Stay connected with your world

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This article appeared in the 29 September, 2008 issue of CRN magazine.

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Stay connected with your world
Remember when a whitegoods or electronics technician would turn up, gut your dishwasher, television etc, spend ages flipping through the manual trying to work out what was wrong with it then disappeared to get parts?
A few days (or weeks) later he would call you up to tell you how much it was going to cost to do the work and how long before the parts came in.

Sometime after that he’d turn up to do the actual work and then at some stage after that you would get the invoice.
This process was long and drawn out for both you and the company employing the service technician.

Things are a lot different now, as IBRS Research advisor, Dr Kevin McIsaac, discovered when his dishwasher broke down.

“A Fisher & Paykel technician turns up and he’s got this ruggedised Symbol Technologies handheld device with a barcode reader, GPS and printer.
When he started work his 12 jobs for the day were listed on the screen, he opens up the next job as he completes each one and the GPS navigates him door to door.

“When an appliance throws up errors he doesn’t recognise he punches the error codes into the device and it looks up in the manual what the problem is.

The same device is then used to calculate the cost to fix the machine.
When he’s done the work the technician presses a button, prints the invoice on the spot which he gives the customer to sign.

Then he swipes the customer’s credit card through a reader to bill the customer and the device prints out a receipt for signature. Once all that’s done he packs up and heads off to his next job.”

It is this compression of business processes that more than anything else is the business case for wireless data, said McIsaac.

“Everything was done on the spot.
There was no going away and coming back, the technician did the job, billed the job and was paid for the job so they’ve collapsed the whole process down to minutes and hours rather than days and weeks.

If everything is integrated properly, head office even knows what parts have been taken out of the van, the job has been billed and done and the technician is on to the next one.”

While McIsaac’s experience with the Fisher & Paykel technician represents one of the more cutting-edge applications of wireless technology, more and more organisations are looking to cut loose from the blue cable in a variety of different ways.

Sybase Australia mobility director, Guy Maroney, believes that the increasingly robust take up of wireless is being driven by a combination of factors.

“There’s the investment carriers, devices have matured and people have become more comfortable with the technology on a handheld device instead of a laptop.
A lot of early adopters might have been let down by the network or endpoint device, but devices are now far more stable and manufacturers are putting a lot more effort into making them stable etc.”

And it’s not just 3G wireless broadband either.

Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) is almost totally pervasive in the home, with electronics retailers bundling wireless access points with laptops.

It is also quickly spreading into corporate Australia as well.
In the case of mobile email, calendaring and contacts (known as communications mobility) the flow is the other way.

Large enterprises have increasingly adopted ‘push’ email devices such as the RIM BlackBerry over the past few years and now consumers are starting to switch on to the idea of being able to be always online.

The increasing popularity of wireless offers huge opportunities for systems integrators and resellers but it is critical, however, to understand that it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Field force mobility and automation is completely different from white collar communications mobility.

Wi-Fi is different yet again, with different drivers and challenges to wirelessly enable a warehouse compared to an office environment.

“There are a couple of things going on [under the overall banner of wireless], said Gartner research director, Robin Simpson.

“If you’re talking about couriers, meter readers, technicians, businesses which employ people like that; wireless has become necessary to improve speed and quality of service to customers or to provide the advantage of accessing or collecting the data you need on the spot.

There’s a different driver for that side of things and there’s been a lot of advances in building Wi-Fi and 3G into the devices which has helped enable this to happen, but it’s really only become practical for business because of the ubiquity of the public wireless network.”

For businesses, field force automation is completely driven by the search for productivity improvements or improving business processes through real-time access to information.

“It’s a bit of an arms race,” said Simpson.

“Once one of your competitors goes wireless they’ve got a real competitive advantage and if you don’t follow you’re in trouble. An additional driver is that customer satisfaction is often measured through response times. Data accuracy comes into play, but a lot of it is about how quickly you can respond, get the information or complete the business process that the customer is paying for.”

Ruggedised computer distributor AvanTEC’s general manager, Dave Cawsey, agrees with McIsaac and Simpson that there is a lot happening in the field force mobility and automation area.

“We’ve seen real growth and interest both from customers and our partners in field service where you have mobile engineers being dispatched from A to B, linking in with the back office to collect data and feed it back. Our products are a portal, an entry and exit point for the back office
and back to the mobile user.”

Cawsey also believes that ruggedised endpoints are going to become increasingly popular in the field force mobility area.

“The efficiency of a mobile worker is down to the availability of that system and ruggedness gives you that extra reliability and availability. If a tech can’t use the laptop, they can’t access the network or company database and their efficiency goes down. Ruggedised laptops aren’t indestructible, but they’re designed to be able to withstand the knocks and bumps that units get going in and out of vehicles and being dropped. The price will keep coming down, as will the size and weight, which will make them increasingly attractive to organisations looking for extra reliability.”

While endpoints such as AvanTEC’s ruggedised units are important, in his Management Briefing Paper: Lowering the Risks of Going Mobile (October 2006) Dr McIsaac argues that a mobility project needs to be treated the same way as an ERP or CRM project.

“To reduce risk and control costs, IT organisations should adopt four of the best practices learnt from enterprise application implementations over the past 15 years:

1. Identify a core business process to be reengineered, using mobility to enforce and optimise the delivery. The expected business benefits, and the key process metrics that will drive these benefits, must be identified in a business case. Doing so enables them
to be used post implementation to compare before
and after situations and the extent of the benefits.

2. Identify and engage a senior stakeholder from the business unit that owns the processes. That person must be held responsible by the company for realising the benefits defined in the business case. The stakeholder’s performance plan (i.e. review, advancement and remuneration) should be tied to the key process metrics and the realisation of the benefits.

3. Implement cultural change management processes for the staff impacted by the workplace changes. The performance plan of key members of staff should be linked to improvements in the key business process metrics identified in the business case.

4. Rather than deliver the changes as a big-bang, define a program of work using a series of small projects that each deliver working systems and real benefits in less than six months.

Using this methodology, there is as much intellectual property around business process alignment and optimisation, plus the field service software and how it integrates with the backend of the company’s billing systems, dispatch and warehouse, as there is hardware technology.

This is where an appropriately skilled systems integrator can make all the difference, said Dr McIsaac.

“A good SI on the field side is an expert in a domain so instead of being a box shifter, ‘here’s the latest Windows Mobile 6.0 device, what’s your problem’, it becomes :‘I’m an expert in making service technicians more effective and here’s my solution and I don’t care whether you run Windows Mobile 6.0 or something else as long as it can run this application’.”

One problem SIs and customers face with these sorts of project is that it is very hard to come up with an ROI, argues Dr McIsaac.

“It’s easier with a field force application; how many more customers have been serviced, how much shorter is the cash flow cycle etc. You actually have some real things that return some real value whereas with communications mobility projects you end up with assumption on top of assumption to come up with an ROI that is actually fictitious. But while field force mobility projects tend be driven by a solid business case, on the communications/collaboration side there’s often no business case beyond the sales manager or the general manager saying all my mates have got BlackBerrys I want one, too.”

This approach obviously has its dangers warns IBRS’s Joseph Sweeney in his Management Briefing Paper PED Antics part 1: The broken promise (October 2008); especially when it involves users accessing corporate systems using a multitude of personal devices.

“The promise of PEDs (Portable Electronic Devices) are that they can create a more immediate and intimate connection between users and extend employee productivity,” said Sweeney.

“This is a common misconception and one the IT industry makes consistently, confusing duration with productivity. For business, this means that staff will be more readily accessible both within and outside of regular working hours. This is particularly significant in Australia, which has the highest rates of unpaid overtime and ‘day extender’ workers of any of the modern economies.

“However, when one examines how the majority of staff-procured PEDs are actually used, it becomes clear that the above promises are unlikely to be met for the following reasons:

• Information isolation: when using PEDs outside of the office environment, staff will generally not have full access to company records. This leads to gaps in the information required for accurate decision-making and client servicing.

• Process termination: email has become a major form of process enablement within organisations. Email on the desktop frequently leads to follow-up activities, often with file attachments and distribution to multiple individuals. Email is also generated as an integral part of many workflow solutions. However, when staff receive emails via PEDs, there is a tendency to read and take no immediate action or, worse, take no follow-up action as the email has already been marked as “read.” This can lead to the premature termination of work processes.

• Response quality: when emails do get answered via PEDs, the quality of response is often far lower than would be normally given. For example, requests for information may be met with overly simply or brief responses (i.e. “Yes, no, will talk later.”) which may cause confusion or service dissatisfaction. This is exacerbated by information isolation.

• Data integrity: PEDs frequently possess input methods that favour spelling and typographic errors. When using such PEDs, it is common for information captured to be of low quality and when this data is transmitted back to the corporate network, this leads to increasingly poor quality of data. For example, a salesperson may enter or update a contact record on their PDA with a typographic error in a prospect’s name which in turn replicates back to the corporate sales system.

• The immediacy fallacy: while some staff may respond immediately to requests outside of office hours, the more common practice observed is for staff to vet work messages and only act fully upon the more frivolous or personal. Put simply, once outside of work hours, staff are increasingly shelving work responses for regular work hours or commuting times. This is not just a matter of resisting unpaid overtime, but a realisation of the limitations of PEDs with regards to information isolation and response quality.

As a result, Sweeney and Dr McIsaac believe that organisations should view such adhoc, “fashion-driven” PED use with a critical if not jaundiced eye.

While the communications mobility offered by such devices holds great promise when deployed for specific purposes with considered business cases, one can’t assume that providing the whole salesforce with a BlackBerry or similar device will automatically lead to greater productivity.
Nevertheless, Sigtec business development manager, Lennie White, is seeing a lot of growth in both interest and implementation of both communications and field force mobility.

And while the way the mobility market is structured can be a major inhibitor for customers, it offers a great business opportunity for system integrators.

“All telcos want to sell time on their network. They’re struggling to understand mobile data from a business perspective so when you talk to them about data they’re focused on TV over mobile phone, email, web browsing etc. They’re not interested in helping resellers develop field force automation where you’re giving them jobs, printing locally, doing stock control and inventory. When you’re talking to a telco they want to sell you the PDA, the data time and the SIM card obviously.

“All telcos have their mobility teams that are there to understand and try and help you and they onsell field force automation solutions that will work on a PDA but whether the account exec you’re talking understands anything is a different question. They’re probably being paid on how many SIM cards they’re selling. Some people do have the knowledge but trying to find the right person in a large organisation such as a telco can be really difficult – even getting a SIM card programmed so that it’s data only can be a real challenge. Which is why you need to have an SI in the middle, someone who knows how to do all that.”

Another inhibitor can be cost, although not everyone agrees on how much of an issue cost is following some major price reductions in both carrier data and device costs.

Tamworth-based SI Clearview IT owner and principal consultant, Andrew Daws, argues that the cost of mobile data plans is still a major inhibitor for smaller organisations.

“Most SMBs are steering clear of 3G because they’re not prepared to pay for it. If they are using it, it’s mainly for travelling but currently it’s ridiculously overpriced. The networks the telcos have built aren’t voice networks, they’re IP networks and the prices we pay for is more than anywhere else in the world. They’ve released some more competitive pricing but you really need to be medium in SME to be able justify it.”

As to other inhibitors, Daw agrees with White that there are some major issues with the way telcos work with SIs and customers.

“The other thing with 3G and NextG is that the people selling it don’t know anything about it. They’re just interested in selling the product and no-one has any idea how to make it work with your applications etc. The telcos are making a big deal of it but the salespeople don’t know how to service, troubleshoot it and set it up.”

When it comes to Wi-Fi the picture is quite different.

Despite increasing takeup of the wireless broadband offerings of Telstra, Vodafone, Optus and 3, for most consumers wireless still means Wi-Fi and according to Gartner’s Simpson the spread of Wi-Fi in the home is having an unprecedented impact on corporate Australia.

“In the consumer area it’s all about convenience, being able to access the Internet anywhere in the house and being able to connect devices such as media centres, printers, backup disks etc. without using Ethernet. When consumers go mobile they expect the same sort of access so smartphones increasingly have Wi-Fi and 3G built in.

“The interesting thing is that consumers experience this wonderful connectivity – Wi-Fi at home, 3G data access on their smartphones – so when they come to work they start to demand the same sort of access from the business. So businesses are under a lot of pressure to put Wi-Fi around the building and to buy laptops with 3G built in so consumers can have the same experience when they’re working as they have at home. A lot of knowledge workers actually have better IT infrastructure at home than they do at work and with the introduction of 802.11n then the arguments of fixed infrastructure is faster go away. Fixed will always be faster but when wireless is giving you 100-200Mbps and you’re just downloading email, working with Word, Excel etc. you don’t really need it to be any faster.”

HP ProCurve’s Fotios Kotsiopolous agrees with Simpson’s observations about wireless adoption by the enterprise and adds that it provides some challenges for IT staff.

“A number of years ago Wi-Fi was an optional way of providing access to the network. With the advent of WPA2 we no longer see Wi-Fi as an unsecure medium so it’s no longer just nice to have. Wi-Fi is an essential way of accessing a network.

“Large wireless LANs (WLANs) are now routinely being sold to businesses, where in the past WLAN used to be just used for small sections of the business. These larger networks have led to businesses spending money on more fully automated management systems, that let them automatically manage large numbers of access points, and control who is able to access the combined Ethernet and WLAN network. One of the ways this is being done is by unifying wired and wireless controller so that the Wi-Fi is an extension of the existing network. This means that the access point is just a radio transmitter that broadcasts its SSID. All the other smarts such as security, user authentication etc. are back on the switch.”

One final area that provides opportunity for SIs whether customers are talking about 3G or Wi-Fi is that of security argues McIsaac.

“If organisations are going to move towards mobile devices, they’re going to have to have very robust identity and access management – who is that who just came in over the Internet, through my firewall and is asking to look at this stuff? Who are they really? Can I actually authenticate them, even if I can authenticate them robustly with some sort of certificate mechanism or whatever that works over an untrusted network, do I trust the client presenting those credentials, is it coming over a trusted access method such as a secured version of the open Internet? Maybe all those things are okay but I still may not give them the full role-based access that I do when they’re inside my firewall accessing the network from a locked-down desktop.”
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