SaaS In The Cloud
By Susan Nunziata
Economic factors drive some enterprises to embrace cloud-based software-as-a-service solutions for mobile workers.
By all accounts, the economic maelstrom of the past 18 months has been beneficial to one particular area of enterprise mobility: software-as-a-service.
At least, that's the consensus among the enterprises we spoke with for this article. There are a handful of drivers at play, including:
- a growing comfort level among enterprises about the security and reliability of cloud-based solutions in general and SaaS in particular
- tightening corporate capital expenditure budgets, pushing many organizations to explore solutions that require little to no initial investment and which can be treated as monthly line-of-business expenses
- the growing availability of SaaS solutions that are optimized for mobile users.
For some enterprises, the initial exposure to SaaS in the cloud does not include a mobility component. It is only after they fully explore solutions for internal workers that they begin to realize the benefits it could have for their mobile workforce.
Such is the case for Rehab Care Group, a St. Louis, MO-based provider of post-acute healthcare services. The company manages rehabilitation services in partnership with more than 1,260 hospitals and skilled nursing facilities in 41 states, and owns and operates 34 of its own long-term acute care and rehabilitation hospitals.
In the field, the company has 24 sales executives, 500 community resource coordinators, and 6,000 physical therapists.
The sales team was first in wanting to explore a cloud-based SaaS solution. "They were nervous when they approached me because they assumed I would be opposed to a cloud-based solution," says Dick Esccue, SVP/CIO Rehab Care Group. "So many IT leaders are saying, 'we've got a data center, we'll run that.' The fact of the matter is, I was thrilled. I had no interest in running another on-premise solution."
The company chose Salesforce.com. Says Escue. "From an IT perspective, I didn't sink a bunch of capital into it. We signed up for the subscription fee, and about a month later, after we converted a bunch of data to the new solution, we were up and running."
Escue notes, "Avoiding all that CapEx and the subsequent depreciation that creates" was an added benefit.
Escue's CEO next wanted to explore how the solution could be mobilized using iPhones and deployed beyond the 24-member sales team
The company's 500 community resource coordinators get referrals from hospitals that are about to discharge patients who need rehab care. They work with the patient, discharge planner or case manager to get the patient placed. Field coordinators used a manual process, filing out forms and faxing them for review and approval from the program director and the medical director at the chosen facility.
"We were taking so long to turn that manual process around that we knew we were losing good referrals," says Escue.
The company's operations staff reduced the manual form from seven pages to two. Escue's team then used Force.com, Salesforce.com's application development platform, to write a mobile application, build the workflow process, and configure it for iPhone, all of which, he says, took about four days.
By the end of 2010, the company plans to equip its 6,000 physical therapists in the field with an iPhone-based solution for point-of-care apps. To date, 100 are testing it. Other efforts may include payment solutions and tying legacy applications into the mobile platform.
Escue says the Force.com security infrastructure is sufficient for its current application, and the ability for IT to remotely wipe the devices will enable it to comply with HIPAA standards.
For some organizations, SaaS-based solutions are deployed for specific purposes. Database marketing company Merkle, in Columbia, MD, needed to upgrade its travel and expense (T&E) process. The company's Michael Sesin, Manager of Business Information Systems, says Merkle spends about $5 million a year on travel for its nearly 1,000 employees. About half of its employees are on the road, and 60% work out of home offices. He describes the previous T&E process as "archaic."
In summer 2009, Merkle deployed Concur, a web-based T&E service with a mobile component. Using Concur Mobile, employees on the road can complete an entire expense report on their smartphones, take pictures of receipts and submit for approval. Managers, themselves often on the road, can approve the expense reports on smartphones. "We're not holding up reimbursement to employees, we're getting expense reports turned around to employees much faster," says Sesin.
"We have more data at our fingertips than ever before," he adds. "We now know which vendors we use for air, car, hotel, and are better equipped to negotiate volume discounts."
In addition, SaaS is not the drain on IT resources that the previous system was, Sesin says. Keeping it out of the CapEx budget was also important. "The implementation fee was minimal. There is a monthly fee that we have signed up for," he notes, adding that a cost/benefits analysis revealed that the volume discounts from travel vendors made monthly SaaS fees worthwhile.
All T&E data are available to Merkle for a seven-year period in the event of an IRS audit. Because the database marketing industry is heavily regulated, Sesin says many security points needed to be worked out before deployment. Ultimately, he says, "Concur met all our requirements" for security.
"The downside is that when things don't work, being a company that likes to control our own destiny, now you're waiting for someone else to do it and nothing is as fast as you want when you're waiting for someone else to do it," says Sesin.
COMMUNICATIONS & LOGISTICS
For small- and medium-sized businesses, SaaS is attractive for even the most basic functions. For example, Woodstock's Pizza, a San Deigo, CA-based restaurant chain, needed to improve basic Email communications and centralize contact information for its 45-50 employees.
"Our staff are becoming more and more tech savvy, and they recognize the value of being mobile," says Ali Gilmore, IT Manager for Woodstock's.
The company deployed the BlueTie Email hosting and cloud-based collaboration solution. Woodstock's quickly saw results in a reduction in the number of IT helpdesk calls. The solution is tied into the company's promotional efforts using Constant Contact, as well as its online ordering database.
"We have a secure server for any information that is financial and so forth, and that is kept separate," says Gilmore. "[BlueTie] were able to prove that they are just as secure as any other email provider."
Hospitality supplier American Hotel Register Co., Vernon Hills, IL, provides products such as towels, soaps, linens, furniture and carpeting to hotels, cruise lines, country clubs, universities and hospitals in North America and the Caribbean. The company processes more than 34,000 product SKUs from seven sites nationwide, and ships next day. Products are delivered via Amercian Hotel Register's private fleet delivery service to 34 major metro areas and outsourced to a less-than-truckload (LTL) service for the rest of the delivery points
In July 2008, the company wanted to improve productivity throughout its delivery chain and took its first plunge into a SaaS-based solution with Descartes Systems. It now gets real-time status updates for its private fleet drivers. Drivers have Motorola MC 6574 or MC 55 handheld computers, which they use to access the app in the field and provide real-time updates on delivery status. The solution uses GPS to monitor driver activity.
The Web-based solution provides visibility for all parties, including American Hotel Register's management, freight partners, and the facilities they serve. Routing and dispatch can be adjusted on the fly, and American Hotel Register can offer customers improved accuracy regarding the time of delivery. Status and proof of delivery is readily available via a Web interface.
"Resources drove our decisions as far as using SaaS," says American Hotel Register's Paul Lohr, Corporation Transportation Manager. "[Factors included] the ease of integration, our own IT resource capabilities, and [interfacing with] our ERP system."
Enterprise Execs Offer 6 Tips For Deploying Mobile SaaS
- Quit looking for ways to say No. Focus on speed, cost and user experience.
- If you want to conquer all the security questions, you absolutely can.
- Understand how the solution's reporting interacts with other data, and how you can use it as quickly as possible.
- Investigate mobile hardware and wireless providers to make sure they can deliver the level of service the SaaS solution requires.
- Be clear on who owns the data and who can modify software.
- Know that when things don't work you'll be waiting for someone outside your company to fix it.