistant that will print a delivery document for the customer’s retention and immediately transmit the signed delivery document back to the billing department so that the invoice can be prepared and issued on the same day.
Another example is a Thai company that sells products using cash vans. Due to the nature of their product, they frequently change pricing, discount and promotion schemes. Anytime there is a price or promotion change, sales administration staff need to contact field sales staff. Sometimes this communication is incomplete or delayed, resulting in inconsistent application of new prices or promotions, most often resulting in lost sales volume or sales revenue.
This company gave its field sales team a mobile sales tool. Sales information is entered into the mobile device and the sales tool automatically applies the most up-to-date price and promotion schemes, calculates appropriate discounts and prints a receipt for the customer on the spot. With this system the company is not only able to apply its frequently changing pricing and promotion schemes, but managers and executives are able to see field sales activity almost as it happens. Executives can now access daily sales reports without having to wait a week or more for the field sales team to return with paper-based sales orders.
3. Select software and devices
The next step is to look at available devices and find software to run on those devices. This can be a complicated process involving business people as well as IT, as a number of different points have to be considered.
_ Do target users already have mobile devices on which the company could deploy a new software application? For example, some companies may find that a large number of their field sales staff already use iPhones.
_ What software and device (smart phones, tablets or other) combinations are available, or do you need to develop your own application?
_ Do these mobile devices need to be integrated into existing enterprise resource planning (ERP) or transactional systems? How is this done? How should security be managed? How are the systems maintained, once they are in the field?
Typically, overall investments for mobile-computing projects are smaller than those for other IT projects, such as implementing an ERP system, so the financial risk is smaller. However, due to the nature of mobile computing, it introduces data security and related issues with which companies may not be accustomed to dealing. Although selecting software and devices can be a complicated process, it is nevertheless important that it is done correctly.
4. Test deployment, then rollout
Once you have selected the mobile computing device and application or applications, it is recommend that you conduct a pilot or test deployment with a group of “willing and able” users. For example, if you are deploying a mobile sales tool and you have 100 field sales staff, you may want to train and start with a small selection, say 10, who are representative of the other 90 in terms of job content, and let them begin using the system first. Once you start the deployment, you will probably find people and technical issues that you did not anticipate and it’s easier to fix them with a smaller group.
In the course of deployment you may encounter user behavior problems. These can often be signs of user resistance due to entrenched and inappropriate work habits, or worse, fraudulent activities undertaken by employees. These cases need to be understood by management and dealt with effectively, otherwise the investment in mobile computing technology will not yield its full benefits.
Mobile computing will continue to change at an astounding rate, with the introduction of new devices and applications. There will always be a new version just around the corner. For the next one or two years there will be an ongoing debate about which is the preferred mobile operating system (Windows, Apple’s IOS, Android, RIM, and so on). However, if you take a sensible business-improvement based approach, you will quickly be riding the mobile-computing wave and enjoying the benefits of mobile technology in your business.
David Aldridge is Freewill Solution’s chief operations officer.