By Jim Geier
Take a look at the business drivers and the challenges that enterprises face when deploying mobile applications.
A couple of weeks ago, I moderated roundtable discussions in Philadelphia and Houston focusing on mobile asset management. SAP hosted both events, which were attended by business and IT managers from approximately 30 large enterprises. The topics of discussion included business drivers and challenges for deploying mobile asset management systems. Overall, the discussions were extremely valuable to gaining a better understanding of what these companies are dealing with and what solutions are effective for deploying mobile applications.
Companies have been installing asset management systems for the past 10 years or so. Several years ago, I was involved in the development of an evidence tracking system for a courthouse. In this situation, the court needed a method of keeping track of the location of evidence to ensure that the physical items were not lost and available to appear in court on specific dates. The loss of evidence had been resulting in court cases being delayed, the wrong people being put in jail and actual criminals being set free.
Another example of the benefits of asset management is within hospitals, where doctors and nurses need fast access to equipment, such as portable ultrasound machines and monitoring equipment, when patient needs arise. A mobile asset management system makes it possible to quickly know where to find specific items in the hospital.
Many of the participants at the roundtable discussions talked about the need to define a solid return on investment (ROI) before moving too far forward with the deployment of a mobile asset management system. This is necessary to ensure adequate buy-in from upper management, which of course directly impacts long-term funding. With mobile asset management, it’s fairly easy to define business drivers, such as the ability to increase efficiencies and accuracies. Just the concept of inputting information by scanning the item rather than writing down the information by hand has significant benefits because it speeds up the transaction and substantially reduces human error.
As part of determining the benefits, it’s important to perform time studies before and after implementing the system. Think about starting with a prototype or small pilot implementation in order to conduct trials for the time studies. This will help you validate expected ROI before spending a lot of money and rolling out the system to the entire company. This also helps in the understanding and mitigation of risks, as well as ensuring that you don’t end up with a system that has an unacceptable ROI.
Mobile asset management solutions bring about change to the organization; therefore, you need to fully prepare users. In fact, I’ve found it extremely worthwhile to include users in the deployment process early on when you are defining requirements and performing initial testing. Especially include those who are negative about the system deployment in order to make them part of the team.
In my experiences, the people against a particular form of automation are generally the ones who haven’t had much experience with mobile applications. They may also be afraid of losing th eir jobs and be a bit leery of new technologies. If you ignore these people, be prepared for them to become even more negative in the future.
Make certain that you properly train all users in order to realize expected ROI. I’ve known of companies that have given hundreds of their employees Blackberry devices to keep in better touch with email only to later find that just 10 percent of them were actually using the devices. The problem was that the users hadn’t received any training, and they had no previous experience with mobile devices except for voice-only cell phones. A better idea would have been to offer live training classes and not just rely on the users to read the manual. This type of training costs money and time, but it may be less of a burden than the loss in ROI that will result if you don’t perform the training.
Another discussion point at the roundtables was that technology is only an enabler of mobile asset management. We all like to talk about Wi-Fi and 802.1x, but don’t let technology alone drive the requirements of the solution. It’s a good idea to understand what technology is available, such as the ability to wirelessly connect remote users to a central database, but also concentrate on what processes make sense to automate and consider ROI before getting too far into the design of the system.
Security and Management
Effective security and management are extremely important for realizing a solution that has maximum ROI. Because mobile devices are relatively small, they can be easily misplaced or stolen. This not only involves replacement costs, it also introduces a security risk.
To counter this, some companies practice device wiping, which deletes data and applications on the mobile device. The user can contact the system administrator when the device can’t be found, and the administrator can issue a device wiping function from the network. Since some devices may not be within range of the wireless network, you can also implement a device wiping function that initiates on the mobile device itself if someone mistakenly enters the wrong password when trying to activate the device.
Battery management is also of concern to most companies, especially with mobile devices that operate over wireless networks. The radio in a barcode scanner, for example, decreases battery life by approximately 50 percent, depending on the utilization of the application. Thus, companies should have a battery management strategy, such as installing battery charging stations that are easily assessable to users and able to manage multiple batteries. The user should be able to efficiently swap batteries in their devices for operating over extended periods, which are only several hours for some devices.
A strong consensus among the participants of the roundtables was that the user device significantly impacts the usability of the application and the corresponding ROI. You need to think about the weight, keypad, and ruggedness of the device, and ensure that it fits well within the user environment. User devices in warehouses, for example, will probably undergo more physical abuse than one used in a typical office setting. I remember working for a company that made wireless handheld printers. Maintenance on these devices was much higher in industrial environments than others.
Make sure that when choosing user devices you thoroughly consider the usage environment in addition to strictly the application functionality. Since the cost of the user device hardware is generally the most expensive element of an asset management solution—and it’s what users touch—it’s important to get it right.