Mobile Device Management

— April 10, 2007

Many executives and IT staffs are in the dark about a silent ROI killer. "You'd be surprised how many companies don't have a handle on hardware inventory, calling or data plans and employee policies on procuring them," states Andrew Gordon, president of Ovation Services Group, which manages procurement, asset tracking and help desk services for mobile devices.

Much attention is given to mobile device software management, such as how to wirelessly deploy software and upgrades to devices and  what kinds of tools to use to prevent unauthorized access to enterprise networks. But organizations are often blindsided by the amount of avoidable costs incurred through the logistics of procuring and managing the hardware itself, as well as service plans.

The evolution of mobile devices and the evolution of their use within organizations have brought about this situation. "There's a culture that views mobile devices like toys," comments Eric Hughs, IT project manager at biotech firm Genentech. "People see the cool devices but they don't see the infrastructure issues."

Hughs relates how the iPhone announcement was barely four hours old and people were calling to ask how soon they could get one, with no understanding about how these devices would impact the network or the company's technology plans. Organizations' management need to change perceptions before they can see those hidden costs. Coming Out of the Dark
Before the turn of the century, mobile devices were mainly expensive laptops and rugged handhelds that organizations bought to facilitate specific operations. Employees bought their own PDAs and cell phones, which had limited or no access to enterprise networks. Then PDAs got smart, their computing capabilities bulked up and they started crossbreeding with cell phones while becoming chic fashion statements. Yet some organizations' procurement and inventory management processes kept functioning like it was 1999. The result--serious fiscal hemorrhaging. People are buying more than they need, paying more than they should and physically managing devices less efficiently than they could.

Taking a thorough inventory of your devices, procurement policies and practices for devices, carrier contracts and the state of the mobile device market is key to staunching the loss. "That's when you find out you have five carriers and 50 purchasing accounts, and the company you acquired has different procurement practices and people are making local voice calls at expensive data plan prices," remarks Gordon.

Taking good inventory requires someone with objectivity, patience, persistence and an eye for detail to tackle the job. A person from within the organization can do this if, like Genentech, the in-house support team has the time. In larger organizations the workload may require outside help (see sidebar for vendor ideas).

When finished, an organization should know better what devices they have, how they are being acquired and what happens when users end their tenure with the organization or devices come to the end of their useful lives. This knowledge enables organizations to eliminate detrimental purchasing practices, integrate differing policies and procedures or create new procurement policies that cover the entire enterprise.

What are all of the various rate plans in place with each carrier? Do vendors' or ISPs' support agreements differ? Evaluate how these differences impact the help desk's and IT's  support practices, because generally, the more variety these departments must address, the more difficult and costly it is for them to service employees.

Turning the situation around requires returning to your roots. "You have to stand back and look at the future course of the company, as well as the roadmap for the technology platform driving your mobile workforce automation," advises Hughs. When management and IT are clear--and agree--on the direction the organization and its technology are taking, it is easier to enforce uniform device management practices and policies across the organization.

This clarity of direction also enables procurement staff to implement effective rate-plan optimization with carriers. The resulting financial benefits (some industry watchers suggest savings as high as 35 percent) if you have more than 100 cell and smartphones should offset costs incurred for the reporting, asset tracking and other tasks required to maximize device management.

Management Is About Tradeoffs

After establishing policies and practices comes the reality of implementation. "Despite having so many devices with their endless feature changes, there are only a couple of core operating platforms," observes James Hettrick, director of information systems for the City of Loma Linda, Calif. "So be sure the platform you select gives you the flexibility you need to address the various issues in your enterprise. For example, you move to the BlackBerry Enterprise Server because you understand that you can integrate it with Outlook, but later find out that some users can't remotely manage their email."

There are also tradeoffs between devices. Hughs states, "Some don't have complex features but are workhorses that rarely malfunction and are easy to manage. Others are configurable by end users and allow them to download all kinds of personal applications. But these are much more difficult to manage." Organizations' procurement policies have to reflect this if they are going to be enforced across the enterprise.

There are also tradeoffs with choosing data and voice plans. Structure a corporate plan to protect yourself and end up with something simple. A complex plan is going to be much more difficult to manage. Hettrick adds, "We picked a basic plan and live with whatever the weaknesses are."

Equally important as what you buy is having standard ways of buying it. Gordon believes organizations need acceptable procurement practices spelled out in writing. "Do you get devices through IT or directly from the carrier? Are purchases tracked through an ERP system such as Remedy, and who approves them? Some organizations have one procurement person do it, while others still allow approvals by individual departments.

Words of Caution

A carriers' employees get every service the carrier offers, but customers get features chopped up according to how much they pay, which phone they choose and so forth. However, some features don't work well together in particular plans. "Sellers from carriers don't have the plan they're selling, so they may answer 'yes' to a question and that's not accurate, because they may be ignorant of the situation," Hettrick states. "You have to dig into things and use features to figure out what's really available."

Put in contingency plans to mitigate risks. There's the potential for a huge adverse impact as situations within an organization change, such as an acquisition or layoffs. Who's going to support the devices then? How's the billing structure going to be modified? There may be new cost centers that evolve after a merger.

There is software and also Web services you can use to help with logistics management, but users still have to do a lot of data input and analysis. If the idea is to reduce the time that in-house staff spends managing devices, you need more than just a software tool. Finally, "Be vigilant in your research when outsourcing," warns Gordon. "Many companies are agents of carriers and not independent. They earn money when you activate accounts."

Craig Settles is the president of the Bay Area consultancy Successful.com.

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