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Surviving the Wireless Disruption
Surviving the Wireless Disruption

Not since the dawn of the industrial revolution has technology disrupted the way the world works. The Internet removed obstacles, practically overnight, that businesses had to work around for hundreds of years: geographical constraints, long transaction times, and large inventory. Perhaps most significant, the Internet's free flow of information transferred economic power from the seller to the buyer.

The evidence of the Internet's disruption is everywhere: e-businesses make up a growing portion of the economy, displacing companies that have been successful for decades; entirely new forms of businesses, such as e-marketplaces, are possible only because of Internet technology, and the market is looking for e-activity as a key element of business valuation.

This enormous, fundamental change happened in just a decade, but we won't have to wait another 200 years for the next major economic disruption to happen. In fact, the next technological disruption has already begun; it's called wireless.

How Is Wireless Disruptive?

Wireless networks are going to disrupt the Internet economy the same way the Internet disrupted the "old." And wireless won't be just another ingredient to throw in the business pot; it's going to change some of the fundamental rules businesses operate by. The primary reason for this is that wireless communication removes the so-called "last mile" as a barrier.

Previously, the Internet relied on hooked-up devices: the only way you could obtain access was by being jacked into a wire. This limitation placed major constraints on who could use the Internet. In some parts of the globe, where the wired infrastructure isn't very good (and never will be), a wired Internet is impractical. Wireless changes all that. It brings ubiquity to the Internet and transforms it into an anywhere, anytime proposition for individuals and entire populations. Imagine the impact this will have on economics.

Closing that last gap enables true, real-time information exchange, which allows for smarter transactions. Currently, real-time information exchange on the Internet depends on whether you can get hooked up to a wire. There's nothing more frustrating than remembering you need a phone number that's on your server back at the office, and you can't get the wire you need to access the Internet. Wireless networks solve that problem - you can get any piece of information you own, from anywhere in the world, anytime. That is a huge fundamental shift.

Delivering on the Promise

"Wait," you say. "What's the big deal? Isn't wireless just an extension of the Internet?" If you listen to industry pundits, it's understandable why you might think so. It's not surprising that many people are focusing on translating the Web for wireless devices. Unfortunately, if you go by those discussions, the wireless Web will consist mainly of advertisements and promotions delivered via cell phone, with some stock-trading capabilities thrown in for good measure.

While we can expect "brochureware"-like development and virtual coupons to be a significant portion of the wireless Web early on, the wireless disruption will have a profound effect on much more than the marketing department. Businesses that are concentrating on wireless marketing should start looking at the broader applications of wireless technology to improve their overall business. If they don't, new players will swoop in and steal markets from them the same way companies that understood the Internet did in the 1990s. Anyone can make abstract claims that sound great without really saying anything about how the technology will be put into practice. However, in some specific areas wireless not only has great potential, but real-world applications are being developed. Retail is one major area where wireless innovations will be seen. Mobile transactions, or "m-commerce," represent a significant change, but the effects go far beyond buying from Amazon on your cell phone.

Point-of-sale is expected to undergo major changes. As point-of-sale appliances become completely portable, companies will be forced to change their established practices. For example, shoppers won't have to go to the sales floor, drag their items up to the front of the store, and wait in line to check out - the register, the scanner, and everything else at the counter will be wireless. Salespeople can come to the shopper - no matter where the merchandise is - and sell the item on the spot. That capability has the potential to affect staffing, sales-floor layout, impulse purchasing, and countless other elements of running a retail business. It's a great initiative in the business-to-consumer space that retailers need to start thinking about now.

A related innovation is portable, real-time credit authorization. Even if you're in the middle of a bazaar in Brazil, you can give a seller the ability to access your information. Within seconds the seller will know if you have good credit and whether a sale should go through - even for something very expensive. It may not seem like a huge change, but the reality is, every step of a transaction that's made more efficient increases the profit. Wireless won't just change businesses' interactions with customers; it'll change internal processes as well. That may sound strange until you realize that wireless technology allows resources, inventory, and equipment to track themselves. This is already happening in certain industries, such as heavy equipment manufacturing, where the machines report problems. For example, a truck will send a signal that says, "Hey, I just blew a gasket. Somebody better get out here and fix me." Everyone who needs to know about the problem, from the person who orders the new part to the one who dispatches a new truck, knows about it instantly.

An even greater internal change for businesses is the advent of a mobile work force. People will be able to see what's going on with the manufacturing process, what's happening in logistics, shipping status, and so on no matter where they are. Shop floor managers won't be tied to their desks or to the equipment's location. They can be off-site and still have access to all the information that's needed to ensure operations are running smoothly. The rest of the work force will become completely mobile as well. That means workers can go out in the field or walk the shop floor without losing immediate access to information. The ability to do the job from anywhere will become a reality for a large segment of the work force.

Total Experience Management

One exciting new technology that will be further enhanced by the development of wireless capabilities is total experience management (TEM). TEM System Architecture is the ability to take current customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource management (ERM) experiences and combine them with the real-time feedback companies have about their customers. Most companies currently keep customer information, such as demographics, in a data warehouse. What if, through an online data store, you could know what the customer is doing on the site at that moment, and immediately morph the site to fit that customer? That means real-time interaction management on a scale companies have dreamed of for years. Where does wireless come into play? By combining TEM with the new wireless experience of accessing the customer anywhere, companies can adjust the customer's experience second by second while he or she is doing business with you. For example, if a flight is delayed when the customer is in the airport terminal, the airline can deliver a rebate right then and there. This ability to service customers whenever a problem arises, and even anticipate problems, will transform and strengthen the relationship a company has with its customers.

Strategy for Survival

Wireless has progressed quickly over the last year or so. Within 12 months everyone will be facing the issue of how all the great technology they built for the Internet doesn't work in the wireless space. If you want to be able to handle the wireless disruption, you'd better start addressing it now.

First, make wireless a priority throughout the company. Wireless is a powerful force, not the latest fad or a simple Internet add-on, whose impact will be felt throughout a business organization. The message has to come from the company leadership and be communicated to everyone within the company that they need to build a successful wireless strategy. Some companies will find additional changes in management are needed to overcome entrenched corporate culture and previously established attitudes that are resistant to disruption. This may take the form of a company-wide reeducation program, or even an adjustment in the company's organizational structure.

Whatever actions are taken, the result must be an organization that understands the disruption of wireless and wants to move the business forward by embracing and using it. This is especially important in IT. If your IT organization isn't aware of what's going on with wireless, you have to change that - even if it means destroying and rebuilding the department.

Second, develop an overall wireless strategy. Once everyone is on board, the company needs to identify business areas or practices that wireless will definitely impact as well as areas where it can improve operations. As indicated above, the most talked about applications may not be the ones that have the largest effect on your business. Back up that plan by making the necessary resources available. Only by conducting research and development, then quickly implementing solutions, will businesses be able to spread the risk of a disruptive technology such as wireless. This can't be done without an appropriate budget and personnel. Then, use those resources effectively by focusing on the technology. Avoid being too closely tied to your vendors, in products or services. Instead, cling to standards - emerging and existing - and watch them carefully. If you see a protocol standard like WAP coming along, get to know and understand it so you can use it in a variety of ways.

Finally remember the end user. Even though technology is driving the economic change, it shouldn't be the sole driver for changing your business, because what may appear to be a great idea for your company may not be what your customers want. M-commerce won't grow profits with an interface that's confusing and cumbersome. Wireless credit authorization may be great for your salespeople, but if it's too slow or consumers don't trust it, they'll take their business elsewhere. Even TEM could end up being a major annoyance if consumers are constantly having to navigate their way through a barrage of ever-changing offers and deals - even when they'd benefit. At every step of the process ask yourself, "How will this affect the end user?"

By instilling the right mindset, creating a strategy focused on the end user, and quickly executing against it, companies can use the wireless disruption to their advantage rather than fall victim to it. And the return on wireless needn't stop with ensuring the status quo. When used effectively, wireless will help companies provide new value to clients, capture new markets, and create a smarter, stronger organization.

About Walt Smith
Walt Smith is senior vice president of enterprise architecture at iXL
Inc., a leading global consulting firm that helps businesses harness
the power of emerging technologies to realize more profitable
relationships with their customers.

About Dave Shuker
Dave Shuker is the general manager of mobile and wireless solutions at iXL
Inc.

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