Today, many corporations have large mobile workforces, in sales and field service roles. Frequently, these mobile workers have little or no remote access to core business applications of their organisation. Voice and paper are still the main communication method for these employees to communicate and interact with the corporate backend. An obvious example is a Salesperson, who has to make a voice call to the corporate office to enquire whether an item he is selling is in stock or not. Typically he would make this call in the middle of his sales negotiation with the prospect. If he manages to close the deal, he would manually fill up the order form, which he would either hand deliver to the corporate office at the end of his day or if the organisation is slightly tech savvy, he would fax it to the corporate office. The inefficiencies in this communication approach are apparent. Imagine if the corporation had implemented an enterprise mobility solution – the Salesperson in our example would be equipped with some kind of PDA – to enquire about the stock information he would key in the item code in the stock query application running on his PDA, which would instantly tell him the answer by querying the database in real time. If a sale were made, the Salesperson would fill up the order form on his PDA, which would be uploaded to the corporation’s sales order processing application at the backend. The above example depicts the manual vs. mobile enabled business process for a Salesperson. Imagine how many corporate business processes can be mobile enabled and the resulting efficiency and productivity gains. And what is more interesting is that research in the US indicates that corporations are planning to implement mobility solutions as part of their business strategy and not for productivity gains alone.
Enterprise mobility applications
A corporation can mobile enable its business processes in several ways. There are many solutions in the market place and the choice of what solution to implement depends on the business objectives around implementing mobility. The various mobile solutions available can be classified as follows:
Mobile Office – These applications include wireless access to office solutions such as Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Domino, Groupwise etc. for real-time connectivity with E-mail, contact information, personal calendars and diaries. This is the simplest way to get started towards mobility and can be achieved with very little capital or operating expenditure. Some mobile operators in India have already started offering such solutions as part of the corporate packages.
Mobile Web Content – This set of applications mobilizes the Intranet and Internet content – essentially making such content available on to mobile devices. Such a roll out again is a simple implementation without major investments – the benefits can be offered immediately to employees and customers. The limitations around these applications are around the form factor of the device – as not all devices have large screens conducive for browsing such content.
Mobile News, Alerts and Notifications – These applications provide information and alerts to people on the move – based on a certain trigger e.g. if a certain threshold is crossed – a text message to the systems administrator when the server disk space crosses 80% capacity. This category of applications also does not require major expenditure – however the benefits of a roll out of such kind of applications can be immense – as key information can be made available to the concerned person even when they are mobile. Most such implementations use SMS feature available on GSM networks.
Mobile Commerce – It is important for several corporations to provide for Mobile Commerce applications – through these applications, a corporation can augment their revenue streams – typically a consumer can transact with the corporation over a mobile channel. Some examples from India are the Cadbury implementation – chocolate vending machines, which operate through an SMS and m-donation – paying money to a temple through a mobile phone.
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Mobile Enterprise Applications – This category of applications provides the corporation the potential to realise true benefits of mobility. Under this category of applications, a corporation would typically mobile enable large chunks of their business processes. The effort required is quite substantial as the process of implementing such an application involves a large part of the organisation and many existing IT applications. All kinds of information can be made available to mobile workers ranging from sales orders, inventory, production schedules, accounts payable and accounts receivable etc. Some of the typical examples of these kinds of applications are Sales Force Automation and Field Service Automation. An organisation typically has to invest in devices, mobility middleware and substantial systems integration along with data contracts with a mobile operator.
Key considerations around enterprise mobility
Each IT manager in an organisation is faced with a challenge of how to implement enterprise mobility. Apart from internal time and budgetary constraints, the IT manager has to consider several factors. Some of these are listed below:
Device standardization – The industry is flooded with devices. These devices run various operating systems (Palm, Pocket PC, Symbian etc.). The rate at which new devices are introduced is also phenomenal as device manufactures are fighting each other for market share. Also device is quite a personal issue too – people have their own preferences for devices. All these factors make the choice a difficult one. The commonsense approach would be to implement a solution, which can support as large a spectrum of devices as possible – however this must be balanced with the costs involved. Also bear in mind that an application, which works on several devices, is also very expensive to maintain.
Network type and coverage – In any country multiple networks with different standards co-exist – e.g. in India both CDMA and GSM are popular. In addition there is a choice of GPRS, Edge, HSCSD etc. for the connectivity options. Please remember that the application must not only support important protocols but also should be resilient to fail over if the coverage is not adequate. For example if a GPRS connection does not exist, the transaction could be completed over GSM at a lower speed of 9600 bps.
Security – IT managers view wireless network prone to security breaches. One must take a holistic view on authentication, encryption, non-repudiation and data integrity.
Systems integration – Enterprise mobility cannot be achieved in isolation. Typically the backend corporate applications need to integrate seamlessly with some kind of mobility middleware – this poses complex challenges specially if the backend is a legacy application.
ASP model vs. Enterprise hosting – The IT manager must also choose on a model of the deployment. It is possible to procure an enterprise mobility solution that is hosted by the solution provider – in such a deployment – only connectors are provided to the backend. It is the responsibility of the solution vendor to maintain the platform. The other approach could be to deploy the solution on own servers. This approach has benefits of security and control, however it offers greater challenges in ongoing maintenance.
Multiple applications – The selected enterprise mobility solution should allow for multiple applications to co-exist on the same platform. It is possible the organisation starts with sales force automation and at a later date may want to deploy a mobility solution for the field service engineers.
Business process change – The enterprise mobility solution must be capable of supporting change in business processes without a need to redesign and re-program the applications.
Costs – The IT manager must not only look at capital expenditure involved in procuring and deploying enterprise mobility but also should be mindful of operating costs like network costs, hosting charges, device maintenance etc.
Vendor experience – If a 3rd party is involved in the mobility solution, the IT manager must look at the vendor experience in providing similar solutions. An important item to look for could be systems integration expertise of the vendor.
Deploying enterprise mobility solution is becoming a necessity for the corporations. If a right solution is chosen and the deployment strategy is carefully selected, the possible return on investment could justify such a roll out and provide significant competitive advantage to the corporation.