Today's Technology Works
Even today, technology can solve some burning business problems brought on by the lack of information available to mobile workers. Let's take a step back and look at the enabling technology.
The technology that enables friction-free sales and service can be placed into the three groups shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 Enabling technology.
We've seen an enormous amount of progress in all three of these areas over the last decade, and the future promises much more. But let's look at what's available today.
Different kinds of wireless networks have sprung up for various reasons in the past to provide various services that were in vogue at the time. Several of these networks can now offer some kind of wireless data service. We can classify them into three different groups:
Paging networks. Operated by companies such as Arch Wireless, Metrocall, and SkyTel, these networks provide data rates up to 25.6 Kbps downstream (from the network to the handheld) and 9.6 Kbps upstream (from the handheld to the network).
Dedicated data networks. Operated by companies such as Cingular Interactive and Motient, these networks provide data rates up to 19.2 Kbps.
Cellular networks. The same companies that offer wireless telephone service also provide data services with data rates from 9.6 Kbps to 80 Kbps.
In the long term, the mobile enterprise will be best served by the data services coming from the cellular network operators. These companies will offer the richest services and provide the synergy of voice and data communications. For the time being, however, coverage is still spotty for the data services offered on cellular networks.
Portable Computing Devices
Battery technology, CPU and memory technology, and better user interfaces work together to make possible a set of small computers that can be carried around and operated for several hours without being plugged in. The portable computing devices of interest to the mobile professional mostly fit into five categories: cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), smart phones, tablet computers, and notebook computers. These devices differ in terms of features and computing power. They also differ in cost, size, weight, battery life, and boot-up time. To get an idea of how these devices compare, it's useful to plot a rough graph positioning them by functionality versus inconvenience, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2 Rough positioning of portable devices.
Keep in mind that the term useful feature is highly subjective. Likewise, what's considered an inconvenience will differ from company to company and from person to person. How you rate features and inconveniences depends on the job function where the device is to be applied, as well as on personal preferences. For these reasons, Figure 2 should only be taken as a very rough plot of features versus cost and inconvenience.
The enterprise applications that are most important to the mobile worker are email, customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain management (SCM), and knowledge management (KM). In most cases, you'll need to work with data from more than one of these kinds of applications.
Collectively, these applications can put a rich set of information into the hands of customer-facing employees, such as the following:
Opportunities: Sales opportunities along with an estimated probability of closing each deal, the potential amount of the deal, next steps that must be taken, and the date by which closure is expected.
Contacts: The people in a client company, and information about their importance with respect to various sales opportunities.
Product catalog: Information on all the products for sale, along with cross-references, which allow up-selling and cross-selling.
Technical specifications: Details on equipment and parts to help engineers perform repairs.
An equally rich set of functions can be performed:
Time and expense: Assisting service engineers and consultants in generating invoices.
Email: Helping the mobile worker to stay in touch with colleagues.
Service ticketing: Allowing an onsite engineer to generate a service ticket so that a given problem can be tracked globally.
Parts ordering: Allowing an engineer to order parts to repair equipment.
Monitoring and controlling orders: Enabling a salesperson to detect in real time any exceptions in order fulfillment that may be occurring somewhere in the supply chain.
Dispatch: Providing a more efficient way of dispatching field engineers based on proximity, availability, and skill set.
These are just some of the things you can make available to your mobile workers today. I invite you to think of some of your own. What's most pertinent to your business?