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The benefits of business mobility

Mobile coverage across Australia has reached new levels and competition between providers is seeing wireless data costs fall. So, how will business mobility change the way you, and your competitors, get the job done?

The mobile landscape in Australia has changed. In place of coverage limited to population centres and painfully slow data transfers, next generation speeds and much wider geographic availability are opening new possibilities on the mobile business front.

In fact, we’re on the cusp of a huge expansion in mobile business applications. Until recently, business mobility has been the domain of early adopters and experimenters, but now that mobile platforms have matured, mobility is poised to have a real effect on the way business in Australia is done.

More PDAs, cheaper data
Several factors are driving mainstream mobility preparedness. The first is the proliferation of mobile and PDA devices. According to Sensis, internet-enabled mobile devices have the fastest growing adoption rate of any telecoms technology. More than a third of mid-sized organisations already have mobile email. The upshot is that the technologies used by businesses today are already capable of supporting serious mobile applications, meaning expensive hardware investments aren’t required. Secondly, with increased competition and demand, providers are offering cheaper and more flexible data plans. Importantly, some are even offering options that allow data to be used across an entire workforce, not just single users.

Real time business tools
With the boost to mobile coverage and quality, the reach and effectiveness of mobile platforms means they’re finally a potent real time business tool outside of metro centres as well as within. Customer demand for mobile email has driven many of these changes, and, just as innovations on the desktop and internet took advantage of developing platforms, mobile business applications are ready to exploit the new mobile environment for productive ends.

Mid-sized businesses can expect a range of benefits. At the outset, mobility offers enormous scope for productivity improvements. With the proper systems in place, the only type of information flowing through your operation can be real time information, meaning decisions made in the field and the office can be based on the best and most current data available. Field staff can have instant access to inventories and business systems and can lodge sales or repair requests on the spot.

Other prime benefits include improved efficiencies and asset utilisation, as well as improved sales and cashflows and a lowering in administration costs. Ultimately, however, it may be the opportunities to deliver new or unique levels of customer service that really drive a significant wave of investment in mobile solutions.

The new handsets

So what will these applications actually look like? While most mobile handsets have a built-in web browser, implementing business mobility via this method can be more trouble than it’s worth. Many of us have experienced web pages accessed over mobile devices: the majority of the time they’re cumbersome, difficult and slow to use, displaying limited information and usually in ways that are formatted for a desktop browser, not a mobile device. They consume unnecessary amounts of data by transferring HTML pages or images that often aren’t cached by the handset, and, most importantly, all information becomes truly inaccessible when reception fails. This can be exceptionally frustrating in the field, especially if you’ve just keyed in information that can’t then be posted to the system.

Native applications

The better solution is to develop native applications for mobile devices. These are a much more effective way to take advantage of the capabilities and smaller interface of your selected phone or PDA. By developing native applications that run on the phone itself, the software can be designed from the ground up to provide the best user experience possible for the task at hand. Designing for speed of use is critical, and native mobile applications can also be made to deal with lost connectivity by storing data locally and syncing when network access is restored. This kind of native approach ultimately makes for simpler and more reliable systems that don’t rely on third party browsers over which your IT department has little control.

The benefits
Using native applications, key areas where mobility can offer your business tangible benefits are these:

With well-developed business applications, sales representatives can find enormous benefits when negotiating and closing sales. Orders can be processed in the presence of customers on site, all with the benefit of up-to-the-second information on stock levels, prices and potential discounts. Sales can be agreed to, signed off on, and executed on the spot. At the same time, cash flows can be improved by processing payments or issuing invoices at the moment of sale with mobile printing.

*Mobile workforce
If your business has a mobile workforce, mobile applications have the potential not only to boost the productivity of individual team members but to improve field force efficiency as a whole. With status and location tracking, for example, a mobile workforce can complete more jobs more quickly, deploying scarce assets more efficiently and becoming a much more effective organism. Return bookings and jobs can be scheduled and entered into the system directly with the customer, boosting return business and maintaining client relationships. With up-to-date information on the location and availability of mobile workers, the business is in a position to know when and in what areas it can process additional jobs, with associated benefits for throughput and for clearing backlogged tasks.

*Logistics, inventory and stock control
With the right mobile application, real-time views of inventories and stocks at locations across the business can put sales and provisioning teams in sync; but business mobility is not simply a human question. RFID and barcode technologies can reduce business waste and stock loss by tracking physical assets and, for example, sending alerts before perishable items expire. Refrigerated containers can retain or transmit temperature records or, using GPS, send alerts detailing when and where the container was opened. With business mobility, ‘just in time’ processes become a step easier to manage and execute.

*Auditing and compliance
Mobility offers the chance to implement a standardised, centralised and business wide system for record keeping activities. Mobile applications can greatly reduce administrative costs by eliminating the double entry of paper records completed in the field. Mistakes and errors receive instant feedback to prevent partial or incorrect data making its way into business systems. Compliance with industry regulations or other policies can be enforced by the mobile software itself, ensuring business wide adherence.

*Decision support systems
Using mobility tools, business expertise can be made quickly and easily available to staff in the field. Critical decisions taken across the business can be improved by real-time on-location decision support systems that detail appropriate actions. Mobile decision systems are benefiting from advances in fields like mobile medicine, where critical diagnoses and procedures are being handled through mobile platforms to aid remote doctoring.
Where to start?

So, if your business is considering a mobile move, how can you identify the best place to start? Of course, everything depends on the nature of your business but, in general, focusing on situations involving poor utilisation of high cost assets can be a very effective way to begin, and it’s often better scheduling that can yield much improved efficiencies.

Your most expensive asset is often your workforce itself, and mobile applications that allow live job assignment and feedback on job progress from the field will provide a real boost to organisational productivity.
In the same vein, another quickly effective measure is looking to use mobility to eliminate situations where field staff, who are most effective to your business outside the office, are having to return to headquarters either to lodge paperwork or to receive instructions that can be easily delivered ‘over the air’. Indeed, one of the most important functions of business mobility is its ability to remove the impediments that prevent mobile workers being truly mobile.

Reducing compliance costs
Another key area to consider is any part of your business that involves onerous compliance. Mobile applications are a way to reduce the cost of complying with regulations. In addition to cutting administrative overheads, they reduce opportunities for human error, lowering associated error rates and the costs that accompany mistakes where they occur.

One of the biggest issues to consider when implementing a mobility solution is its proper integration with your existing systems (whether ERP, CRM or other customised platforms) as having the whole of your business on the same page will be the situation from which many of the greatest benefits of mobility will flow.

Quick returns on investment make a strong case for mobility solutions. Recently at Brennan we assisted FireVac Services, a fire protection industry specialist, with the design and implementation of a mobility solution called FireMate. Using PDAs running Windows Mobile, FireVac staff undertaking activities in the field now receive tasks, lodge reports on site visits and create jobs for return attention. At head office, a business-wide dashboard provides customisable views of real time activity, giving coordinators an instant picture of jobs being executed and work waiting in the pipeline. System workflows help to automate regular activities such as job quoting and invoicing.

FireVac says that where invoicing once required a day and a half of manual data entry, the mobile application now makes it automatic, and direct integration with the company’s accounting software is driving improved cash flows. Customer service has also received a boost. Now, when FireVac technicians undertake a site visit, an automated report keeps the customer abreast of work carried out, appending images taken on the technician’s PDA camera of newly installed equipment or faulty articles wanting replacement.

Things will only get better
Business mobility promises great benefits for businesses which realise its potential. Coverage quality and data cost equations will continue to improve and, with an increasing number of software developers concentrating on the mobile arena, so will the design and utility of mobile applications. What’s important is more than the ability to do business anywhere, it’s the ability to do it quickly and efficiently, with instant access to business information and intelligence. Ultimately, the key to going mobile will be mobilising your business as a whole..

-Dave Stevens is managing director of Brennan (www.brennait.com.au), a leading business and IT solutions provider to the mid-market and a finalist in Microsoft’s 2008 Mobility Partner of the Year.

The Mobility Revolution

What’s changed?
•    NextG coverage has opened new horizons
•    Wireless data prices have become affordable
•    Suitable mobile devices are commonplace

Why go mobile?
•    Boost business speeds and efficiencies
•    Provide new levels of customer service
•    Cut administrative and compliance costs
•    Put your organisation in sync

Where to start?
Look to use mobility to better utilize high cost assets. Immediate benefits can be found by rolling out mobile applications to support sales and on road staff.

Mobile platforms for business

Pros and cons

Windows Mobile
The most popular platform for business and enterprise applications.

+ Most devices have full sized QWERTY keyboards
+ Uses .NET, a common language for developers
+ Has a large range of peripherals, including barcode scanners and printers
– Less than perfect user experience
– Poor built in web browser

The pioneer of mobile email. Still the strongest enterprise email support.

+ Near full sized keyboard
+ Uses Java, a popular developer language
+ simple and intuitive to use
– Lack of multimedia support

The flashy newcomer. Not particularly geared for business needs.

+ Great ‘touch’ user experience
+ Excellent media support
+ Desktop like web browsing
– Definite consumer focus
– No physical keyboard and few peripherals
– Batteries aren’t swappable

What do you think?

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Dave Stevens

Dave Stevens

Dave Stevens is the founder and managing director of Brennan IT, an IT services business that provides a complete range of fully managed and secured IT and telecommunications solutions in Australia and New Zealand. Follow them on Twitter: <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/brennan_it">@brennan_it</a>

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