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ERP, Services, Telephony and Mobile

My cell phone is dying but I'm hoping my new device will connect with businesses in ways never before possible. Will software vendors see the new opportunity or will they continue to view cell phones as phones and not as business process change agents?
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

- A growing intersection and opportunity -

Are you overdue to replace the cell phones in your business? The next cycle of cell phone acquisitions by businesses (and consumers) may open up a number of questions that must be addressed by these buyers (and the companies that develop business applications). Specifically, businesses will want to examine:

  • the role of the mobile device in their organization
  • how business and other information should be presented to the mobile user
  • how diverse pieces of information will be presented collectively on a mobile device
  • what data beyond that in an ERP system is needed to provide appropriate levels of business value in the field
  • how workers will utilize new mobile applications with new mobile devices in the field
  • how value is defined to an interconnected workforce

Recently, I've participated in briefings by top executives at companies like SAP, Workday, ClickSoftware and Appirio. Mobile technologies were the stars of these briefings. SAP recently bought Sybase - an act they admit was driven largely by Sybase's mobile capabilities.

The issues surfaced in these briefings certainly make one think about the inefficient processes and workflows in effect in many businesses and how these can be improved today. But, maybe the biggest a-ha moment is that we've really got to stop thinking of these devices not as ‘telephones' but in a whole new light as devices that bring sound, video, life and experience to businesses and customers. I/we tend to see mobile phones (ugh- that name is so out-of-date. It's like referring to a locomotive as an iron horse. It's an obsolete term that doesn't match the technology) as one-sensory items and thus, of limited communication value. They're not that at all anymore.

In no particular order, here are some highlights from these briefings:

Appirio, a very modern systems integrator with a penchant for cloud to cloud integration initiatives, created a series of mobile applications for a home healthcare provider. These mobile apps merge information from salesforce.com, Workday and Google on an Appirio-built user interface. Moreover, the functionality that is made available to users is device dependent as some functions can be completed only on iPads while many others can be completed on iPhones.

In this situation, Appirio has built a cloud-based set of applications that utilize, seamlessly, information from multiple cloud sources via a single user interface. This point is quite important as the company did not try to mimic portions of ERP, CRM or email screen panels to fit on a reduced form factor. Instead, Appirio looked at the user's business problem first and designed a custom user interface that pulled the appropriate data from various different cloud subsystems. The client in this case has approximately 3000 remote workers and possibly 80 desktop software users. Their workforce is not only cloud connected but is also interconnected with each other and with the information systems of their firm and service providers.

This client of Appirio's uses ‘mobile phones' for dispatching, patient care, ordering and many other functions. The employees essentially work for the iPad they use. The iPad tells them where to go, what data to collect, how to provide the care, what products are needed and how to record the needed follow-up. The employees don't need to cart lots of patient documentation with them. It goes to the worker at point of need.

ClickSoftware has had an eight year partner arrangement with SAP and late last year announced that its Mobility Suite will run on components of Sybase's mobility platform. The Mobility Suite provides a tight integration between back-office applications, field service employees and customers. The best example of this I heard from ClickSoftware came from their CEO Dr. Moshe BenBassat. He told me about how their solutions are used by cable television and public utility firms, to name a few. Specifically, Moshe told me how their solutions monitor the location and status of different field service personnel and can dynamically optimize which service professionals should make the next service call in a given area. All of this is done to help a service firm honor scheduled commitments and improve customer satisfaction. The end result of these interactions enables better service levels, higher customer satisfaction rates and less churn in the customer base.

There were other developments in that solution set that caught my attention. For example, workers can now have critical repair documents downloaded it to them at the point of need. In the past, workers had to print off needed materials in their office before going on calls. Or, workers often lost the ability to receive this information once they left their vehicles. With better mobile device technology, workers can not only receive just in time and point of need information, they can also take pictures or videos of aberrant equipment behavior, damaged equipment or other problems found on site and forward these to two peers or supervisors for additional follow-up action. Mobile devices also permit field service personnel to record via video the actions they undertook to complete a service call so that other representatives and other users of this information can see precisely what work was done and how it is conducted.

It would be a mistake to underplay the power of real-time video in the service economy. I believe it will have transformative impact as customers can shoot, share, up-link or carry with them videos of dripping faucets, sounds of malfunctioning machinery, etc. and have these electronically or in-person reviewed by appropriate personnel in retail stores and service centers. Mobile technology will be recognized for more than just the transmission of sound. It will enable fully animated video with its sights and sounds to be part of commerce and service. Applications will need to be rethought to fully take advantage of these capabilities. Training applications seem to be all the rage for this now but this is a very limited view of what new communication devices can do for businesses.

I want to see full 4-5G devices allow me to stream a live service question to my local hardware store and have a clerk reciprocate. I want to know before I take something apart that the store not only has the spare part, but that they've seen exactly what I need and have it waiting for me at the service counter when I walk in to buy it. I want to see a new kind of service with new service processes and capabilities enabled with new communication devices. I just don't want a phone with a bright display screen for my phone contacts.

I want to see more of firms like ClickSoftware, et.al., re-invent the business world. Let's use new communication devices to change every business process including staid, unflinching ones like Accounting.

As I write this, my old clam shell cell phone is dying. The hinge is failing due to 6 years of heavy use and I doubt it will go much longer. I will replace this phone very soon but will the ERP systems and other business applications in use globally be ready to fully exploit the potential behind my next communication device? I doubt they will initially but I'm hopeful they will soon.

Now, if I can only remember my voice mail access code.....

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