Arguments in favour of mobile working projects are often backed by headline-grabbing numbers. Vendors talk of employees saving one to two hours a day, or of adding thousands of pounds', dollars' or euros' worth of productivity.
The truth is that these claims can be hard to justify, in terms of hard figures and facts. One reason is that businesses may not be as disciplined when it comes to measuring the impact of projects as they are when it comes to justifying the initial budget.
Another reason is that much of the justification, especially as cited by vendors of horizontal solutions such as mobile email, centres around the benefits of winning – or the cost of losing – a single big deal which hinged on an executive's ability to access their email on the move.
It has happened. But in reality, only a very badly run company would leave a critical deal in the sole hands of an executive heading for the beach.
According to Tim Devine, head of telecoms at PA Consulting, the benefits to businesses lie more often in a quick response to more trivial matters.
Rather than being burdened with the need to handle routine email when they return to the office, executives use mobile working tools to keep on top of their inboxes on the move, freeing up time for more important tasks.
According to research house Ovum, access to email remains the most common application driving mobility projects among enterprises. Early feedback from companies deploying 3G data cards for laptop users shows that email, especially access to Microsoft Exchange mailboxes, is the most common reason for going online remotely.
Mobile email also explains the phen-omenal success among enterprises of the BlackBerry communications device, and it is the primary driver for the adoption of both smartphones and Internet-connected PDAs.
A study carried out by Ipsos Reid for Research in Motion, makers of the BlackBerry, found that users of the device saved on average 47 minutes a day, with their productivity increasing by 27%. Much of this came from removing bottlenecks in business processes, because staff could respond quickly to emails and make decisions on the move. Depending on the exact tariffs, BlackBerry users should expect their devices to pay for themselves in around 18 months, the company claims.
Other research supports these numbers: US research company Mobile Competency points out that even a 1% productivity improvement would produce savings of $800,000 for a 1,000-employee organisation. Capgemini reports productivity improvements of as much as 30% in some cases.
These high numbers, though, often derive from tightly integrated vertical applications rather than from horizontal applications such as email or web browsing, or from a generalised facility for staff to ‘get online on the move'. The Capgemini case above, for example, is based around deploying the Microsoft Windows Mobile platform to a field force, with access to specialist applications. A 30% productivity improvement from mobile email would be very impressive indeed.
This view is supported by business case analyses carried out in the UK by PA Consulting. The company, which has worked with a number of utilities as well as government departments and law enforcement agencies, has found that the benefits of mobile working are most readily demonstrated in tightly integrated, vertical applications. It may not even be essential to integrate these applications with other parts of the business network in order to derive the bulk of the benefits.
Field sales and services are areas of business that attracted much of the early investment in mobility, not least because it is relatively easy to quantify the benefits from greater staff productivity.
Utilities, transportation companies and organisations with significant numbers of field sales agents, making frequent visits to relatively small accounts, all cite benefits from automation.
Pepsi Bottling Group, for example, has equipped 6,000 field sales staff with mobile devices based on the Pocket PC operating system. The business has found that its ‘smart sales' application has driven significant volumes of additional business.
The potential for cost savings, primarily through cutting out the manual processing of documents, is driving the public sector to adopt mobile working projects. The social services department of the London borough of Sutton uses tablet PCs to record and assess care costs in clients' homes. The software allows officers to make immediate decisions, improving customer satisfaction as well as cutting the amount of paperwork processed back in the office. Similar results have been achieved by parking wardens (perhaps without the customer satisfaction). PA Consulting's Tim Devine divides mobile working projects into two groups: those that add mobility to existing business processes, and those where mobility enables an organisation to improve those processes.
In the first case — and this includes most mobile email deployments — the business benefits come primarily from a faster decision-making process, as managers have better communications with their offices, and with clients. A secondary, but no less important benefit, is freeing managers' time by enabling them to keep on top of their workload on the move. These scenarios, though, may not scale appropriately to enterprise-wide deployments.
Otherwise-enthusiastic CIOs criticise the BlackBerry for not always scaling well. In volume, it can be costly, driving its reputation as an executive ‘toy'.
The second case, though, means looking beyond the management team to areas of the business that might have little or no automation at all. It is these areas where mobility enables business process change, bringing the biggest benefits.
The example of the field service engineer remains a pertinent one: if staff can carry out more jobs per day due to better routing, immediate access to a CRM system and to technical data or stock levels, and spend less time back at the depot filling in forms, then the ROI will be impressive. Customer satisfaction will improve too.
Despite the developments of mobile working tools such as GPRS-equipped PDAs, 3G cards and BlackBerry handhelds, companies looking for a big ROI should look at routine applications first.