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Overcoming the Fear of Wireless

Overcoming the Fear of Wireless

Confused about the time and cost involved in taking your enterprise wireless? Will it be worth it? The first step is to make a clear assessment. The next can lead to a spiraling return on investment...

Last year, the market fell victim to the wireless-hype tsunami. We were awash in the promises of the next wave of breakneck innovation and mobile commerce. X was projecting Y by 200Z. As quickly as it rose up, the hype came crashing down, and press and pundits were quick to point out that the beach was littered with the broken shells of rather ordinary cell phones and PDAs, and that we still had the same clogged, narrow pipes carrying our data around.

Lost in the thunderous hype and the crash back to earth were the emerging wireless enterprise applications that are quietly transforming business practices. Discerning enterprises have recognized that the right wireless steps can take them along the path to high ROI. This quiet revolution is being led by managers who have already grasped the answers to the basic questions: "Why wireless for my enterprise?" and "Why invest in wireless today?" The theoretical answer is that wireless applications are the tools to squeeze the next level of productivity from the significant investments in business automation already in place, and that a relatively incremental investment in wireless will yield disproportionate returns. The practical answer is that identifying the appropriate wireless applications and inserting them into business processes involving field force, sales force, suppliers, or customers will become a necessity to reduce costs and drive productivity to remain competitive. In the reality of a slower economic environment, the appropriate application of wireless technology will be the tool that smart businesses use to drive a wedge between themselves and competitors.

Enterprises that have looked into wireless applications may find the technology confusing and daunting: an ever-increasing diversity of mobile devices and shifting standards, with no shortage of companies claiming to have a platform panacea. However, as this article explores, technology complexity is not an excuse; the software to manage these complexities exists. The key challenge is the right application of the technology, one that goes beyond simple e-mail, to deliver significant ROI.

A Case Study
CDI Telecommunications, a division of CDI, Inc., a leader in technical workforce outsourcing for the telecommunications industry, provides an ideal example of how an enterprise identifies and solves a crucial business problem through wireless technology. During the height of the wireless-hype, my company, Aligo, approached Dick Gulsvig, Director of Human Resources at CDI Telecommunications, who had begun to consider how wireless technology might help his field force of telecommunications technicians. CDI Telecom had over 1,200 telecom specialists who provided field services to leading telecommunications providers. They install, maintain, and repair telco and end-customer telephone and data equipment.

Typical of many field forces, they had manual data collection processes that were error-prone and time-consuming. Every day began with technicians receiving their daily schedules at a central office. After each job, a technician had to manually fill out a paper time sheet indicating the customer information, travel time, on-site time, work completed, and other job details. The time sheets were collected from all the technicians and shipped to a data center where each sheet was double entered and cross-checked. Any sheets with discrepancies were sent back to the technician and supervisor for correction and confirmation. The final, fully corrected data was then used for finance and accounting purposes to bill clients and generate payroll for technicians.

The process was not ideal, requiring expensive data entry that resulted in long billing cycles and the multiple errors inherent in manual data input. Dick believed that a wireless application could solve many of these issues, help CDI deliver better service, and make employees happier through more accurate payroll information. He started down the road toward carefully evaluating the opportunity and challenges involved in implementing a wireless solution.

Assessing Benefits and Barriers
Businesses will naturally approach a wireless project with a certain degree of hesitation. Early offerings promised to copy and extend any e-business offering to the "wireless Web" through simple transcoding or XSL stylesheets. These companies grossly oversimplified the caliber of technology required to deliver a highly usable, reliable wireless enterprise application and provided little guidance as to which applications should be developed first. The result was many dissatisfied first-time users of wireless, frustrated by poor usability and applications that were easy to implement but did not deliver much value.

The idiosyncratic nature of the mobile environment requires that you spend some time assessing its benefits and unique challenges. To determine the benefits, you must first identify where wireless may have the greatest impact. You may be misguided if you plan on simply transferring all of your Internet and/or network logic and presentation layers to a cell phone or PDA. Most likely, you'll find that the best bottom line benefits can be had from a simpler, more targeted approach. After assessing the potential benefits, examining the challenges is largely a matter of determining whether there's a sufficient cost-effective technology. In assessing its own wireless strategy, CDI needed several critical questions answered and, in the process, learned that technology exists to manage all the challenges wireless presented.

Which Applications Are Highly Valuable and/or Mission-Critical?
The debate continues as to which applications best suit the mobile environment. Many of us have experience accessing corporate e-mail or contact information through some sort of handset. However, the value of this remains questionable if you have immediate access to the Internet through your desktop 99% of the time. To determine suitable applications for mobilization, we need to determine which elements of our enterprise require such access.

Wireless, at its core, is a tool to enable communication when more fixed forms are unavailable. Therefore, the first step is to target the mobile elements of your workforce, partners, and client base. For example, do you have management and sales professionals who travel frequently? Do you have technical professionals who spend large amounts of time moving from one client site to another? Are there partners or clients who require immediate notification regardless of time or place? Only when you've identified the mobile elements of your business strategy can you begin your mobilization project.

The next steps are to identify what information needs to be remotely sent, received, or recorded while away from the office, and to assess the value of mobilizing the data. As important (and this requires a bit of out-of-the-box thinking) is what additional information would be highly valuable if you could receive or send it wirelessly? Few ever imagined they would need to receive mobile e-mail, but almost everyone who began using it is hooked.

It may seem like common sense to do this basic assessment, but too many people still approach wireless-enablement as an all-or-nothing prospect. This can lead to two misleading assumptions. First, taking every back-end legacy application wireless will simply break the bank and prove too time-consuming, if not technologically unfeasible. Second, such a generalized project may give the evaluators involved the misperception that the current desktop/laptop access is adequate. If you fail to distinguish the mobile elements of the workforce from the more desk-tethered elements, this will undoubtedly seem true. How can you justify that every employee requires immediate access to e-mail, contacts, the sales database, or inventory levels? On the other hand, the comparative competitive advantage begins to crystallize when you consider the importance of the technical field force accessing the day's next dispatch assignment or an account rep querying inventory levels and pricing in the middle of on-site negotiations.

Are the Features I Require Suitable for Porting to Mobile Devices?
No phone or handheld offers the same ease of surfing the Web or accessing applications as the PC with its large screen and keyboard. If you have ever attempted to enter a Web address into a handset or tried to look up a contact's record, you can attest to this. A simple porting of an application remains unfeasible. As the architect of a mobile solution, you need a much more personalized and functional approach to your application design. A mobile enterprise assessment exercise will not only enable you to identify that critical field force automation, ERP, sales force automation, or other application requiring wireless enablement, but it will also help you narrow down the project to a more functional level, averting unnecessary expenditure of resources to take an entire application wireless.

How Will I Handle All the Heterogeneous Devices and Their Ongoing Innovation?
Even after you determine those who need wireless, you still face the daunting task of selecting the mobile devices that support a diverse set of browsers and markup languages and have varied capabilities such as screen size and memory. Furthermore, different people (e.g., technical worker, executive, trucker, salesperson, customer, etc.) may require different devices, and even the individuals within a particular grouping most likely have varied equipment and specific preferences. Finally, all of these devices' capabilities continue to advance at a rapid pace, making ongoing support burdensome.

To adequately address device heterogeneity and innovation, your best bet is to look for a relatively open solution that supports numerous, evolving standards. Don't get trapped by one soon-to-be-antiquated standard. Ideally, to avoid reinventing the wheel, seek out an existing solution/software provider with a strategy to support many technologies as they continue to evolve.

Do I Have Sufficient Access to Wireless Technology Expertise?
Choosing a mobile enablement solution means considering issues of both initial development and ongoing maintenance. In particular, do you have access to anyone who knows anything about wireless? Like most companies, leveraging existing personnel would be the ideal solution. Initial development may require consultative help, but this can prove overly expensive on an ongoing basis. Again, any third-party solution must rely on much of your existing resources for operation. Without a solution designed for your workforce, you could find yourself in a fruitless search for an entire department of pricey wireless gurus.

What Time and Resources Do I Need to Expend?
Knowing the time, expense, and resource requirements is crucial. Another statement of common business sense: you must come up with a reasonable return on investment assessment to justify your wireless project.

Once you identify those mobile areas of your business and the requisite application and features needing to be wireless-enabled, write up your projected cost savings and/or additional revenue generated. Compare this to the development, deployment, and maintenance expense of internal and third-party solutions. Equally important, given the rapid evolution of wireless technology, steer clear of any solution that requires a significant amount of time to test and implement. The more out-of-the-box ready the solution is, the better. If you're several months down the road before you've built anything, your theoretical, yet-to-be-implemented solution from the past will already be outdated.

Choosing the Correct Mobile Path:
Going It Alone vs Mobile Middleware

Current corporate networks and applications have varying combinations of proprietary and third-party solutions. We already know how expensive it is to continuously upgrade and maintain this environment alone. In going wireless the goal should be to simply extend some subsection of your legacy systems to the mobile elements of your business. Clearly, investing millions of dollars in a proprietary, soon-to-be-antiquated wireless-enablement solution would not be the first choice of any sensible business manager.

Fortunately, tremendous progress has taken place in the wireless infrastructure software arena in the form of mobile middleware. The most robust solutions provide more than a simple development framework for design. They offer a truly mobile application server that supports deployment and scalability as they manage, in real-time, the daily, continuous access to your back-end enterprise applications and databases.

With the proper mobile middleware, a developer can code once in any familiar language, and render applications to any type of mobile device. This means you can use existing talent and resources to execute your mobile strategy, without having to train your technical force in special proprietary languages. You'll also find that these same solutions support the evolutionary nature of the wireless world, providing rendering enhancements as the devices and their software continuously undergo enhancements. You no longer have to track the minutiae of wireless technological changes such as markup languages, screen sizes, or memory capabilities in order to optimize user experience. Your middleware can do this job for you.

A good mobile middleware solution will allow you to enjoy the benefits of an open software platform by allowing you to build new wireless applications or take existing ones wireless. Any evaluation of a mobile strategy should incorporate a middleware evaluation. Again, always remember this important caveat: make sure that the implementation and ongoing maintenance of the solution requires little effort on the part of your wireless team.

Proof in the Numbers
CDI's own cursory analysis revealed that the potential benefits from mobile middleware could be truly significant, but wanted to both prove the usability of a wireless application by the field technicians and quantify the potential ROI. CDI's Dick Gulsvig along with the project manager, David Wallace, and the executive visionary of the solution, David Fox, sat down with the wireless business experts at Aligo. Together they identified the steps that could be removed in the CDI field force data collection and processing, and the basic requirements for the wireless application. The plan was for the new application to eliminate all the steps between data entry by the field technician and availability of the data for back-end systems.

Within four weeks, CDI had deployed a mobile application designed and delivered on the Aligo platform. A key requirement for CDI was that field technicians use WAP browsers on their cell phones to enter and review information, while supervisors might use a variety of PDAs to view the collected information. This flexibility was crucial because the technicians did not want to carry around any more equipment, and supervisors needed a larger screen device to conveniently review information. The write-once, deliver-to-all mobile devices capability of Aligo's platform enabled the Aligo team to deliver the application in a short time frame. It did not have to be customized or rewritten for each device type, and because the platform managed almost all the basic application delivery "house chores," relatively little new code had to be written.

CDI conducted a field test over several weeks to test the usability of the devices and application. The test was a stunning success. The technicians entered data directly through the browsers on their mobile phones. Much of the information that they once had to enter by hand was prefilled, and through an intelligently designed menu-driven format, they could quickly enter all the data required. They could review their entries in summary format before transmitting it wirelessly to the corporate database, making it immediately available. Supervisors could review the schedules of the technicians, the progress they had made, and, if necessary, perform real-time scheduling of new or emergency jobs. Managers had been skeptical about field personnel accepting this new technology, but one of the outstanding results was the enthusiasm of the technicians. The mobile application replaced the time-consuming task of filling out paperwork after every job, and more important, gave them direct control over data entry. There would no longer be data-entry clerks who would misread their handwriting, creating needless disputes over hours worked and amount of the payroll.

The acid test for the wireless application, however, was the potential return on investment. Armed with the results of the field test, CDI rigorously analyzed the potential impact of Aligo's wireless applications. The results were stunning. CDI Telecommunications, with little over 1,000 employees, would derive net savings of $4.2 million over three years, primarily from:

  • Revenues to be collected 30-40% faster
  • Processing costs to be lowered by 25-35% due to reduced need for manual processing, shipping, and handling of paper
  • Data errors and manual rework to be reduced by 80-90% because data is validated at the point of origin
  • Employees would enjoy 100% accurate billing hours and payroll
Strategic benefits were also emphasized for their long-term impact, including:
  • Reduced billing disputes due to timely invoices with attached audit trails
  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • Increased employee satisfaction from job empowerment
Equally important, CDI would be able to achieve these objectives without having to compromise their desire to keep implementation timeframes short and preserve flexibility in the types of devices they could use today and in the future.

CDI's experience demonstrates how a wireless strategy built on a clear assessment of a company's mobile business needs and the right mobile technology will result in a tremendous payoff. Regardless if it's telecommunications, finance, transportation or any other business, all industries have companies with large field forces, sales forces, and/or data to manage. If you can develop a clear outline of your mobile enterprise, you will successfully execute a mobilization project that guarantees remunerative and competitive success.

More Stories By David Shim

David Shim is CEO of Aligo.

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