Baseline Survey: The Mobile Motive

By Baselinemag  |  Posted 2006-05-06

What's driving mobile computing purchases by enterprises? Hint: It's not the junior executive pining to pocket the shiniest device he can get his mitts on.

The clear-cut No. 1 business benefit of mobile computing applications is keeping workers connected. In a Baseline survey of 143 information-technology executives, 81% of respondents cited better communication and collaboration among employees as the key advantage of providing such hardware and software, followed by 69% who said increased responsiveness to customers was a benefit.

Click here to view additional results from the mobile survey exclusively online.

Those and other reasons are driving enterprises to budget more for mobile computing projects, which encompass everything from wireless e-mail devices to special-purpose software for salespeople using laptops. The average business expects to increase mobile computing spending 1% to 4% in 2006, according to Baseline's survey, which was conducted in March. And for larger companies—those with more than 1,000 employees—the median expected increase was 5% to 14%, up from an average range of $250,000 to $500,000 in 2005 spending.

For Dave Croteau, manager of customer support for Toshiba America Medical Systems, getting data from his mobile field-service staff in a timely manner was a nagging problem. And the delay was losing the company money.

Croteau oversees customer-service operations for the Tustin, Calif.-based company, which provides service and support for medical imaging equipment, including ultrasound and X-ray machines, to hospitals and labs across the country. His team dispatches one of 400 field service engineers whenever a customer needs help.

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Here was Croteau's beef: The engineers were equipped with laptops running Amdocs' Clarify customer relationship management software to enter information about the work they performed. But if they were at a customer's facility, they usually couldn't get a network connection to log in to the Clarify system, and they'd put off the data-entry task. "The average close for a case was running over 13 days," Croteau says, "which coincided with the technical engineers doing their expense cards every two weeks."

That delayed how quickly Toshiba America Medical Systems could get paid, because the billing department can't process invoices until an engineer files a report detailing the work. Plus, Croteau says, the billable hours engineers entered were often only hazy guesses, and it turned out that on average, customers were being undercharged.

Last fall, Croteau led a team that rolled out Research in Motion's wireless BlackBerry devices running software developed by Antenna Software, which specializes in mobile applications. The system lets technical engineers enter data, such as the parts they used during a visit, into Clarify from their BlackBerrys no matter where they are.

About 80% of the field service techs now have BlackBerrys. The results? According to Croteau, time to close cases has dropped 70%, to about four days; he's shooting to get it down to 24 hours. In addition, technicians have reported an average of 22% more billable hours; Croteau says that because they're entering the data sooner, it's much closer to reality.

In the first year, the project will cost $700,000, including hardware and software. Croteau says the project's expenses will be recovered in seven months if the company can tally just 15 extra minutes of previously unreported billable time per month per technician. "In terms of our total cost structure," he says, "one of the biggest things is that our field engineers are reporting time more accurately now with the wireless devices."

Upgrading Portability

For companies already broadly using mobile technologies, the goal is to improve on the status quo.

State Farm Insurance, for example, this year is upgrading the wireless data radios in the laptops of State Farm's claims workers to provide faster connection speeds. Most of those workers connect to wide-area Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) networks, such as those operated by Sprint, to file reports from the scene of accidents or fires. CDMA technology transmits signals simultaneously over a shared portion of the wireless spectrum.

The Bloomington, Ill., insurance carrier is replacing the first-generation CDMA cards with those that can also connect to the newest Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) networks, which provide more than 20 times the bandwidth with download speeds of up to 3 million bits per second. That will, ideally, help claims workers do their jobs faster, says Darrell Sims, a systems analyst at State Farm.

Sims' biggest challenge is making that change for a workforce scattered across the U.S. and Canada: Wireless technologies are used by many of State Farm's 120,000 employees and agents. He estimates that the upgrade to EV-DO will take more than a year. "It's hard to turn on a dime if we want to change the kind of [mobile] hardware we're using," he says.

For others, security is a chief concern. The highest percentage of survey respondents (22%) said data security is their top challenge with mobile computing. In second place, at 19%, was managing devices.

At Integris Health, which operates 11 hospitals in and around Oklahoma City, some doctors carry their own personal digital assistants to keep track of appointments or patient information. But Randy Maib, senior information-technology consultant at the company, says the data on those Palm or Microsoft Pocket PC devices could have been viewed by someone who wasn't allowed to see it.

"Doctors were just leaving PDAs lying around," he says. "Anybody could just pick one up and see what was on it." Such a security breach could have violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which prohibits unauthorized disclosure of patient records.

To provide authentication and encryption for doctors' personal devices—about 275 of which are currently in use at Integris—Maib decided to use software from Credant Technologies that enforces policies about how data is stored and accessed.

The package includes software that resides on every Windows desktop machine that doctors use to synchronize patient data with handhelds; any time data is downloaded from the desktop computer, the Credant system requires an additional "shield" to be loaded on the portable device. The shield software encrypts the data on the PDA and requires the user to enter a numeric password to gain access to its functions.

That annoyed some doctors. "We got some pushback from physicians who complained that they didn't want to load this onto their handhelds," Maib says. But he and his team explained that the policy is needed as part of meeting HIPAA requirements. "We're looking at this from the perspective of protecting data that's mobile, rather than protecting users or the devices themselves," he says.


A Leaner Way to Work

Despite the challenges of managing and securing mobile devices, companies are finding new mobile computing tools to let employees collaborate more rapidly. Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, an investment bank based in London, runs 2,700 separate "wiki" pages on its internal networks. A wiki is a free-form, Web-based forum that can be modified by anyone who's a member of the group.

In the 18 months since rolling them out, Dresdner has found the wikis, running software from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Socialtext, have become immensely popular among its 6,000 employees to keep in touch with each other, says Myrto Lazopoulou, the bank's head of user-centered design. Information shared on the wikis ranges from meeting notes to ongoing project team discussions. "You can stick a meeting agenda on a wiki instead of sending e-mail to 30 people," she says.

Now, Dresdner has opened up access to the wikis to mobile users. Most of the bank's key employees use BlackBerry devices, Lazopoulou explains, and as the wikis grew in popularity, many wanted a way to keep plugged in while they were on the road. Some features are absent in the BlackBerry version; for example, users don't see a button for their favorite wikis. But otherwise, the mobile wikis—referred to as "mikis"—provide full access to the group pages. "It was the best solution to keep everybody up to date," she says.

At most companies, however, not every employee needs a BlackBerry or similar wireless device. Bigger companies are more restrictive in doling them out: 27% of the survey respondents at companies with more than 1,000 employees say they give mobile devices to all management employees, compared with 43% of those at smaller firms. And whereas no large organizations give every one of their non-management workers mobile devices, 16% of the little guys do (see "Who Gets the Gizmos?").

Accenture, the global consulting services company, doesn't arm all of its 126,000 troops with the wireless gadget du jour. In fact, fewer than 10% of its employees have a company-supported wireless personal digital assistant such as a BlackBerry, says CIO Frank B. Modruson.

Why? A wireless PDA is upward of twice as expensive to own as a laptop PC, he says: A $1,200 laptop amortized over two years is cheaper than a handheld device, which can cost up to $500, plus two years of wireless access service at $50 to $100 per month. "The decision about whether to give someone a mobile device comes down, in some cases, to salary," Modruson explains. "If the cost of the device is just a small fraction of the person's salary, it makes sense to give them that kind of device."

Make the Mobile Case

But in some industries, a mobile computing device is essentially part of the uniform.

FedEx Ground is a case in point. The $2 billion FedEx Corp. subsidiary, which specializes in small-package delivery, is rolling out 25,000 devices from Hand Held Products, a maker of mobile and wireless data-collection products. Roman Hlutkowsky, FedEx Ground's vice president of operations technology and systems support, says that compared with the older devices the division was using from Symbol—originally deployed six years ago—Hand Held Products' Dolphin 9500s provide better battery life, color screens and built-in wireless network connectivity so drivers can transmit delivery data without having to return to their trucks.

The cost of FedEx Ground's project will be $45 million to $50 million over two years, which includes hardware, software and training, but not recurring costs like wireless data services.

And what's the return on this project? Hlutkowsky expects the new devices to result in savings because they will allow the company to migrate from networks that use Mobitex (a low-speed wireless technology developed 20 years ago) to more widely available General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) wide-area networks. With GPRS, he notes, FedEx Ground can transmit three times the data for two-thirds the cost.

But in Hlutkowsky's view, the main justification for the project is that FedEx Ground needs to update a critical part of its business with new technology. Mobile devices, he says, are now an inseparable part of its operations. "I made my business case for moving away from paper invoices in 1990," he says, adding: "When your laptop dies, do you do a cost-benefit analysis on whether to replace it?"

For the Virginia Lottery, meanwhile, mobile computing technologies are a more novel development. Though it posted $1.3 billion in revenue last year, the state lottery of the Commonwealth of Virginia realized it wasn't distributing its scratch-off ticket games efficiently, says sales operations manager Joey Philpott.

Each week, a team of telemarketers would call 5,000 retail partners to see which of the lottery's 56 scratch-and-win games they needed to restock. But because the telemarketers didn't have access to sales data, they didn't know which games were most popular, and stores frequently sold out of some of the hottest tickets. The lottery does have 74 field representatives, who call on individual retailers to discuss sales trends. But they didn't have up-to-date data—it could be up to a week old—and it was only available in printed reports.

Overall, Philpott says, "We didn't have effective ways to get products out into the market. We knew there had to be a better way to do this."

Last year, Philpott and his team gave mobile computers to the field agents, with the goal of boosting scratch-off ticket game sales. The lottery is using Hewlett-Packard TC4200 Windows XP Tablet PCs, which are portable computers that can function either as laptops or as display devices (to show a client on-screen information, for example). The tablets run Cole Systems' OrderPad software, which can show sales data from the previous day or week, identify the hottest kinds of games at a particular retailer and crunch other numbers.

The Virginia Lottery's startup costs for the project, including software licenses and hardware, were $800,000. Philpott believes the system will undoubtedly increase sales, though he wouldn't disclose specific projections.

In any event, as Philpott points out, the new system is an improvement in how the lottery deals with retail partners. "Before, we were doing this kind of blind with telemarketers sitting in an office," he says. "Now the sales reps are there right when they need to be—in front of a customer—with the right data."