Rapid adoption of notebook PCs over the past decade made them an everyday fact of business life. Now, with the benefits of mobile data access well and truly taken for granted, the spectre of several false starts is finally far behind the market for smaller smartphone and PDA styled mobile devices.
Taken together -- and turbo-charged with the recent launch of high-bandwidth mobile data networks -- mobile devices offer unprecedented access to corporate information that's stored back in company databases and applications. No longer do staff have to lug procedure manuals into the field with them, and time-consuming phone calls back to dispatchers are a thing of the past.
Yes, self-empowerment is the name of the game when it comes to mobility these days: give employees the tools to get better access to corporate information, the theory goes, and their productivity will soar through the roof.
Gartner recently jumped on this perception, with research vice president Nick Jones encouraging attendees at a recent Gartner ITexpo event to consider establishing mobility competency centres charged with identifying business processes that would benefit from being mobilised. To prepare for this, Jones encourages companies to invest heavily in wireless LAN technologies as well as standardising on mobile device platforms like Windows Mobile 6 or the Nokia E Series.
But what happens when something goes wrong?
Mobile devices do have a horrible tendency to go missing, no matter whether they're the smallest smartphone or the largest laptop. A recent survey by security vendor Pointsec, for example, found that 12,000 smartphones, PDAs, mobiles, pocket PCs and laptops were left behind in taxis in two US cities alone. A similar 2005 Pointsec survey found the problem equally bad in Sydney, where extrapolated results suggest 13,280 devices were left behind during a six-month period alone.
Fortunately, the majority of devices do make their way back to their owners. But loss is only one of the problems that can befall mobile devices on the road: although most companies that have rolled out mobile devices eventually swear by them, the path to making mobile devices a part of everyday business is littered with broken screens, flat batteries, misconfigured virtual private networks, lost devices, and a thousand other problems.
And if fixing those problems when the computers are in the office wasn't already bad enough, any issue becomes an order of magnitude more difficult when the computers in question are a thousand kilometres away. The key here is to temper self-empowerment with a modicum of common sense -- and a carefully thought out technology plan to make sure your corporate data never ends up where it's not supposed to be.
Mobile backup solutions like Sprite Backup can make sure you always have a copy of the data on your remote Windows Mobile devices, while built-in management features in both Windows Mobile and Nokia environments offer features such as remote kill switches and data wiping.
Notebooks, which complicate the picture with full-sized hard drives just waiting to be filled with sensitive data, are being addressed by managed storage service providers, who use customised applications to incrementally back up data to secure data centres any time the device is online.
One of the biggest problems companies face when rolling out PDAs and other personal devices is getting past the idea that a man's phone is his castle, says Steve Riley, senior security strategist in Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing Group.
"Most people who receive a laptop from a company intrinsically understand that it's a business resource, but phones and PDAs are very personal devices," Riley explains. "Now that the organisation has taken over your phone, there's going to be a period of time where end users are going to have to become accustomed to the idea of even the telephone and PDA becoming business devices."
That requires careful training and evangelising, as well as a measure of handholding so that the business part of the mobile device happens as seamlessly as possible. Fortunately, increasingly sophisticated business mobility applications are taking over that process, intelligently synchronising data on an ongoing basis so it is less likely to get lost due to a mishap.
No doubt about it: mobile devices have more than grown up. For companies that are seriously interested in mobility but have held off due to concerns about data loss, there are now enough options to make stepping into the mobile world a quite manageable experience.
Much of the hype about mobility these days is focused around phone-like devices, which have come a long way compared with a few years ago. But for most organisations, laptops remain the mobile device of the masses -- and they present even bigger challenges for technical administrators trying to keep track of the data they hold.
Parks Victoria, the state government body charged with administrating the Garden State's 4.1 million hectares of parks -- including 39 national parks, 13 marine national parks, 11 marine sanctuaries, 2785 nature reserves, 8400 Aboriginal Affairs Victoria registered indigenous cultural heritage sites, and more.
Patrolling so much land naturally requires a lot of travel, which makes the organisation a natural for introducing mobile computing. In the past, however, the organisation had been struggling to provide enough mobile computing capabilities: just 70 laptops were available to 1200 staff, spread over 110 offices across the state.
"Essentially, everyone had a desktop and if they want to go work in the field or had to be more mobile, they'd have to go find themselves one of the notebooks and plan it out," explains network manager Gavin Russell. "There was always much higher demand than what we had."
Keeping in touch
As Parks Victoria's latest three-year desktop refresh cycle neared its close, the agency began investigating the possibility of migrating employees to using laptops as their primary computers. This objective was promising both in terms of providing mobility to employees, and also in supporting the organisation's goal of being carbon neutral.
"Notebooks use around one-third the power of desktops," Russell says. "That was quite a big driver in the end, in that we could show considerable savings on carbon credits and power usage. We calculated about a $70 saving per unit per annum, just by switching to laptops."
With its notebook ambitions secured, Parks Victoria began the process of rolling out laptops across its workforce. Consideration of options led the organisation to Dell, from which it sourced nearly 1000 laptop computers for the two-year staggered rollout.
Providing laptops to staff was just the beginning, however: Parks Victoria faced the need to keep the devices connected to back-end information systems including the MapInfo geographical information system and the inhouse ParkView management system. This need was soon resolved by pairing each laptop user with a mobile data service on Telstra's Next-G network, which would provide a solid connection with good bandwidth wherever it was available.
Continual connection via Next-G resolved a major issue for Parks Victoria, whose employees had previously been forced to presage their data requirements by copying large volumes of information onto the laptops before heading into the field. This meant many gigabytes of data in some cases: many employees were away from their offices for three months to manage bush fires last Christmas.
"Before Next-G, they would copy data locally and try to use it locally, but there was always an issue of keeping it up to date," says Russell. "Trying to keep them with the latest version was an issue, and there was always confusion over who had the latest maps. Now, with people being mobile, they can always get the latest data from our servers."
Keeping data totally centralised may provide the most effective management strategy, but it's not always practical when there is so much data being managed -- and created. "We do have people that want to store information locally, but we try to cut that down as much as possible," Russell adds.
Parks Victoria long ago dealt with this issue regarding its 100 Garmin GPS-enabled data collection devices, which are regularly used to monitor rabbit migration, weed infestation and other parkland issues. Using the SOTI MobiControl device management suite, data created on the devices is automatically synchronised to a central server for incorporation into management databases.
Although conventional tools like Microsoft Systems Management Server and Windows Update Services help Parks Victoria keep all of the laptops' applications and operating system configurations up-to-date, the agency still has no formal solution for synchronising data between mobile computers and the head office -- but Russell says he's looking into it.
"The size of the data is quite concerning," he says. "As soon as they try to connect up, you're talking gigabytes of spatial data they've changed, how do you do that? We're looking for a deduplication solution that will only copy the bits that have changed instead of the whole file."
Halfway through the laptop rollout, the organisation's employees are making the most of the new devices. Employees are more productive, have a better work-life balance, and can operate more independently for longer times without having to return to the office. "It's the travel that really hurts," Russell says.
In the long term, the laptops will provide another benefit by facilitating Parks Victoria's objective of becoming completely carbon neutral. This has played out in efforts to shift its large fleet of vehicles towards greener models, as well as a major server virtualisation project that has resolved what Russell calls "major power and air conditioning issues" by reducing overall power consumption significantly.
Persistence has paid off for national food manufacturer Sanitarium, after a carefully managed salesforce mobility rollout has been driving process improvements where an earlier effort had failed to deliver expected benefits.
The company -- which manufactures household, name-brand products including Weet-Bix, Marmite, Up&Go, and a host of other soy, vegetarian and other healthy products -- employs a nationwide team of some 70 sales representatives to continually travel the country, promote its products, monitor in-store promotions and generally act as the front-line liaison with retail customers.
Sanitarium initially began looking into providing mobile computers for this sales force nearly a decade ago, recognising that such a constantly moving and remote team needed better access to core business systems. However, that effort was abandoned after it was realised that limited notebook battery technology, inappropriate applications and complex synchronisation issues were going to make the process prohibitively difficult.
After years of improvement in mobile technology, particularly with the rise in handheld computers, Sanitarium took another look at a mobility initiative and charted a more deliverable course for the long term. One of the major goals of the rollout was to improve the flow of data to and from the head office -- and, in so doing, to improve the visibility of company and sales team performance.
"We were looking for a situation where we could control the rollout, and to continue to develop the software in the future without being dependent on the software vendor", says Wayne Hawken, sales system analyst with Sanitarium. "It was also important to be able to provide on demand reports to the business in a timely way."
O4 on O2, OK?
After weighing up options in the market, Sanitarium settled on a sales force automation solution from O4 Corporation. Yet the selection of software was only the beginning of the company's voyage into mobility: far more pressing was the actual task of getting the devices into the sales representatives' hands -- and keeping them there.
This time around, a new option -- smart phones, in this case O2 XDAII models -- was available that would work around earlier issues such as battery life. "PDAs were the best option because of their instant on design, and batteries can give it a full day's use," Hawken explains.
In a departure from most mobility rollouts, the project was managed completely by the sales team, with "very little traditional IT input" from the relatively small in-house IT team. This approach reflects a slightly unconventional yet effective business structure, in which forecasting responsibilities are owned and operated by the sales team rather than falling under the purview of the IT department.
The sales team provided important impetus for getting the smartphones out into the field, since many of the employees had never even used e-mail before the rollout began. As with any company, many employees were sceptical of the new technology. To build a culture of acceptance, regional sales managers were each tasked with choosing an employee to champion the system within their team.
These employees were assembled and put through a three-day training course in which they were introduced first to the devices, then to the O4 application, and then to practical training on using the devices as part of their everyday business processes. Upon completing the training, these "champions" returned to their home states and were tasked with encouraging and supporting other employees to embrace the mobile solution.
In introducing the devices to the rest of Sanitarium's 70-odd sales team members, it was decided an easier approach would be to roll out the hardware first for several weeks so the employees could get familiar with them first. Applications would then be introduced, keeping the learning curve as flat as possible.
"Basically, when people walked into the training, it was explained to them 'your previous way of working finished today, and when you walk out of here you will be working in a new way'," says Hawken. "Within a week and a half, if someone had a PDA problem they would be saying 'I can't do my job anymore'. Acceptance has been very high."
Keeping the devices in the field
With the Windows Mobile 2003-based devices well and truly deployed into the field, the mobility phase of Sanitarium's sales business had begun.
Employees were able to use the O4 software to track goods on the shelf of the retailers they visited; encourage store compliance with Sanitarium-funded discounting schemes; document in-store promotional displays; and relay that information to the company's back-office systems using a secure GPRS-based connection and virtual private network.
"If we have production problems, for example, we can monitor what effect that physically has on the shelves through out-of-stocks," Hawken explains. "We've also been able to set and monitor national business objectives. Previously, much of our team was state driven, but now [with the consistent mobility platform in place] we have been able to move to a national focus."
That national focus also created new challenges for the support team: for example, a number of devices were broken through everyday use; resolving this issue meant the project team had to distribute around a dozen extra units to sales offices around the country, so that any breakages didn't cause long-term disruption to salespeoples' productivity.
The O2 smartphones normally function as data entry devices that transfer information and pictures to the head office via a GPRS connection; however, in times where the devices are out of range of the Vodafone mobile network, they also have a buffer for locally stored data.
As with any mobility rollout, protecting data on the handheld devices was a paramount concern -- and a particular challenge since many salespeople stay in the field for months on end, and therefore can't just return to the sales office easily. "From my point of view, everything is remote," says Hawken. "We need to be able to assist staff to continue working without ever returning the device."
To minimise the risk of data loss, sales staff are required to use PIN numbers and passwords to restrict access to information on the devices. Even these controls, however, have occasionally proved irrelevant because of the design of Windows Mobile 2003, which loses all stored information if the battery goes completely flat.
Recognising this risk, the support team has given each salesperson an SD card loaded with an image of the O4 software, as well as the VPN software necessary to link back to Sanitarium's network. This card is useless without the right access credentials, but it has proved invaluable many times by helping remote workers get back up and running while in the field.
"Those are the devices where we have noticed they may not have [password protection]," Hawken explains. "The 2003 devices lose all data and settings if you go too far off the end of the battery. But basically it's the device and the card working as a pair. If anyone else picks up the card, they wouldn't be able to log onto our systems. This approach has proved invaluable many times by helping remote workers get back up and running while in the field. We have been exceptionally happy with the system."
The need to improve order turnaround has driven a major salesforce mobility project at Fossil Australia, the local subsidiary of the global fashion brand whose watches, bags, wallets, and other products are distributed through retail outlets in 90 countries.
Snapshot on Fossil
With an extended supply chain that spans from large retailers like Myer and David Jones down to family-owned businesses in regional areas, the requirement to keep in touch with customers has long been paramount for Fossil.
Despite rapid growth that saw more than 50,000 product orders placed by retailers last year alone, however, the company was quickly coming to realise that its established manual processes were becoming a drag on the business. Field representatives would take orders for stock on the spot, but it could be three to five days before those orders could be entered into the company's Microsoft Dynamics NAV ERP system.
Also problematic was the fact that orders were being accepted for stock that often wasn't actually available in local warehouses -- or was already allocated to massive consignments for larger retailers. Since all of Fossil's stock comes from overseas, lag times for new orders were measured in the months; during times of high seasonal demand, such as the current pre-Christmas season, this was particularly problematic.
"It was a very traditional telephone, paper, fax-based system," says Markus Stanger, Asia-Pacific manager of the regional NAVISION Competence Centre. "If there was a backlog, it could take a considerable time to get the orders entered, and because of Australia's distance we have a bit of lead time. And the major problem was that we really didn't know whether we could deliver on those orders or not."
By the time the company began looking for a better solution to its order management processes, back orders had reached AU$500,000 and many customers were getting frustrated with the inability to know what products were coming down the supply chain.
After discussions with a number of Navision partners, Fossil realised the best way to empower its salespeople was to put a mobile order entry application, linked back to the back-end ERP system via GPRS over the mobile network, into the hands of each of its field staff (more than a dozen).
One of the major considerations during design and rollout of the solution was the management of data between the devices and the back-end system. Given the significant delays already encountered in the paper processes, staff were eager to get data off the devices as quickly as possible, and this would also protect against the possibility of lost orders.
A number of available solutions took the approach of batching up orders between synchronisations, then transmitting the whole bunch in a single go once the device was connected to the office. In line with Fossil's goal of improving timeliness, however, the company looked until it could find a solution that would allow live downloading of inventory information as well as uploading of new orders in real time.
The company eventually enlisted specialist mobile application developer Spectra Interface for the task, introducing its Spectrax system to manage the flow of order and inventory information to and from the devices. Symbol Technologies MC70 PDAs were selected because they combined the flexibility of the Windows Mobile application environment with a barcode scanner, facilitating the entry of stock information for order handling.
"The absolute perfect thing about this solution was that it was fully integrated into NAV," says Stanger. "I've tried to do synchronisation and other solutions before, but compared with those I'm tempted to say we have almost no effort at all. It's fully integrated, and all the hassle you would have of integration, and trying to find a decent way of synchronising and managing the data, is taken care of."
Using Spectrax, inventory information is downloaded at the time an order is placed, so that sales staff can instantly see whether the company will be able to fill the order in time.
Ensuring mobile reps stay that way
As with all national salesforce rollouts, it was paramount that remote workers were well supported, and had a measure of self sufficiency. Many of the sales representatives "very rarely" return to head office, so it was imperative that they know how to handle the devices and how to get support in the field.
The devices were partly chosen for their ruggedness, to ensure minimal downtime because of breakages. To minimise risk and carefully manage the change introduced by the rollout, Fossil's implementation team worked with each sales representative individually, one at a time, so as to make sure their new operating processes were well understood.
Keeping data fresh is another issue: although live stock details for individual items are downloaded at the time the order is placed, the devices are also updated every few nights to reflect current inventory items, prices, promotional prices, customer account details, and other regularly changing information.
"There's a lot of information going across because we have a lot of changes," says Stanger. By having continually updated information on the devices its staff are using, Fossil has achieved the improved visibility that was the original goal of the rollout. More accurate orders have improved the company's bottom line by 20 percent, and have trimmed the order backlog to just AU$100,000.
"This is all about being able to deliver, and to get customers really satisfied," Stanger says. "From a customer service point of view, we have made a huge step forward."