Pervasive Mobility Creates New Business Challenges
By Samuel Greengard
Mobility isn't a new concept. For more than two decades, employees have carried around cell phones and laptops. They've used VPNs and tapped into remote servers and systems.
However, the last few years have brought about a revolution in mobility. As smartphones and tablets have gone mainstream, organizations have watched the dial slide from niche devices and specialized applications to an always-on environment that connects people, applications and data across vast geographies.
What's more, the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) movement and the consumerization of IT have profoundly changed the way workers interact, collaborate and manage tasks. "We have crossed over from mobility representing a channel to it serving as the primary channel for accessing content and getting work done," points out Fernando Alvarez, a senior vice president and global leader for Capgemini's Global Mobile Solution Service. "Ultimately, the technology creates enormous disruption, but it also presents a huge opportunity to become more efficient."
The post-PC era has arrived, and it's fundamentally changing the enterprise landscape. Today, 90 percent of American workers carry smartphones, and enterprise tablet adoption is swelling by nearly 50 percent annually. In addition, more than half of all new network devices are now wireless, and that figure will continue to rise over the next few years.
Yet all of this is only the beginning. According to digital advertising agency Vertic, mobile app development projects will outnumber native PC projects by a 4-to-1 ratio by 2015. Factor in social media, the cloud and big data, and it's clear that nothing less than a revolution is under way.
"Mobility started out as a way to access email, contacts and calendars, but it now extends into productivity applications and enterprise data," says Daniel Eckert, director and CTO of the Emerging Technologies Group at consulting firm PwC. "Pervasive mobility translates into an always-on and always-available state. The technology is forcing organizations and IT executives to re-examine everything."
The proliferation of mobile devices in the enterprise has far-reaching implications. As Dan Shey, practice director of M2M Enterprise and Verticals at ABI Research points out, it is creating new workflows and connection patterns that enable workers within organizations to link in the most efficient way possible.
What's more, "The technology allows all stakeholders—customers, employees, business partners and others—to interact," Shey says, "and it unleashes capabilities that weren't possible in the past." This could include everything from routing a fleet of trucks more efficiently to allowing citizens to report potholes through a crowdsourcing app on a smartphone.
ABI Research reports that as many as 50 billion machine-to-machine (M2M) connections will exist by 2020. For now, enterprises must navigate an increasingly chaotic mobile environment that requires new technologies, new IT skills and far more comprehensive governance policies than at any time in the past.
"Executives increasingly recognize that they must adopt a pervasive mobile strategy and navigate a complex and sometimes overwhelming marketplace and landscape," Shey says. "They must sort through a huge number of products, solutions and vendors to find the right approach."
It's no simple task. PwC's Eckert says a good starting point is to recognize that mobility is an extension of the digital enterprise. Building greater intelligence into systems, processes and interactions requires a tightly defined strategy and a fundamental understanding of how to fit all the pieces together. But it also demands an IT infrastructure—including clouds and other systems—that can support pervasive computing and match growing expectations about speed, performance and 24/7 availability and support.
"Workers now demand a consumer-like experience, and they become impatient and even upset when systems don't perform up to their expectations," Eckert explains.
Mobility Feeds Progress
Pervasive mobility is helping organizations manage internal resources and tackle complicated logistics more effectively. Chicago-based Feeding America, the largest hunger relief organization in the nation, procures food and distributes it to 202 food banks and more than 61,000 nonprofit partner agencies serving every county across the United States.
The organization moves more than 3 billion pounds of food annually, notes Kevin Lutz, vice president of technology. "Getting food products to food banks in a timely manner is critical," he says. "Every dollar we save equals about eight additional meals."
Early in 2013, Feeding America, which has about 8,500 employees, introduced a pilot mobility program using the SAP Mobile Platform. Truck drivers in the field use a Motorola Symbol handheld device that uses cellular signals and WiFi to track daily inventory across the entire supply chain.
The drivers electronically log items entering and leaving the system, replacing the pencil and paper and manual tracking methods that are more prone to error. The organization also uses GPS vehicle routing. "It's all about receiving the product, storing the product and delivering the product in the most timely and efficient manner possible," Lutz says.
The mobility systems have helped Feeding America trim fuel costs, improve maintenance procedures and streamline food collection processes.
"In some cases, a driver might need to pick up a pallet of food and get it to the endpoint very quickly," Lutz explains, "as many of these products are close to their expiration date. In the morning, the drivers are able to record donations on their handheld device and build up an inventory, providing receipts to donors in the field. In the afternoon, they are able to drop off the food supplies and deduct the inventory."
Along the way, executives at headquarters have a central view of all inventory. The information is also valuable for food safety purposes, Lutz adds.
Over the next few years, Feeding America will roll out the mobility program nationally, and it is now exploring the use of smartphones in the field—something that Lutz says could significantly lower costs. It also has introduced mobile apps for consumers and partners and adopted other initiatives. For instance, it is now developing a feature designed to create a more efficient marketplace.
"For smaller donations, we would notify a local organization that food is available rather than sending out a truck," Lutz says. "It takes us out of the loop and makes it more economical for smaller donations to flow directly from the giver to the recipients."
Building the best possible system was a key objective for Markwest Energy Partners, a 1,000-person company that gathers, processes and transports oil and gas products to refineries. In the past, the Denver-based firm was shackled with cumbersome manual approval processes that became further complicated by traveling executives and field operations that weren't always in touch with the company's headquarters.
"In some cases, we have trailers and workers located in remote areas where cellular communication isn't available, and it can take days or weeks to get a signature," says Andrew Eberhard, senior IT application architect for Markwest.
In fact, getting an authorization for expenditure (AFE) document signed had become "a huge bottleneck," he says. "It was affecting the company's efficiency and the bottom line."
To solve that problem, in December 2011, the company deployed K2's BlackPearl business workflow platform and began supporting iPads and iPhones in the field. Where cellular connectivity didn't exist, the company worked with telecom providers to install cell towers near worksites. "The goal was to automate workflows, standardize processes and expedite signatures," he says.
The results have been transformative, according to Eberhard. Instead of manually pulling forms and documents from email in-boxes and SharePoint servers via a VPN—with the company relying on accurate metadata tags to track and find everything—managers now view pending AFEs within a task queue. They are able to review and electronically sign documents from a PC, laptop or a mobile device. In addition, the accounting team can view the status of everything from a central dashboard.
"The process changed overnight," Eberhard says. "It was a dramatic shift that completely altered workflows and work processes."
Markwest supports only iOS devices and has a BYOD policy in place. The biggest challenge associated with the initiative, Eberhard says, was overcoming opposition to employees using personal identification numbers on their personal devices.
"We mandated the use of PINs as a basic security option," he notes. "We addressed the issue with executives and built basic protections into the overall security strategy."
The company is now looking to expand the reach of Oracle 11i apps to the mobile arena and push mobile business processes out to additional groups of employees.
Coordinating and Optimizing
ABI's Shey says that as organizations move forward and adopt pervasive mobility, the need to coordinate and optimize IT systems is critical. This includes everything from back-end systems to customer-, partner- and employee-facing apps.
"Businesses must ensure that data flows between systems, and that tools and apps display correctly on mobile browsers," he says. Unfortunately, industry research indicates that only about half of the top 500 Websites are mobile enabled. "There is still a gap between where companies are and where they need to be," Eckert warns.
It's also critical to address governance issues and ensure that a strong mobile framework is in place. "Organizations must use mobile device management tools, but also carefully define processes and security requirements along the way," Capgemini's Alvarez says. "Once an organization clearly defines its business requirements and governance issues, it can build an effective road map."
Make no mistake: Mobility is moving into the mainstream of the enterprise. It's helping organizations connect tasks and processes in far more efficient and direct ways. In the end, PwC's Eckert says that IT departments must view mobility as far more than the sum of smartphones, tablets and apps.
In a post-PC world, "The device becomes the application, and everything else essentially becomes a menu item for presenting specific functionality and an array of powerful capabilities," Eckert summarizes.