Avnet Plugs Into Wireless

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted 2009-02-18

Wireless technology is no stranger to the enterprise. Over the last few years, organizations have adopted an array of tools, devices and solutions to connect people and data in ways that once seemed unfathomable. However, building a robust infrastructure and ensuring that employees, customers and business partners have the specific information they need when and where they need it remains a daunting task.

“It’s crucial to get mobile and wireless systems right,” says Robert Pischke, vice president of business applications at Avnet, a Phoenix-based $18 billion electronics distributor with 12,800 employees and 300 locations in 73 countries. “The technology has a huge upside, but it’s not as simple as installing systems and reaping the benefits.” These days, Avnet is focused on harnessing wireless technology for maximum gain.

In fact, the company has built a business strategy increasingly focused on the use of mobile and wireless technologies—including smartphones and laptops equipped with wireless cards. So far, Avnet has introduced tools that allow sales staff to provide price quotes, review the status of orders and check inventory while in the field. The system pulls data from enterprise ERP and CRM systems. In addition, account managers have access to e-mail, and the company is currently migrating to a lead-generation system that expands the existing mobility initiative.

“We’re landing contracts and gaining wins because of our capability to move faster and more efficiently than competitors. We’re also cutting costs and becoming a more productive organization,” Pischke says.

Into Thin Air

There’s no question that wireless technology can fundamentally change the way an organization interacts and gets work done. The ability to grab inventory data, enter orders and provide answers to customers in real time represents an enormous opportunity. But laying down the technology foundation to make the promise of wireless a bona fide payoff requires a robust IT infrastructure and a thorough understanding of business processes.

Pischke knew that a well-designed wireless infrastructure could pay enormous dividends for Avnet, which has two primary business groups in electronics marketing and components, upward of 200,000 customers worldwide, and a sales and support staff that numbers in the thousands.

In June 2006, the firm opted to make a major transition to wireless systems. By May 2007, it had a solution in place within its electronics marketing division.

As Pischke puts it, “We wanted to take business to the point of the relationship.” So, Avnet examined who had access to key business data and was concerned when it learned that the firm’s roughly 750 account managers—who spend most of their time in the field—had the least access of all.

Even worse was the fact that account managers had the greatest need for data. Most visited the office only once a week, usually on a Monday, and they found themselves syncing their notebook computers and PDAs in order to update transactions and other information. “We realized that we had to find a better way to manage and distribute data,” he explains.

So, IT began examining potential solutions. Avnet wanted to ensure that a wireless platform was vendor-agnostic, and Pischke wanted to use service-oriented architecture (SOA) components to speed the deployment of applications.

The company unveiled a prototype system that delivered ERP and CRM data to a test group of 22 account managers. After a six-month trial, IT polled the employees, and 21 of them provided favorable feedback and suggested a nationwide rollout.

“Account managers told us that it was revolutionary to sit with a customer and look up inventory levels and the status of an order,” Pischke says. “They didn’t have to make phone calls, and they didn’t have to send e-mails and tell the customer they’d get back to them at a later time.”

Placing proprietary data at the fingertips of account managers completely changed the interactions with customers, Pischke says. Instead of waiting for hours or even days to get answers, customers got requested information instantly. This improved Avnet’s image and boosted efficiency.

In fact, the company estimates that it has realized approximately $2 million in productivity gains. “We have customers who have commented that they have given us their business because of our ability to provide quick and seamless service in the field,” he says.

Avnet is now expanding its capabilities. It has the ability to access special product designs that the firm develops with customers, and it is making its lead-generation system available to mobile users.

In addition, the company is providing Evolution Data Optimized (EvDO) cards for laptop users so they can access enterprise data—and e-mail—while traveling, sitting in a coffee shop and even riding in a taxi. In the past, the typical employee racked up $125 per month in Wi-Fi charges, according to Pischke, who says, “Now we’re paying only $45 per month, per employee for 24/7 access.”

Striking a Chord

Ensuring success required a sound strategy and a well-defined plan. The foundation for the system, Pischke says, is a series of APIs that connect back-end mainframes and servers with Pocket PC phones, Palm devices and various BlackBerry smartphones. Avnet uses a mobility server running XML and open-source applications to convert data to the appropriate format. The SOA and an Enterprise Service Bus running on a middle tier allow Avnet to deploy applications and services through the firewall two to three times faster.

One of the biggest challenges, however, was making sure that users could access applets and data using various devices. “It’s very different to make data available on a 2-and-a-half-inch screen versus a 19-inch monitor,” Pischke says. “The interface is crucial.”

Another consideration was to train workers to use the system effectively. IT provided an initial round of training—as well as a PowerPoint presentation that account managers could view from their desktops—so users could understand the wrinkles and nuances of the system. Finally, a steering committee that meets monthly keeps the initiative on track by mapping out requirements, prioritizing enhancements and spearheading new mobility offerings.

Remarkably, Avnet built the wireless platform using only two senior application architects and developers.

Overall, about two dozen IT and business staff members provided peripheral support, including assistance with connecting ERP and other enterprise systems to the APIs.

The overall return on investment from the project, Avnet estimates, is more than tenfold. In addition, Pischke says that the cost savings is now more than $2.5 million. Of course, it’s impossible to measure the intangible gains that have derived through improved customer loyalty and sales.

The bottom line? Accessing data is now as simple as tapping an icon and opening an applet. It’s a world far-removed from phones, faxes and ongoing e-mail messages. It’s an environment that allows business to flow at digital speed.

“Wireless technology gives our work force a competitive advantage because we’re offering real-time information, driving productivity and reduced cycle times, and providing a superior customer experience,” Pischke concludes.