Overcoming the Fear of Wireless
Overcoming the Fear of Wireless
By: David Shim
Jun. 7, 2001 10:58 AM
Confused about the time and cost involved in taking your enterprise wireless? Will it be worth it? The first step is to make a clear assessment. The next can lead to a spiraling return on investment...
Last year, the market fell victim to the wireless-hype tsunami. We were awash in the promises of the next wave of breakneck innovation and mobile commerce. X was projecting Y by 200Z. As quickly as it rose up, the hype came crashing down, and press and pundits were quick to point out that the beach was littered with the broken shells of rather ordinary cell phones and PDAs, and that we still had the same clogged, narrow pipes carrying our data around.
Lost in the thunderous hype and the crash back to earth were the emerging wireless enterprise applications that are quietly transforming business practices. Discerning enterprises have recognized that the right wireless steps can take them along the path to high ROI. This quiet revolution is being led by managers who have already grasped the answers to the basic questions: "Why wireless for my enterprise?" and "Why invest in wireless today?" The theoretical answer is that wireless applications are the tools to squeeze the next level of productivity from the significant investments in business automation already in place, and that a relatively incremental investment in wireless will yield disproportionate returns. The practical answer is that identifying the appropriate wireless applications and inserting them into business processes involving field force, sales force, suppliers, or customers will become a necessity to reduce costs and drive productivity to remain competitive. In the reality of a slower economic environment, the appropriate application of wireless technology will be the tool that smart businesses use to drive a wedge between themselves and competitors.
Enterprises that have looked into wireless applications may find the technology confusing and daunting: an ever-increasing diversity of mobile devices and shifting standards, with no shortage of companies claiming to have a platform panacea. However, as this article explores, technology complexity is not an excuse; the software to manage these complexities exists. The key challenge is the right application of the technology, one that goes beyond simple e-mail, to deliver significant ROI.
A Case Study
Typical of many field forces, they had manual data collection processes that were error-prone and time-consuming. Every day began with technicians receiving their daily schedules at a central office. After each job, a technician had to manually fill out a paper time sheet indicating the customer information, travel time, on-site time, work completed, and other job details. The time sheets were collected from all the technicians and shipped to a data center where each sheet was double entered and cross-checked. Any sheets with discrepancies were sent back to the technician and supervisor for correction and confirmation. The final, fully corrected data was then used for finance and accounting purposes to bill clients and generate payroll for technicians.
The process was not ideal, requiring expensive data entry that resulted in long billing cycles and the multiple errors inherent in manual data input. Dick believed that a wireless application could solve many of these issues, help CDI deliver better service, and make employees happier through more accurate payroll information. He started down the road toward carefully evaluating the opportunity and challenges involved in implementing a wireless solution.
Assessing Benefits and Barriers
The idiosyncratic nature of the mobile environment requires that you spend some time assessing its benefits and unique challenges. To determine the benefits, you must first identify where wireless may have the greatest impact. You may be misguided if you plan on simply transferring all of your Internet and/or network logic and presentation layers to a cell phone or PDA. Most likely, you'll find that the best bottom line benefits can be had from a simpler, more targeted approach. After assessing the potential benefits, examining the challenges is largely a matter of determining whether there's a sufficient cost-effective technology. In assessing its own wireless strategy, CDI needed several critical questions answered and, in the process, learned that technology exists to manage all the challenges wireless presented.
Which Applications Are Highly Valuable and/or Mission-Critical?
Wireless, at its core, is a tool to enable communication when more fixed forms are unavailable. Therefore, the first step is to target the mobile elements of your workforce, partners, and client base. For example, do you have management and sales professionals who travel frequently? Do you have technical professionals who spend large amounts of time moving from one client site to another? Are there partners or clients who require immediate notification regardless of time or place? Only when you've identified the mobile elements of your business strategy can you begin your mobilization project.
The next steps are to identify what information needs to be remotely sent, received, or recorded while away from the office, and to assess the value of mobilizing the data. As important (and this requires a bit of out-of-the-box thinking) is what additional information would be highly valuable if you could receive or send it wirelessly? Few ever imagined they would need to receive mobile e-mail, but almost everyone who began using it is hooked.
It may seem like common sense to do this basic assessment, but too many people still approach wireless-enablement as an all-or-nothing prospect. This can lead to two misleading assumptions. First, taking every back-end legacy application wireless will simply break the bank and prove too time-consuming, if not technologically unfeasible. Second, such a generalized project may give the evaluators involved the misperception that the current desktop/laptop access is adequate. If you fail to distinguish the mobile elements of the workforce from the more desk-tethered elements, this will undoubtedly seem true. How can you justify that every employee requires immediate access to e-mail, contacts, the sales database, or inventory levels? On the other hand, the comparative competitive advantage begins to crystallize when you consider the importance of the technical field force accessing the day's next dispatch assignment or an account rep querying inventory levels and pricing in the middle of on-site negotiations.
Are the Features I Require Suitable for Porting to Mobile Devices?
How Will I Handle All the Heterogeneous Devices and Their Ongoing Innovation?
To adequately address device heterogeneity and innovation, your best bet is to look for a relatively open solution that supports numerous, evolving standards. Don't get trapped by one soon-to-be-antiquated standard. Ideally, to avoid reinventing the wheel, seek out an existing solution/software provider with a strategy to support many technologies as they continue to evolve.
Do I Have Sufficient Access to Wireless Technology Expertise?
What Time and Resources Do I Need to Expend?
Once you identify those mobile areas of your business and the requisite application and features needing to be wireless-enabled, write up your projected cost savings and/or additional revenue generated. Compare this to the development, deployment, and maintenance expense of internal and third-party solutions. Equally important, given the rapid evolution of wireless technology, steer clear of any solution that requires a significant amount of time to test and implement. The more out-of-the-box ready the solution is, the better. If you're several months down the road before you've built anything, your theoretical, yet-to-be-implemented solution from the past will already be outdated.
Choosing the Correct Mobile Path:
Fortunately, tremendous progress has taken place in the wireless infrastructure software arena in the form of mobile middleware. The most robust solutions provide more than a simple development framework for design. They offer a truly mobile application server that supports deployment and scalability as they manage, in real-time, the daily, continuous access to your back-end enterprise applications and databases.
With the proper mobile middleware, a developer can code once in any familiar language, and render applications to any type of mobile device. This means you can use existing talent and resources to execute your mobile strategy, without having to train your technical force in special proprietary languages. You'll also find that these same solutions support the evolutionary nature of the wireless world, providing rendering enhancements as the devices and their software continuously undergo enhancements. You no longer have to track the minutiae of wireless technological changes such as markup languages, screen sizes, or memory capabilities in order to optimize user experience. Your middleware can do this job for you.
A good mobile middleware solution will allow you to enjoy the benefits of an open software platform by allowing you to build new wireless applications or take existing ones wireless. Any evaluation of a mobile strategy should incorporate a middleware evaluation. Again, always remember this important caveat: make sure that the implementation and ongoing maintenance of the solution requires little effort on the part of your wireless team.
Proof in the Numbers
Within four weeks, CDI had deployed a mobile application designed and delivered on the Aligo platform. A key requirement for CDI was that field technicians use WAP browsers on their cell phones to enter and review information, while supervisors might use a variety of PDAs to view the collected information. This flexibility was crucial because the technicians did not want to carry around any more equipment, and supervisors needed a larger screen device to conveniently review information. The write-once, deliver-to-all mobile devices capability of Aligo's platform enabled the Aligo team to deliver the application in a short time frame. It did not have to be customized or rewritten for each device type, and because the platform managed almost all the basic application delivery "house chores," relatively little new code had to be written.
CDI conducted a field test over several weeks to test the usability of the devices and application. The test was a stunning success. The technicians entered data directly through the browsers on their mobile phones. Much of the information that they once had to enter by hand was prefilled, and through an intelligently designed menu-driven format, they could quickly enter all the data required. They could review their entries in summary format before transmitting it wirelessly to the corporate database, making it immediately available. Supervisors could review the schedules of the technicians, the progress they had made, and, if necessary, perform real-time scheduling of new or emergency jobs. Managers had been skeptical about field personnel accepting this new technology, but one of the outstanding results was the enthusiasm of the technicians. The mobile application replaced the time-consuming task of filling out paperwork after every job, and more important, gave them direct control over data entry. There would no longer be data-entry clerks who would misread their handwriting, creating needless disputes over hours worked and amount of the payroll.
The acid test for the wireless application, however, was the potential return on investment. Armed with the results of the field test, CDI rigorously analyzed the potential impact of Aligo's wireless applications. The results were stunning. CDI Telecommunications, with little over 1,000 employees, would derive net savings of $4.2 million over three years, primarily from:
CDI's experience demonstrates how a wireless strategy built on a clear assessment of a company's mobile business needs and the right mobile technology will result in a tremendous payoff. Regardless if it's telecommunications, finance, transportation or any other business, all industries have companies with large field forces, sales forces, and/or data to manage. If you can develop a clear outline of your mobile enterprise, you will successfully execute a mobilization project that guarantees remunerative and competitive success.
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