Mobilising the workers

5 Sep 2007

Mobile devices are still underused by most organisations, often treated as little more than a business utility with voice and text as the tools of choice.

There are signs that companies are now starting to pursue a more strategic approach to the mobile enterprise. “Up until two years ago we would evangelise to customers on mobility. Now we’ve moved away from that because it’s a message that the customer has picked up on,” says Darragh Fitzgerald Selby, business solutions manager at Vodafone Ireland.

“The market is aware that by mobilising the enterprise they will see business benefits.”

O2’s head of business sales and services, Billy D’Arcy, has also seen a sea change as companies look beyond the actual device to what they can be used to deliver. “The past few years were about getting people used to the different types of device. Now we’ve noticed that people are demanding more from them.”

Push email, where incoming mail to the user’s workplace address is automatically transferred to their mobile device, has been responsible for advancing the wider mobile potential into the enterprise. Still perceived as the killer mobile application, it is still in its infancy, according to Fitzgerald Selby. “It certainly isn’t a given, but we’re starting to see a huge uplift in this area,” he says.

For some time Vodafone had been concerned that email-on-the-move adoption had been too slow. The market has been driven by Canadian firm Research In Motion (RIM) and its BlackBerry solution, but expensive software licences and a limited choice of handsets have hindered more widespread penetration, according to Vodafone.

The operator responded with Business Email, a portfolio of products aimed at the business market. BlackBerry is one of them but it has been joined by a push email package built on the Visto Mobile platform, an alternative and more affordable wireless email delivery system that works the same way.

More options

Extending the range further are the fruits of a collaboration with Microsoft which will deliver push email solutions around the Windows Mobile 5.0 platform.

Launched last November, Windows Mobile from Vodafone uses a range of handheld devices to remotely access Microsoft Outlook applications such as email, calendar and contacts, as well as Word, Excel and PowerPoint. It has been responsible for igniting a sleeping market, according to Fitzgerald Selby.

“The BlackBerry has been dominant for a number of years but now we’re seeing that Microsoft taking off. Around 25pc of our corporate business is currently coming through customers that want to connect with Microsoft.”

The Vodafone offering taps into what Fitzgerald Selby describes as the strong relationship that many businesses have with Microsoft. “Customers are very comfortable that it is a way to mobilise their business because they already have Microsoft as their platform.”

Windows Mobile 5.0 runs on Microsoft Exchange Server, already the core communications platform for many businesses.

Some are also used to working with Microsoft’s .NET development framework, using it to write bespoke solutions. “We give them push email and help create a platform to build additional applications,” says Fitzgerald Selby.

He also argues that the Microsoft software licence agreements make it a more cost-effective solution. “Once you have an Outlook licence it can be used for desktop or remote users, whereas other solutions like BlackBerry require a licence for every connection.”

O2 has also launched a Windows push email product but puts greater store in its long-standing relationship with BlackBerry and paints a very different picture of market trends. There has been “an explosion” in the past six months driven by the BlackBerry Pearl, which has seen O2 doing the same volume on a month-to-month basis with push email what it took two years to achieve when it first started selling BlackBerry products six years ago.

“It’s not unusual for us to get customer orders that go into the hundreds. For certain companies we have provisioned more than a thousand devices,” says D’Arcy.

The intuitive, user-friendly appeal of the BlackBerry handsets has been instrumental in their popularity. User choice remains more a factor in mobility than any other business technology not least because of widespread consumer adoption.
For the first time, enterprise technology is being driven from the bottom up, with employees actively pursuing the business for mobile solutions to help improve their working lives.

The mobile revolution has also been driven by network operators who have invested millions of euro in networks and new technology. Faster and more ubiquitous connectivity is good news for business. Both Vodafone and O2 have launched 3G broadband services, delivering data at 3.6Mbps over HSDPA networks.

Similarly, device development continues to move at pace with phone manufacturers coming up with multiple flavours and feature sets. The roving executive will almost certainly find a product that meets his or her needs.

“People are starting to use much more functionality,” D’Arcy affirms. “The new phones with onboard GPS functionality, for example, are prompting people to use different applications that they would never have thought about before.”

Fitzgerald Selby has a word of warning. “The critical error is when CEOs of organisations go through Heathrow and see a shiny gadget that they buy and then tell the IT director that they want to use it for work. Suddenly you have executives in an organisation running around with expensive gadgets and they don’t really know what they are doing. Devices are the last things we look at it,” he adds.

The Vodafone pitch is to take a broader view. “We’re not talking to customers about BlackBerrys and USB modems, we’re talking to them about their business and their plans for the next three years,” says Fitzgerald Selby. “We look at the customer’s mission statement and talk about its mobility strategy. For smaller customers it may start with a mobility assessment.”

Strategic decisions

So what next for the mobile enterprise? Standing by a bubbling cauldron of possibilities, at what point does the CIO look beyond some easy productivity wins and review mobile applications that can deliver some serious strategic business advantage?

Many sectors have already taken the plunge. Logistics and sales-oriented organisations, for example, find a natural fit for mobile solutions in their businesses.

“Salespeople are not typically 9-5 and are very target driven. It’s a natural fit for mobility,” says D’Arcy. “They constantly need to track customer activity and be able to access customer information. We meet these needs with applications like on the BlackBerry or a customer relationship management solution on the Xda.”
At Vodafone Fitzgerald Selby identifies three core areas where enterprise mobility is well advanced:

1. Sales. “If you can improve the productivity of a salesperson by 10pc then you are going to increase the business performance by the same factor,” he says. “It’s very easy to talk to a finance director and justify signing off a large mobile project if it’s going to improve an organisation’s output.”

2. Engineers. There are numerous field engineers out on the road, using smart phones to keep in touch with a contact centre, arranging customer callouts and getting the customer to sign off the job on the device when the job is completed. “Our customers want to differentiate themselves from the competition. If one photocopier company needs to ring back to order parts and doesn’t process paperwork until the end of the day, while another has a handheld device connected back to a stock-ordering system, there’s only going to be one winner,” Fitzgerald Selby points out.

3. Freight and delivery. Electronic signatures for the delivery of goods are an easy win and a commonplace mobile deployment where the business benefits are immediately evident.

Like any ICT deployment, the success of mobile applications comes down to business benefits and the return on investment. Crucial to this equation is mapping the business goals with the IT requirement, picking off the points where mobile middleware can fit in and deliver a new access channel.

For many years tier-one enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors like SAP and Oracle have offered mobile modules to their systems, but adoption has been slow. “There is plenty going but it is still early days,” says Fitzgerald Selby. “ERP implementations are quite easy on a small scale if you work closely with a system integrator, but you have to have the right application and you have to unlock a real need to justify doing it.”

Further evidence of trends towards more strategic deployments come from communication companies like Damovo. Experts in internet protocol networks and VPNs (virtual private networks), providing remote access with a mobile component has become a natural part of its business. “It is definitely starting to happen,” says managing director John McCabe. “We’re currently rolling out a relationship management project with a very large financial institution which is about getting people out of the office and into the field.”

Building on the principles of sale force automation it connects the field operative to a company contact centre for instant access to rich customer data to ensure optimum customer relationship management, regardless of the location. “It’s being seen as a tool for productivity rather than a piece of kit. It’s about mobilising people, getting them out of branches and having more ‘face time’ with the customer,” says McCabe.

A mobile strategy has to be about the business people and business drivers, according to McCabe. “It’s about going beyond the technology and into the business. It’s a discussion with marketing and salespeople at the top end of the organisation, people who are on the lookout for more productivity.”

Fitzgerald Selby agrees that buy-in from the top is imperative. “CIOs will have concerns about the robustness of a new application and won’t want to take anything that will create extra headaches,” he explains. “They are only going to work with us if we can demonstrate that what we provide will be robust, reliable and resilient with a clear business benefit.”

By Ian Campbell