Mobile Tools Create Opportunities, Boost Bottom Line

By Darrell Dunn  |  Posted 04-07-2007

Mobile Tools Create Opportunities, Boost Bottom Line




The mobility hodgepodge is over. Companies are developing strategic mobile initiatives to improve efficiency and enhance customer relations and, most important, to boost productivity and profitability.

Take, for instance, Safelite Autoglass, a unit of Safelite Group Inc., where interacting one-on-one with customers and their vehicles is at the heart of its business of replacing broken windshields. By developing a mobile strategy, Safelite saw an opportunity to enhance the personalized attention it gives each customer while radically shifting its cost structure.

Safelite was founded 60 years ago, with a single store in Wichita, Kan. By 2003, the company had grown into a sprawling enterprise, with more than 700 sites in all 50 states. About a decade ago, the company began to replace windshields at customers' homes and businesses, rather than having customers visit a Safelite store. As these remote windshield repairs grew in popularity, Safelite closed all but 150 of its facilities, saving the company millions of dollars.

As more repairs occurred at customers' locales, Safelite executives agreed that supervisors needed a better way to communicate with its 1,800 field technicians, who had been armed with mobile radios and telephones. Safelite considered a variety of handheld and ruggedized computing devices, settling on BlackBerry wireless personal digital assistants from Research In Motion Ltd. At $200 each, the BlackBerrys were much cheaper than notebook or tablet computers priced between $1,000 and $2,000 a unit. "We wanted a model that reduced cost and made customers happy," says Safelite IT director Rod Ghani.

The BlackBerrys, with GPS capabilities, allow Safelite dispatchers (via home-grown applications) to deploy and monitor the whereabouts of field workers. One application allows technicians to access turn-by-turn directions to their appointments that appear on their BlackBerry screens. The devices also serve as electronic punch cards tied into Safelite's time-keeping and payroll systems. Once a job is completed, a technician creates an electronic invoice for the job, accepts credit card payment, secures an electronic signature, and provides a printed receipt, which proved to be a time saver.

A test conducted by Safelite shows its mobile strategy saved field technicians between 60 minutes and 90 minutes during an eight-hour shift, enough time for the technician to replace an additional customer's windshield. On average, a Safelite technician can now service five or six customers a day, up from four or five. "Not only do customers appreciate what we are doing," Ghani says, "we couldn't take those BlackBerrys out of our technicians' hands now, because the devices have so simplified their working process."

Ask Your CEO:
Have we thoroughly explored the new opportunities a mobile strategy could provide?

Ask Your CFO:
Can we budget for mobile devices that could result in a break-through in productivity?



Piecing together two or three mobility projects is not a mobile strategy. Companies must prioritize tiers of users to assure the right equipment and applications go to the right workers.

Employees will use mobile technologies if they believe they make their jobs simpler and more efficient, regardless of whether the company has a fully developed mobile strategy or not. And more than half of companies are considering mobility: According to a 2006 survey of 369 North American IT executives by Forrester Research Inc., 58 percent said setting a mobile and wireless strategy was a critical priority for 2007, while only 16 percent said a mobility effort was not currently being considered.

"Many CIOs are now in a situation where they've had two or three different mobility projects more or less dumped in their laps," says Leif-Olof Wallin, an analyst with Gartner Inc. "They find themselves with disparate technologies, disparate service providers, and few avenues for leveraging traditional IT disciplines. CIOs that attempt to support everything typically end up with a support nightmare."

A strong mobility strategy should start with the creation of a mobility center of excellence within a company, Wallin says. It needn't be big; it can be one employee to several workers, depending on the size of the company. By serving as liaison between IT, other business units and top decision-makers, these "mobility excellence" employees can ensure the strategy continuously evolves to drive business objectives.

Forrester Research analyst Maribel Lopez advises clients to create an enterprise mobility checklist to aid in the development of a mobile strategy. The checklist should cover the framework, security, device management and support.

A mobility framework determines the types of devices, operating systems and software applications that will need to be supported, and sets guidelines for each class of employee. Security questions include what regulatory and encryption requirements must be met, frequency of user authentication log-ins, and timetables for when lost or stolen equipment should automatically be shut down. Companies must decide whether to keep management and support in-house, or fully or partially outsource them. Then, after a business process review by high-level corporate executives, companies must set policies for procurement of devices, application migration and employee use.

A mobility strategy must also be flexible. Multiple options should be available to meet requirements that are dependent on job titles, tasks performed and levels of associated security. Creating user tiers is important, since not all users, mobile devices and applications should be treated equally. CEOs, for example, will likely have access to a large number of applications and data. Line workers, meanwhile, may need tailored systems for in-field tasks but have limited need for business applications.

Forrester identifies three classes of enterprise mobile workers: information users who spend two or three days a week away from their desks, mobile workers who are out of the office four to five days a week, and instrumented workers who need mobility for a specific task, such as inventory tracking or supply-chain management. Each has distinct requirements for application support, hardware type and security.

"Some mobile workers depend on constant access to applications, like a nurse using a tablet or a cable-company repair worker receiving dispatches," says Lopez. On the other hand, "information workers are typically executives using wireless e-mail devices. They want access to some, but not all their applications on the road."

An analysis of your workers' tasks and their environments will help identify logical tiers of users, each tier with its own approved devices, applications and levels of support. Specialized mobile devices may be called for: Some industries and workers, such as those in the oil industry, may require ruggedized equipment. International travelers working in under-developed countries may need small devices that can be concealed. Once completed, the tiering of workers and their requirements will allow your company to develop a strategy for support levels ranging from 9 to 5 to round-the-clock. The tiers can also serve as a prioritized blueprint for a multiphase rollout of your mobility strategy.

"The challenge to most enterprises is that mobility is a very fast-moving target," Wallin says. "There are new devices, applications and supporting companies coming out every year. A key component of any strategy should be to plan for frequent replacement, and an understanding of how those changes will fit within your tiered-user model."

Ask Your Employees:
How could your job benefit from the use of mobile technology?

Ask Your Head of Procurement:
How could we best implement a multi-year mobile hardware replacement strategy?



Mobility is ready for prime time. Mobile systems and processes are now highly reliable, and mobile strategies that exploit a rapidly expanding wireless infrastructure are helping savvy companies make money.

Determine where mobility can advance business goals by conducting an inventory of workers, their tasks, applications and equipment requirements. That's what shipbuilder Northrop Grumman Ship Systems did at its shipyards in New Orleans and Pascagoula, Miss. At both sites, employees were wasting valuable time traveling around the shipyards, especially at Pascagoula's 600-acre campus. It could take an inspection supervisor up to an hour to travel from the onsite office-trailer to a ship, transverse the ship's bowels to an inspection location, and then return to the trailer. After conducting an analysis of job tasks at the shipyards in 2005, Northrop Grumman adopted two types of mobile platforms: a mobile-supervisor information system and a mobile-quality inspector system. Quality inspectors needed to be able to download engineering drawings, and a notebook format best fit their need. The requirement for supervisors, however, was met with a smaller profile device. "We really wanted to keep the supervisors at their stations as much as possible," says CIO Jan Rideout. "Our quality inspectors were also spending a tremendous amount of time capturing data on paper forms and then later inputting that information in our systems."

Northrop Grumman outfitted about 1,000 workers with mobile devices that could leverage an existing Sprint Nextel network. The company can also access a satellite uplink to the Sprint Nextel network that promises to keep mobile devices connected and communications maintained if a calamity such as a hurricane strikes.

Wasted time was also impairing productivity at Fraenkel and Co., a maker and distributor of household furniture in Baton Rouge, La. The company maintains four warehouses--varying in size from 150,000 to 250,000 square feet--where workers were squandering an inordinate amount of time searching for specific products. To solve the problem, in 2005 Fraenkel installed wireless access points throughout the warehouse and gave workers rugged, midsize handheld computers from Motorola Inc.'s Symbol Technologies subsidiary. Now, dispatchers assign warehouse workers multi-stop picking routes, with direct paths to the location of specific merchandise. The system also provides real-time analysis of product availability for customers, allowing Fraenkel to improve inventory accuracy by 85 percent or more, says Donna Helton, vice president of administration and director of IT.

"Organizations are reinventing their business processes to make use of mobile technology as it becomes available," says David Heit, director of enterprise software for BlackBerry-maker RIM. "The most obvious evidence is that mobility is no longer being funded out of discretionary funds."

Mobile technology is finally beginning to fully earn its spot as a trusted enterprise business tool, helping enterprises step nimbly through the continually changing hardware and software landscape. And it can fit hand-in-glove with other corporate goals, too.

Sustainability Victoria, a government-backed company in Victoria, Australia, helps businesses and residents use energy efficiently. Practicing what it preaches, Sustainability Victoria combined three of its facilities into one, cutting energy use by up to 50 percent. Part of the savings come from replacing desktop computers with laptops, which require 20 watts of electricity to operate, versus 100 watts for PCs with LCD screens. Sustainability Victoria also installed wireless access points at its merged facility, which improves productivity since employees can work anywhere in the building. Most important, the two strategies--mobility and energy savings--overlap, since notebooks allow workers to telecommute.

"Our mobility effort fits within the whole Green Star-rated building strategy we are creating," says Patrick O'Brien, IT and facilities manager. "Mobility, reduction in paper, encouraging new methods of working--those are all a part of our mission."

Ask Your Security Office:
What regulatory requirements must we meet within our enterprise security strategy?

Ask Your Communications Specialist:
Are we integrating our communications strategy with our overall mobility effort?