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Issue of November 2006 

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The next phase in enterprise automation

Gopal Srinivasan, Telecom Consultant, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Technology Advisory practice, on the advantages of mobility solutions.

The first step that companies take towards enterprise IT automation is typically to put a system in place to manage their financials. Subsequently, several systems emerge in different business areas as the need for information and the appreciation of IT systems grow. The next stage is when companies seek to integrate the various disjointed systems that have been deployed into a single enterprise-wide system so that the end-to-end information flow becomes seamless. As ERP systems become pervasive across the corporate landscape, companies are now standing on the edge of the next phase in the evolution of enterprise automation. If the first stage was all about ensuring that critical data was captured, processed and stored, the next stage is about ensuring how that information can be made available anywhere, anytime so that employees are empowered to take critical decisions that are expected of them, faster than ever before. The way to do that is to adopt mobility solutions.

Anywhere, anytime information

Mobility solutions enable the right people to access the appropriate corporate information on an anywhere-anytime basis in a seamless and secure manner. By making information available at one’s fingertips, it can be ensured that employees are never found wanting for data while making a critical decision. Similarly, mobility applications can also be used to capture information from the field that is otherwise lost, delayed or captured erroneously.

Mobility once used to mean the use of notebooks. Despite their wide acceptance, notebook PCs have several limitations—they are cumbersome to carry around, expensive, need a data connection and have a low battery life. The arrival of powerful handheld devices such as PDAs and smartphones as well as increasingly pervasive access technologies—cellular networks and Wi-Fi—have given a new lease of life to mobility applications. E-mail is the first application that has been taken mobile in most enterprises. By equipping senior management with BlackBerry and other handheld devices with push e-mail technology, IT departments have ensured that these worthies have uninterrupted access to information, even if it’s in an unstructured form like e-mail.

It’s not just senior management, but even the middle and junior level workforce can benefit in an organisation that leverages mobility solutions to ensure higher levels of productivity and efficiency.

The key drivers

The key drivers of mobility solutions are

  • Increased productivity by means of anytime, anywhere access to corporate information, reduced cycle time of processes and no “Wait until I’m back in office” issues.
  • Increased quality of information capture thanks to the decreased time of information capture, reduction in data journey inefficiencies and fewer inaccuracies in information capture.
  • Enhanced customer orientation because of the ability to serve customer better and faster turnaround time for customer requests.
  • Reduced costs, increased revenues are a direct result of better conversion of business opportunities and increased self-service.

Mobility applications can range a variety of functionalities like Sales Force Automation, Customer Relationship Management, Logistics Tracking and Planning, Enterprise Management, Performance Tracking, Corporate Intranet Access, Personal Information Management Solutions, Push Alerts and many more. These applications can be as simple as using SMS-based querying for information or as powerful as full-fledged applications running on smartphones.

The solution types include SMS-based querying and services, mobile workflows, reporting (field visit reports, order entry or data reporting), survey forms and online information access (with online access or offline access with periodic synchronisation).

Deploying solutions

Before an enterprise can rush headlong into rolling out mobility solutions, it needs to consider several parameters. The following considerations are critical.

Information criticality

The organisation needs to make an assessment of which of its business processes have a critical need for information or is a source of valuable data but occurs in an environment where access to conventional devices such as PCs is limited. A good example is the sales function where field staff needs the latest and accurate information but has limited access to the corporate IT network.

Nature of application

Based on an evaluation of its own business context as well as the kind of investment it is prepared to make and the RoI thereof, the organisation has to decide what form the applications will take. In certain cases, plain SMS-based querying might suffice which means the application can ride on the existing mobile phone infrastructure that most of the staff is already equipped with. However, if the volume of information to be looked up or entered is fairly substantial, complexity and ease of use considerations will dictate that PDA or smartphone-based applications might need to be deployed.

Mode of access

Mobility applications might promise tremendous amounts of flexibility and freedom but can often be rendered ineffectual if access considerations have been ignored in their design. An application that needs constant access to the back-end network would be of little use if it is being used in areas with patchy network coverage. Therefore, it is important to factor in the mode of access while deciding on the form of applications. Applications that can sync data when connectivity is available (wireless or wired) and work in offline mode when no connectivity is available would ensure that the user has some information to work with at all times, even when the wireless network is inaccessible or down.

User expectations

It is important to factor in end-user requirements and pain-points when rolling out a mobility solution. If the application demands excessive data entry then the user would rather not use it since the form factor of a handheld device does not lend itself to easy entry of data. Ensuring that the end-user’s convenience is top-of-the-mind in the design of the applications will go a long way in ensuring their success.

Security concerns

One of the key issues that CIOs are concerned about when mobility applications are rolled out is security. Lay out a clear security and usage policy for devices. Both devices as well as applications need to have password-based access control. This ensures that, in the event of loss or theft of the device, no unauthorised user can access sensitive corporate data. Provide role-based access to information and encrypt all sensitive data. Anti-virus and firewall software need to be installed on the device. Establish and implement centralised corporate security policies. Updates and patches can be periodically pushed to the devices to ensure they remain up-to-date.

Once these aspects have been given due consideration and the enterprise feels its ready to move ahead, it should identify one critical business process which meets the above considerations and carry out a controlled pilot launch. The outcome of the pilot launch must be assessed to understand if it yielded the desired benefits and only then should a full-fledged roll-out be considered.

As handheld devices continue to get less expensive, more powerful, have larger and crisper displays and connectivity gets ubiquitous, there is no gainsaying that mobility solutions are here to stay and will play a critical role in enhancing the productivity and efficiency of enterprises by increasing data accessibility, streamlining information flow and reducing costs.

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