Arm your workforce with wireless

Going mobile may deliver many benefits, but for businesses, it can be a complex process. Here are some tips to help you on your way.

In recent years, advancements in wireless technology have transformed mobile devices from mere personal productivity tools into useful business tools.

Application software developers have also been quick in bringing to market wireless handheld solutions that enable companies to better leverage the functionality enabled by these handheld devices and wireless connectivity. When properly deployed, wireless handheld solutions can help companies to enhance customer service, increase revenue, and improve operational efficiency.

The most common application areas of wireless handheld include:

  • Field sale automation: handhelds used to process sales transactions and support account servicing in field sales.
  • Field service automation: handhelds used in recording job status in field service (e.g. dispatch services).
  • Information access: handhelds used to provide critical information or e-mail while on the move (e.g. stock prices).

Before implementing a wireless handheld solution, it is useful to understand the components of the solution, the costs involved as well as other areas of consideration.

Components of a wireless handheld solution
A wireless handheld solution consists of the following components:

  • Handheld devices
    For a wireless handheld solution, these are likely to be PDAs (personal digital assistants).
  • Handheld/wireless application
    This is an application that is loaded into the PDA, allowing users to wirelessly access data and process transactions on their PDAs.
  • Backend system
    The type of backend system varies depending on the type of wireless handheld application. In general, users wirelessly access information on the backend system to carry out their job in the field and update it when their job is done.
  • Wireless network
    This is the network that supports the transmission of information in a wireless handheld solution.

For example, in a sales force automation handheld solution, salespeople are equipped with PDAs that receive information from the backend system via the wireless network. Transactional information, such as cash sales and collections, can be entered on the handheld device running the handheld/wireless application, then sent back to the backend server for merging and processing, via the wireless network. In such a solution, the backend system is likely to be an ERP (enterprise resource planning) solution that comprises sales, purchasing, inventory and other modules.

What are the costs involved?
Costs involved in setting up and running a wireless handheld solution fall into two categories, namely one-time costs and recurring costs.

One-time costs include:

  • Hardware costs
    This includes the cost of handheld devices, servers, routers, and other hardware that form the infrastructure of the wireless handheld solution.
  • Software costs
    This include the cost of the handheld application and backend system if you do not already have one. Software cost is normally based on the number of users. Some vendors price their solutions based on the features required so you need not pay for features you don't use.
  • Customization and integration costs
    Customization cost refers to the cost chargeable in customizing the handheld application while integration cost refers to the cost required to integrate the handheld application to the existing backend system. If you do not have a backend system, it would be advisable to choose a solution provider who develops both the backend and the client application to ensure that both applications are seamlessly integrated.
  • Implementation and training costs
    Apart from vendor's charges for implementation and training services, other costs may include hiring of external consultants (if necessary), data entry personnel, cost of additional manpower required during system testing and other incidental costs.
  • Installation costs
    Installation costs include the necessary wiring, wireless network connection fees, as well as hardware and software installation.

Recurring costs include:

  • Network service charges
    This would include airtime usage fees charged by the wireless network provider for transmission of data over their network.
  • Support
    This may include technical support for hardware, as well as onsite and helpdesk application support provided by the vendor on a contractual or ad-hoc basis.
  • Maintenance
    This includes software enhancements, updates and upgrades provided by the vendor on a periodic basis. This usually comes in the form of annual software subscription or maintenance contract with free software updates and major upgrades at discounted price during the subscription/contract period.

Making the decision
Like any other IT project, wireless handheld solutions should be backed by a strong business case and a favorable cost/benefit analysis.

You should understand your organization's requirements in order to determine how you can benefit from the technology. Wireless handheld solutions are most valuable for organizations with requirements for mobile working (field sales or service) and access to critical information.

In carrying out a cost/benefit analysis, you should look out for returns that are immediate and quantifiable, such as increase in revenue and cost reduction. You should also take into consideration soft benefits that are less quantifiable or aren't immediately quantifiable. This is particularly true if your main objective in implementing a wireless handheld solution is to provide better customer service. Soft benefits include increased customer satisfaction, customer loyalty, increase in efficiency, etc. Be sure to conduct a thorough study on the hard and soft benefits before making a purchasing decision.

Implementing a successful wireless handheld solution can be a challenging task as the technology is relatively new. There are certainly a lot of benefits and advantages, but there are also pitfalls to avoid. A good starting point would be to know the components of the solution, costs involved and the potential benefits. You should also identify your business requirements in order to establish your business case. Finally, appraising the project based on formal and informal justifications will go a long way in implementing a viable solution that best suits your business needs.

Pamela Wu is marketing director of Silk Technologies, a business software developer specializing in retail and distribution.

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