Lessons in agile working across the organisation

For more than two decades, business technologies have been focused largely on automating the tasks of the office-bound worker. Over the current decade, however, that emphasis will change radically, as new applications and devices increasingly support business processes that extend beyond those four walls, relegating the notion of a fixed location for all work to history.

The business benefits that are driving that are already clear to most organisations – greater productivity, closer customer relationships, dynamic partnerships, and so on. But the task of achieving those levels of flexible, agile working across the organisation still look formidable.

Luckily, there are plenty of early lessons from companies that have begun to mobilise sections of their workforce. Many have enabled sales staff to take orders and check availability from the field, service engineers to manage their schedules and order parts online, dispersed workers to collaborate on projects from any location, and employees to work from home. Most of these have been on a limited scale but herald the roll-out of mobile working to a much wider audience.

The requirement is certainly becoming obvious to senior management. In fact, executives used to PDAs, laptops and mobile phones are already asking IT and communications infrastructure managers why that shift to agile working is not happening at a faster pace.

The chief reason is that there is no single, unified technology that addresses the new requirements. Rather, scores of different technologies and services have emerged to support the workforce. Intranets, web-enabled business applications, virtual private networks, employee portals, collaboration software, video conferencing systems, software distribution and synchronisation technologies, PDAs, laptops and mobile phones are all part of the mix.

That is reflected in the diversity of the early projects. “Enterprises with remote and mobile users have multiple requirements and needs to help make connecting these employees to corporate networks as easy and efficient as possible,” says IT industry research company IDC. This involves establishing ‘reach’ (can employees access the corporate network in a low-cost way from wherever they are?); security (can they do so securely?); end-to-end management (can they their work and the systems they need be managed remotely?); billing (how can the costs they incur be accounted for?).

These are just some of the issues that are evident in a cross-section of early adopters:

The AA: Virtual call centres

With 20,000 calls flooding in each day, the Automobile Association (AA) is as reliant on the efficiency of its customer contact centres as it is on its repair patrols. But keeping quality staff within those call centres is always an issue. To add flexibility to their working options, to address the wait-time experienced by customers, especially during peak periods, and to cut overheads, the company decided to install ‘virtual’ call centre facilities so staff could respond to customers from their home offices.

To tackle the project, the AA commissioned communications and IT services giant BT to create a hardware, telecoms and software package. That was built around a Nortel Passport System installed in each agent’s home and connected through a leased line. The benefits have been substantial. The AA estimates that productivity rose by 34% on average; staff turnover, running at 30% in traditional call centres, fell to 10% for the home-based workers. Perhaps most dramatically, the company was able to close a 70-seat call centre. “We can [now] be more flexible with our response,” says Keith Stephens, project manager at the AA. “The benefits that are coming from the project are aggressive.”

Wesertal GmbH: Service management

“We urgently had to get hold of a mobile solution.” As CIO of German power supply service company Wesertal GmbH, Burkhard Menzel, realised in 2001 that his company could achieve massive efficiency gains from the introduction of a mobile extension to the company’s SAP-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Its 100 field technicians, who generate 15,000 work orders a year servicing the equipment and installations of electricity, gas and water companies, had been living in the paper-based age. At the beginning of each day engineers would drive to one of seven service centres to pick up printed work schedules; at the other end of the day they would return to drop off hand-written, detailed reports of their hours, mileage, and work performed for inputting into the ERP plant maintenance module.

To address the problem, Menzel added SAP’s Mobile Engine software and provided technicians with customised PDAs, equipped with wireless communications, from Symbol Technologies – a roll-out that was completed in three months. The SAP mobile module synchronises and replicates data between the device and back-office systems, encrypting the wireless data transfer when necessary. Each morning the engineers link wirelessly to the SAP systems using a standard Internet browser over a GSM modem connection, downloading the day’s assignments electronically as HTML pages. “We have been searching for this type of technology for three years,” says Menzel. “[We needed] a mobile solution that could work online as well as offline because of [the terrain in which engineers operate they often] cannot maintain a constant online connection.”

Having performed a detailed return-on-investment analysis, Menzel reckons the system will pay for itself within two years. The next stage is to allow technicians to record information on the materials they use during a service visit, something that may require adding barcode reading capabilities to the handheld device. But for the engineers and the data input staff at Wesertal, the system has already proved its value.

Direction Fire: Office applications access

Like many organisations, fire alarm and extinguisher supplier Direction Fire is working on a long-term wireless adoption strategy. Its initial foray may seem simple but it has been highly effective. Using Zetalink software from business communications specialist Equisys, mobile employees at the UK-based company can now get access to the functions of their Microsoft Outlook and Exchange office applications through their mobile phones. That allows them to get access to their mail, task lists, personal calendars and contacts database while away from the office. Robert Frost, a director at the company, says the 15 sales and service engineers can now provide a more flexible and responsive service to clients while on the road. As support for further applications is delivered, employees will be able to access these using Internet-enabled PDAs as well as phone handsets.

Surrey County Council: Flexible working

As one of the UK’s largest local authorities, Surrey County Council has been implementing ways to reduce overheads while offering its staff greater flexibility in their working practices. As a modest start, it set a target of moving to an overall ratio of four workstations to every five of its 3,400 staff who currently have individual workstations. This was achieved through the introduction of hot-desking, telecentres and flexible work hours, and by enabling every PC so it could provide access to applications from any point. “By allowing people to drop into any Council building, turn on a PC, and yet still be able to access personal records or service systems, the Council is revolutionising the way in which its staff work,” says Naomi Grove, communications manager.

Arbill: Wired field salesforce

“A 50% increase in sales visits.” That sounds like wishful thinking to most commercial companies, but industrial safety products vendor Arbill, says it saw that leap in efficiency following the implementation of a real-time information sharing system for its field salesforce. After years of relying on a simple contact management application, Philadelphia, US-based Arbill decided it needed to give its field force much more accurate and up-to-the minute access to the sales database – and that web-enabled mobile phone access was the most efficient way to achieve that.

The company selected SalesLogix for WebPhones, the mobile version of Sage Group’s customer relationship management system, deploying the sales application to telesales, field sales, customer service marketing employees, and the sales management team, enabling them to track contacts, leads, buying patterns and marketing opportunities. Wireless access to the SalesLogix database is a major boost to efficiency, says Joe Murphy, CIO at Arbill: “By checking his or her cell phone, a field sales rep can know everything they need for an appointment: account history, what products to bring, who to meet. After the meeting the rep uses the phone to tell the SalesLogix database that the activity has been completed, sending confirmation back to the inside rep who scheduled it.” Importantly, reps with customers who cancel appointments can now check to see what other customers or prospects are [located] nearby. Rather than making four or five calls per day field reps are now making an average of six to eight. “We’re managing our growing sales territories without additional staff,” says Murphy.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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