Process & Strategy: Effective Needs Analysis

By  Craig Settles — July 31, 2008

In our ongoing series on process and strategy, Craig Settles interviews I.T. executives from a range of enterprises -- including Dunkin' Donuts, Cox Enterprises, and 7-Eleven -- about the process of needs analysis in any mobile deployment. The bottom line? The success or failure of any deployment depends on how good your team is at getting feedback from the workers who will actually be using the solution.

Read additional installments in this series:
Taking The Pain Out Of Mobile Expense Management
Mobile Device Management

Playing Politics
What's The Plan?

Effective Needs Analysis
As organizations introduce or expand mobile applications throughout their workforces, the driving questions should be: Is this really what workers will use? And if they use it, will the application deliver the promised benefits?

The road to enterprise mobility is littered with million-dollar software deployments that were spectacular failures because organizations didn't adequately answer these questions. Effective needs analysis saves endless grief and countless dollars.

Defining needs
Educating management is important for successful needs analysis. "When senior managers develop an intuitive understanding of what technology can and cannot do, their requests tend to be more realistic," says Gregory Morrison, VP/CIO of media company Cox Enterprises. In deploying an in-building wireless infrastructure, Cox created a steering committee of business unit leaders and I.T. management. "We communicated the importance of prioritizing processes so we could determine who to allocate a finite number of resources to for the unified messaging solution we built," says Morrison

Once management is up to speed, it's crucial to address the working relationship between business units and I.T. as they align technology with business needs.

Warren Engard, Director of Distribution Operations for Dunkin' Donuts' Mid-Atlantic Distribution Center, helped implement a picking system and warehouse management application using voice recognition and running on Voxware wearable computers. "We formed a team comprised of the General Manager and heads of each major department --accounting, traffic, HR and I.T. -- who collectively documented the business needs and produced an RFP.

"For many companies, I.T. seems to be making decisions for other departments, rather than in partnership with them," says Engard. "Business operations end up taking a back seat and tend to get compromised with the eventual solution. But for us, operations drove our project, because we need the application to run our business the way it needs to run. I.T. should facilitate this, not
dictate it."

Not to be forgotten are the rank-and-file mobile workers. Ultimately, they use the application. Anything that prevents them from getting their jobs done, or requires more time than the old process to complete tasks, diminishes ROI.

Republic National Distribution Company, a distributor of alcoholic beverages, implemented a mobile sales force automation application developed in-house for its 1,000 sales reps. "We spent a lot of time upfront talking to a good cross section of users to determine what they need," says Warren Newman, VP of Information Systems. "That's key to getting the design right. After determining what people need, we develop application specs, then return to this same group. We say 'what we think you told us to design is this. Is it really what you want?' "

Newman says his team also did design reviews with users as they went through development. They developed a homegrown application that closely conformed to users' needs.

It helps if the business- or I.T.-side person driving the feedback collection actually knows what it is like to work in the field. Someone who has not completed a field service form in five years has likely forgotten the nuances of the job that the application should address. Also, end user buy-in happens more easily when workers respect the person running the process.

The Pilot Makes It Real
Pilot projects are where the rubber meets the road in gathering feedback. To effectively execute these, it's important to get the right people involved, capture quality feedback, and effectively evaluate application results.

Organizations should balance pilot participation between their best workers and those who are less productive, since this reflects the cross section
of workers within an enterprise. Geography is another consideration, in that the location of participants impacts the ease of running a pilot.

When Vincent Burch -- now with Constance Food Group -- was a Regional Logistics Manager for 7-Eleven, he evaluated a Voxware logistics management application for the retailer's 26 distribution centers. As part of the process, he determined which center had managers with the most technology experience, as well as which center had the least amount of work, to determine which facility would be the least affected by the transition from a manual system to an automated one.

Because the training program was easy, they picked only two workers to pilot test this: a young person who had no fear of technology, and someone older who was a little technology phobic. Burch determined that young or tech-savvy workers needed about 30 minutes for training, whereas those who were less tech-savvy required an hour.

Organizations should not take shortcuts collecting feedback. "We've learned the hard way how important it is to make it easy for participants to share information with you," says Michael Kovash, Senior I.T. Project Manager of Work Force Automation for Cox Communications, which also deployed MDSI's Advantex wireless workforce management software running on Panasonic rugged laptops.

"Surveys alone aren't good enough," says Kovash. If you can't be in the truck with them, recruit workers from within their ranks to be application champions who ride with the people using it. "Have group meetings with users," he adds. "On a weekly basis, if I didn't get email I would contact users to ask pointed questions."

And finally, make sure to conduct in-depth evaluation of the results the application generates. When laundry facilities management company Mac-Gray deployed a Vettro field service application, "We already had a proven way to measure productivity," says Mike Lentro, Mac-Gray's VP of Operations. "So we tracked this for the first year after we deployed our Vettro field service application. Once we could prove payback, everything was easy to justify."

"Build it and they will come" is a poor philosophy for mobile application development. I.T. and business-side managers have to commit the necessary resources to take an accurate reading of what workers need, how they will use it, and what ROI benefits they can expect. //

Tips For effective needs analysis

  • Educate senior management. When they understand what technology can and cannot do, their requests tend to be more realistic.
  • Address the working relationship between I.T. and business units as they align mobile technology with business needs.
  • Take a partnership approach and build teams that represent all the different divisions that will be affected by the new solution.
  • Never overlook the rank-and-file. These are the workers who will be using the application. Get them involved from the start.
  • Pick the right people for your pilot project. Make it a balance between the best workers, and those who are not as high-performing.
  • Make it easy for participants to share feedback. Ride in trucks with them, have frequent group meetings, ask pointed questions.


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