Tech Watch: Mobilising the troops

Field staff at facilities maintenance company, Hirotec, took some convincing when asked to rely on mobile technology to do repair and service calls.

Just ask Hirotec director, Paul Sicari, who hooked up 80-plus field staff to a mobile service feature within Pronto’s ERP technology on PDA devices. He’ll tell you the biggest headache initially was dealing with the “unwilling” human factor.

“The biggest challenge for us, without a doubt, was culture shock. We work in an industry that really was used to paper, particularly the trade guys,” Sicari said.

Headquartered in Sydney, with branch offices in Melbourne, Canberra and regional Victoria, Hirotec is a facilities maintenance company that manages the assets of various locations including Sydney’s Olympic Park, Sydney Airport, Canberra Stadium and Wollongong University.

“I was very mindful of the culture shock element, so we had a strong training program leading up to the change, and we ensured we ironed out as many of the bugs as possible to eliminate frustration from the guys in the field,” Sicari said.

Getting mindshare

Stories like Hirotec aren’t unique. Mobilising the workforce to increase operational efficiencies and worker productivity, monitor business activity, track assets and grow profit doesn’t come without a unique set of challenges. And it’s not just the hardware, software and connectivity pieces of the puzzle that require good old-fashioned elbow grease. Mobile computing is a complex mix of devices, applications, connectivity and support.

Despite the initial kicking and screaming, Hirotec’s Sicari said the benefits of going mobile far outweighed the negatives and he could now identify mobility as a critical feature of the company’s IT operations. Listing two top benefits, he said he reduced the time for field staff to complete a service call by at least 15 per cent, and eliminated inefficiencies and errors as job details are now automatically captured in the PDA device and loaded back into the ERP system. “We’ve taken the massive amounts of field paperwork away. The mobile solution enables job information to be directly accessible to field staff in real-time,” Sicari said. “It has allowed us to improve the level of information flow from the technicians in the field, and return to office in a timely fashion. The funny thing is, we have come full circle: If we took a PDA away from a field technician now, they’d be super mad.”

In addition to beefing up new hardware devices, Sicari said its next phase of mobility was to take information and utilise it more effectively. “We’re moving into the business intelligence side of things. We’re taking information from the field and slicing and dicing it. Our large education clients, for example, see us as an extension of their facilities,” he said. “We use our field staff to capture information and feed it back into our system.”

Catching the second wave

While we’re witnessing a “growing up of mobility” thanks to improved hardware, software advancements and a growing number of applications, IDC telecommunications program manager analyst, David Cannon, said such solutions were still most popular in transport and logistics, utilities, property management, retail and warehousing.

In the enterprise, mobility was still finding its feet, Cannon said. There are a number of market inhibitors, the biggest being the lack of development of core enterprise applications on mobile platforms. Other top challenges include security risk, use policies, manageability and governance.

“There’s hype around Wave 2.0 applications in terms of enterprise mobility, but we’re not there yet,” Cannon said. “Wave 1.0 is all about voice and email. Wave 2.0 is the extension of core applications like CRM and ERP. “People tell you the market is well on its way, but there’s little extension of core enterprise applications, or there’s a lack of ability to interface with core enterprise systems remotely. There are lots of software developers creating mobile plug-ins, but not much in the way of core applications being extended out to a mobile platform.” But there’s light at the end of the tunnel, as recent product developments are having a positive impact on the market, Cannon said. He highlighted recent Sybase’s Mobile Application Platform technology as an example of enabling enterprise mobility.

“Enterprise mobility is not taking off because the apps need to be built for multiple OS environments. The ecosystem from a developer perspective is too difficult to deal with,” he claimed. “Sybase has addressed that issue and built an OS-agnostic platform, which deals with the reality of multi-vendor environments in business.”

Indeed, a major stumbling block in building applications for the mobile market is dealing with the multi-vendor/multi-OS environments in every enterprise and the diverse mix of hardware devices that people rely on. This is proving a growing headache for the IT department.

Alleviating some of the angst, Cannon said the Sybase Unwired Platform (SUP) mobile enterprise application platform enables enterprise developers to simply and quickly build applications that connect business data to mobile workers on any device, anytime.

“Companies that might have 2-3 mobile apps have traditionally focused on them as silo implementations. But now you can implement a single communication path out onto multiple applications so you don’t have to set up six servers,” he claimed. “It’s the way of the future. Sybase is ahead of the game and everyone needs to keep their eye on it; jump on-board before it becomes a mainstay.”

Hot and sexy apps

While not considered sexy, mobile email remains the killer application despite the focus on applications development, Cannon said. “People will take mobile email for granted because it has been around for 10 years, but the price has come down and it’s readily accepted by a huge employee base – to the point where businesses are quick to offer the ability to employees,” he said.

Crunching the numbers, Cannon said mobile email was still growing at a whopping 30 per cent year-on-year.

“For a product around for 10 years, that’s a strong growth rate. That has to be the first step in any enterprise mobility strategy for business,” he said.

Certainly, there’s a growing requirement for applications to be ported to anything – from smartphones to BlackBerry devices to iPhones and ruggedised gear, tablets and the swish new iPad. Personal and business usage is becoming blurred, which will ultimately drive the enterprise market, Cannon said.

IBM local lead for portal and emerging technology Lotus Software, Michael Handes, agreed a hot trend in mobility was the mix of personal and business usage. This was propelled by the recent iPhone and iPad frenzy.

“There’s a blending of what I do in my personal life and how I use mobility in a business context. It is becoming one in the same thing," Handes explained. "We’re seeing an opportunity for resellers and ISVs across every industry, and not just in enterprise. There’s a tremendous opportunity for mobile solutions into the mid-market.”

Given the popularity of devices like the iPhone and iPad, Handes said consumers were driving the uptake of mobility in the workplace. “These devices are in use and people are prepared to use them in their personal life and in their work life.”

Apple's mobile offering, for example, has over 200,000 applications available on the App Store and the majority of these are able to function on the iPod touch, iPhone and iPad. And while personal information management (email, calendar, contacts) on the latest range of hardware devices is the main mobile application, Handes said the next step was to leverage core systems.

He highlighted location determining capabilities and finding the right person across the mobile network as becoming attractive to the corporate space and labelled it Web 2.0 social software.

“There’s an opportunity for partners to develop applications that leverage key assets. One of the key capabilities is being able to find anyone in the organisation, and extend beyond that to find answers,” Handes said.

Application-aware applications that enhance social networks, banking and GPS-based services are also attractive applications, he said. “One area where we’re not there yet is a convergence between unified communications [UC] and mobility,” he said. “We have UC-capability from the desktop perspective – where we have presence functionality – but where this is going is on the mobile front and we need more development.”

Industry development group manager for Motorola Enterprise, mobility solutions, David Fenner, said ISVs should look to develop industry-specific applications and differentiate by offering tailored apps across a host of verticals.

“We’re moving to more job-targeted, job-specific applications that are brought together as a portfolio,” he claimed. If catering to field mobility, for example, Fenner said hot applications included asset tracking, work order management, field sales and field service. In healthcare, popular applications ranged from medication administration to specimen tracking, inventory management and asset management.

Alongside industry-specific apps, RIM Asia-Pacific managing director, Adele Beachley, said there are “cross-over opportunities” in the enterprise and consumer markets thanks to the growing reliance on smartphones and the advancements in security and scalability on devices.

IDC’s Cannon agreed and flagged the rollout of Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) Express as a good thing to happen in the SMB space.

“BlackBerry is alleviating some inhibitors in the SMB market by launching the BES Express solution, a licence-free product. Businesses can download the entry-level, basic version of the product and get mobile email, and calendar synching,” he pointed out. “It offers advanced security and technical features including connecting with PBX systems and voice over wireless LAN capability.

“Previously, you needed enterprise server software, which came at a price of $5000 or $6000. SMBs don’t cop that just to get mobile email. So the latest release enables SMBs to get basic mobility and get on-board wave one, mobility.”

Tags HirotecsmbSybase Unwired Platform

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