Take to the field

As early as the mid-1990s, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) software companies talked of their applications extending seamlessly beyond the office. The canonical example was of a salesman taking an order at a customer site. From his PDA, equipped with a thin version of the back office application and a wireless connection, he would check the inventory database to make sure the product was in stock; he would record the sale and send details back to the head office’s accounting software; and he would check the logistics database and let the customer know when the product would be delivered.

In the first generation of mobile applications that ERP and CRM vendors rolled out, that was pure fantasy. The networks were not capable of supporting such applications, the devices were still too expensive, the software itself was based on packages that had been architected almost exclusively for the back office and the level of functionality was way too ambitious.

A lot of rethinking – and a hard look at customers’ actual requirements and ambitions – has gone on since then. The business applications vendors have rebuilt – or are currently rebuilding – their mobile applications around a more targeted set of functions and an architecture that is much more mobile-centric.

But while they have been busy doing so, organisations which perceived how they could remove inefficiency and cost from their field operations by issuing staff with PDAs and laptops running mobile applications either tried to build their own solutions or have turned to one of the handful of specialist vendors that have leapt into the breach.

Companies such as ViryaNet, ClickSoftware, Dexterra and ServicePower have created applications for field service engineers, for mobile sales staff, for logistics workers – with stunning results.

All are small. Publicly listed ClickSoftware only had revenues of $15.7 million in 2002, and ViryaNet only chalked up $8.7 million. But their growth rates (61% and 75%, respectively) and the deals they have been winning with bluechip accounts suggest they have pitched the level of functionality and task specificity just right.

In recent months, both T-Mobile and Orange in the UK, for example, have signed up to use ViryaNet’s Service Hub to coordinate job scheduling and work reporting for the 200 plus engineers that both have on the road maintaining their mobile infrastructures.


In practice: Orange UK

Cell phone network operators might have been expected to have mobilised whole sections of their workforces years ago. But it is only in recent months that Orange, the UK’s largest mobile operator, has decided the technology is now mature enough to provide its 250 network infrastructure engineers with applications they can use in the field.

Working with implementation partner Aspective, the company intends to roll out a set of GPRS-based mobile applications from one of the emerging leaders in this software sector, ViryaNet. Engineers responsible for maintaining Orange’s network infrastructure, which includes more than 10,000 base stations scattered around the UK, will be fed work schedules and be able to link to office based planners from their HP Jornada PDAs.

That will cut out many of the previous manual processes whereby engineers had to telephone the service call centre to receive their work assignments and then deliver their reports and timesheets back to an Orange office.

“The solution will allow our engineers to spend more time working on the network and minimise the time spent driving and performing administrative tasks such as telephoning for information or co-ordinating resources,” says Roger Nichols, head of area operations at Orange UK.

The data fed from the field will also enable Orange to analyse and improve working practices.

The ViryaNet Service Hub system allocates planned and unplanned requests to the most appropriate engineer, taking into account their location, the priority of the job and the equipment needed to complete it.

Jobs are reviewed automatically by engineers on their GPRS-enabled PDAs together with all the information they may need to complete the task, including priority, fault detail, travel directions, site access, health and safety checks and site history.

Engineers then provide status and completion reports back to planners in real-time or – if they are outside of GPRS coverage – when their PDA synchs again with the network.

Orange says that one of the key drivers was a need to streamline processes as it builds up to the widespread roll out of 3G high-speed data services.

Evaluation criteria included: functionality, proven ‘fit for purpose’, technical architecture, and confidence in the supplier’s ability to deliver. On that last point, Orange rival T-Mobile has also adopted the ViryaNet package for use by its service engineers in the UK.

Similarly, London Electricity has equipped its meter reading staff with scheduling software from ClickSoftware, running on Nokia smartphones.

While that suggests that momentum is building, many organisations still need to be convinced of the business case. “People are quite cautious,” says Keith New, VP of m-business professional services and operations at business applications service provider Aspective. “They want to really investigate before taking the plunge.

“This is still the early stage of the market for these specialist solutions and there is still not the sense of ‘everybody else has done this, I’d better get on the bandwagon,” says New.

But the key areas of interest for early adopters are certainly firming up. A recent survey by QNB Intelligence, found that priorities for applications fall into two groups. The business case is still strongest for rolling out mobile office functions to senior and middle managers. Almost 20% of those organisations surveyed said there was a compelling business case for mobile office applications.

But the other next three priorities – sales force automation (SFA), field service support and logistics and transportation – involve the delivery of mobile applications to employees who spend the bulk of their time outside of the office. Between 5% and 10% of those surveyed said there was a compelling case for those mobile applications, but in the case of SFA and field service, between 30% and 40% said that the case was ‘quite strong’.

That case is now being supported by the business applications vendors with greater understanding of requirements – even if many have still to deliver solid mobile applications products.

Aspective’s New says that many organisations thought it would be possible to mobile-enable existing office applications in areas such as ERP and CRM, but this proved more difficult than expected. “These systems were never designed to be used in the field,” he says. “Simply connecting them to mobile networks doesn’t work.” Instead, applications have to be developed with mobility built-in from the start.

Another reason why mobile data services have taken longer than expected to take off in the enterprise sector has been opposition from IT management. Many are reluctant to roll out such devices for fear that they will cause disruption and/or security problems on the existing network.

That conservatism is understandable, says New. “The IT manager already has enough problems with the existing network,” he says. “He wants this like he wants a hole in the head. That’s why we always try to sell to the service director or the finance director who wants to reduce the bottom line.”

However, all the pieces are now in place for wider adoption. While no-one is suggesting organisations should opt for the functionality levels of the early visionaries, the momentum is now there for mobile applications to become a common feature of many businesses with a dispersed workforce.

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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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