New applications for mobile workers

More small and mid-sized businesses are turning to mobile technology to boost productivity – but it’s a complex area that requires specialized skill sets. According to a recent online survey by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance, 69 per cent of Canadian businesses surveyed believe mobile technology is helping them better compete and 55 per cent are using mobile technology in key departments or across the entire organization.

For Emerson Process Management, which does maintenance and repairs on Emerson products, mobile technology has helped to streamline its business processes. Field service technicians travel from Vancouver Island to Saskatchewan to handle service request calls from customers in industries such as oil and gas and pulp and paper.

In the past when field service technicians went on-site during peak periods, they could be gone for weeks on end, says Reg Buffet, general manager of instrument and valve services with Emerson Process Management in Edmonton. Customers were provided with paper copies of the customer service report, which outlined what the technician worked on, what parts were installed and the labour rate.

The company invoices through a third-party sales channel, but invoices weren’t sent out until the technicians got back to the office. So the company was faced with long delays in getting information back to customers. “It was something that our customers asked for – to invoice quicker, get the information quicker,” says Buffet. “Without something wireless, we didn’t have a solution.” So the company started considering its options.

Ottawa’s TrueContext specializes in turning paper forms into electronic ones to help customers automate field sales, field service and field data collection, says Alvaro Pombo, the company’s founder, executive chairman and president. These business processes all have the same ‘pain point,’ he says, which is capturing the right information in the field and translating that back to a central location.

Emerson rolled out an end-to-end solution delivered through Rogers using HP iPAQ hw6500 handhelds that run TrueContext software. It is hosted by HP on a per-user, per-month basis. “It is targeted to very specific, very well-defined business processes,” says Pombo. Usually owners or managers are afraid of moving forward with mobile technology because they don’t know what impact it will have on staff, he says, which is why it’s important to test demo units and run trials.

Emerson ran trials with a couple of testing units before committing to the technology. It also used the opportunity to engage employees. Now field service technicians can go on-site, input customer information directly into the handheld, have the customer sign off on it and e-mail the information back to the office for immediate processing. “We’ve started to process jobs within a week,” says Buffet. The mobile technology has been in place for the past six to seven months, and the company is considering expanding the number of units in the field since it has up to a dozen technicians that could be on different trips at various times.

It’s becoming increasingly important for companies of all sizes to have a mobile strategy in place, because there are so many different aspects of a mobile business, says Tony Olvet, vice-president of the communications practice with IDC Canada, in Toronto. These include the mobile devices, the infrastructure to support those devices, as well as mobile applications and services.

But decision-making doesn’t happen in a vacuum – especially with respect to SMBs that likely have a burning issue or challenge they’re trying to address.

When evaluating a mobile application, SMBs should consider the convergence of wired with wireless, says Olvet, because increasingly providers will be helping customers bridge those two worlds. Ask your supplier, whether it’s a VAR or service provider, to tell you about their roadmap and how they’re going to ensure consistency in the user experience between the wired and wireless worlds. Also, what are the integration points – because you don’t want to end up playing integrator. And you don’t want to end up with applications that can’t talk to each other.

Look for reference cases, says Olvet, and run pilots. It’s also wise to consider different suppliers than you would for your typical IT requirements, because mobility involves a different skill set. Casting a slightly wider net – at least as you’re getting started – could bring you a greater return in the long run.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.
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