Process & Strategy: Taking The Pain Out Of Mobile Expense Management

By Craig Settles — June 05, 2008

In our ongoing series on process and strategy, Craig Settles interviews I.T. executives from a range of enterprises -- including automotive repair organization Inland Kenworth, law firm Arent Fox, and healthcare provider The Visiting Nurses Service of Florida -- to find out how they're handling the process of expense management.

Read more from this series:
Effective Needs Analysis
Mobile Device Management

Playing Politics
What's The Plan?

Taking The Pain Out Of Mobile Expense Management

Keeping your mobile workforce equipped presents major challenges when it comes to managing the process of purchasing devices and applications. Even smaller organizations may find themselves wrangling a rodeo of laptops, tablet PCs, ruggedized handhelds or laptops, and smartphones. Good purchase control requires striking the proper balance between corporate control and end-user flexibility.

Among the factors adding to mobile purchasing challenges are:

  • Employees who purchase handheld devices directly, often circumventing corporate procedures.
  • Devices that make it easy for individuals to add software, with potentially costly consequences for the enterprise.
  • Corporate departments that may require unique mobile applications that work only for their specific needs and don't apply to the rest of the organization.
  • And, of course, carrier service fees for voice and data communication.

Hardware Purchasing In A Multi-device World

Centralized purchasing works well for laptops and handheld devices that are devoted to a single business-related use, since employees view these as company resources. Smartphones, on the other hand, are perceived by employees as personal devices. They fit into pockets, can be used to store personal contacts and schedules, and they're relatively easy to buy. So, employees happily dodge purchasing guidelines, yet they expect I.T. to support the devices.

Some companies, such as Inland Kenworth, have separate procedures for different devices. Inland Kenworth repairs and maintains automotive components throughout North America. Sales and support staff use Rove Mobile's Citrix software to access customized applications via BlackBerrys.

"Managers contact us to discuss needs, and we create a list of appropriate devices," says Inland Kenworth's I.T. manager Berton Domke. When laptops are needed, staff members order them from an I.T. services company that functions as a separate division of Inland Kenworth. The I.T. services company then bills the appropriate branches within Inland Kenworth.

In the case of BlackBerrys, the corporate I.T. team purchases and activates them and then gives them to the end users in the company. The carrier then directly bills the respective department managers, says Domke.

For many organizations, the goal is to limit the number of devices employees can use.

"Companies are increasingly restricting individuals from buying devices and expensing them back," says Jim Carroll, EVP for wireless services at Rivermine, a telecom expense management solutions vendor.

I.T. departments are limiting the number of carriers they contract with, denying server access to unapproved devices and physically controlling device activation and distribution.

Arent Fox
, a U.S.-based international law firm, is one organization employing such tactics. In fact, it's even evaluating Visto's email platform to accommodate demand for iPhones so that it can avoid having a band of renegade users running around with the popular devices.

Yet the company's I.T. team is aware of its limitations. "Our conduct committee addresses issues such as protecting the firm's data," says Arent Fox CTO Robert Young. "But we don't have the manpower to police these rules."

Accessorizing Your Guidelines

Accessories, spare parts and repairs add to the purchasing challenges. "We initially calculated [that] about 5% to 10% of the devices would be broken or malfunctioning at any given time," says Bill Miller, EVP of the Visiting Nurses Association of Florida. "We're seeing that number stay close to 10%."

One approach is to inventory parts and extra devices. But this may be practical only with laptops and ruggedized devices that are likely to be in use for many years. Handhelds have a shorter lifespan. "You run into obsolescence problems," says Domke.

Many employees are on their own in dealing with the day-to-day maintenance and repair. For example, at Inland Kenworth, "If someone needs an accessory like a battery or a case, they purchase it from a retail store," says Domke. "I.T. won't reimburse this."

Vendors such as Dell Computers cover laptop repairs, replacements and parts in agreements that allow for accidental damage. Everything can be ordered and delivered within 24 hours directly to mobile workers.

Leasing instead of buying is another option for some organizations. "We used to buy, but attorneys constantly demand the latest and greatest," says Arent Fox's Young, "Waiting for notebooks to break or wear out isn't practical. Leasing isn't much more expensive, plus we negotiated a good buyout rate, giving us the best of both worlds."

Service Purchasing With A Smile

Purchasing services can be a hurdle, particularly if you have multiple carrier relationships and voice and data access plans for the same devices. Some organizations prefer to deal with a single carrier for voice and data. For example, the I.T. team at Arent Fox supports T-Mobile and one service plan so that the firm gets the same monthly bill. Attorneys can use different carriers, but get reimbursed only for the data plan.

Domke prefers a one-rate package for data and voice combined. "Predicting and monitoring usage is too complicated with anything other than an unlimited data access plan. Call patterns can change weekly, so tracking previous phone usage may not reflect reality. Rate analysis has not proven beneficial for us. Better to negotiate a good rate from the carrier."

However, Rivermine's Carroll advises enterprises to look at voice and data plans separately. "Heavy voice users may not be heavy data users," he says. "People who don't travel frequently and subsequently use wireless sporadically, or who only read and send email, probably can get by with a limited package of five megabytes per month."

To really control this purchasing process, Domke advises, "be very aware of what's happening. Carriers have all these nickel-and-dime services to increase revenue. Sure, you can get a text message with your voicemail, but at 50 cents a minute; 100 people receiving 10 a day quickly runs up your bill."

Also, don't allow end users to change their plans, he advises. Set contracts for as short a term as possible, since technology frequently changes.

Ultimately, everything comes down to proper planning and watching your processes like a hawk. Readiness is all.

Tips For Managing The Mobile Purchasing Process

Here's what end users interviewed for our Process & Strategy series advise about managing mobile purchasing expenses in your enterprise.
  • Identify who within the organization really needs the software application on their mobile device.
  • Discuss mobility needs with department managers and make a list of appropriate devices.
  • Implement direct billing to individual departments within the
  • corporation.
  • Limit the number of wireless carriers that I.T. will support.
  • Factor in how you're going to deal with accessories, repairs and spare parts for every device your enterprise is supporting.
  • Be prepared for additional costs thatwill be incurred when extending desktop applications to mobile devices.
  • Set voice and data contracts with carriers for as short a term as possible to give you the flexibility to keep up with rapidly changing technology.


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