In the first of a two-part series, industry consultant Pat Brans speaks with the CIOs of four leading organizations -- the U.S. Census Bureau, The U.K.'s Royal Mail Group, Liverpool, UK-based Bibby Distribution, and Transport for London -- about how they're using mobility solutions. In part two, these CIOs will share their views on what's missing in mobility for the enterprise.
Mobility in the Mainstream
In 2003 I made a prediction in my book Mobilize Your Enterprise: Achieving Competitive Advantage through Wireless Technology that, by five years down the line, most companies would be equipping a large part of their work force with mobile technology.
This was by no means spectacular foresight -- I'm sure everybody in the business could see it coming. And of course, this did come to pass -- few people would disagree that this year, five years after my humdrum prediction, mobile technology has indeed attained a more-or-less mainstream status in the enterprise.
Today, laptops are everywhere -- and that certainly is a form of mobile technology. But it would be too easy to say that is what I was predicting. What I was referring to was the use of handheld devices, such as Smartphones or PDAs, to access email and / or enterprise data. Just about everywhere you go, you see people using mobile email on a BlackBerry or on some other Smartphone.
In fact, mobile email has become so common among business users, that it is generally assumed you can get your message to any executive within a few hours.
Beyond that, most companies have put in place mobile solutions to enhance one or more business areas. Most companies have at least one business process that can be solved with mobile technology, and these business processes are usually pretty unique to an industry -- and in many cases, to a single company.
Because there is so much variation in which mobile applications companies use, mobile solutions will never be mainstream in the sense of being shrink-wrapped, and one-size-fits-all. There will always be a high degree of customization -- much more than the amount of customization required to fit an ERP or CRM system to a particular company's needs.
But mobile technology is mainstream in the sense that most companies are using it in one form or another.
With this in mind, I thought this five-year landmark would be a good time to ask the IT departments of some large organizations what exactly they are doing with mobile technology, what their plans are for the near future, and what pieces they think are missing from the marketplace. For this article I spoke with four CIOs:
From a CIO's perspective there are two things that make mobility different from other kinds of IT services. Every mobile user has at least one of these characteristics -- and many have both:
Users are outside company premises: Computing occurs in an environment that is not physically secure, and where IT staff cannot physically come over and help the user. This has several implications, including additional security needs and requirements to provide support and troubleshooting in non--traditional ways.
Users are moving around: You can't pinpoint a user -- that is, his or her movement is virtually unlimited. Because the user is moving, he or she relies on a constrained computer, and either connects to the enterprise through a wireless network or works offline, synchronising with the enterprise from time to time. Security is an issue here as well: you need to protect against the possibility that the device is lost or stolen.
Transport for London's Phil Pavitt pointed out that mobile users have to be treated differently from other users in terms of policy and support. The problems -- and the expertise required to solve the problems -- are fundamentally different. Also the mobile community is generally more tolerant than the in-building community. Therefore, you have to build your SLAs, your support services, your messaging, your information flows, and your upgrade plans differently for the two different types of users.
These are some common challenges that organizations face when equipping the work force with mobile technology. Now, we'll have a look at some of the company-specific needs.
U.S. Census Bureau
The U.S. Census occurs every 10 years, the next one being in 2010. The Census Bureau sends a form to each household and asks the occupants to fill it out and send it back.
Based on past experience, the Census Bureau expects that around 35% of households will not respond, so they plan to send workers out to knock on the doors of those who don't respond and collect the data by asking questions. This process, called non-respondent follow up (NRFU), takes place over a period of some six weeks, and requires 500,000 field workers, the vast majority of whom are hired just for the NRFU.
In order to perform a census, the bureau needs a good address list. In order to update the address list they had from the previous count, they perform a task called Address Canvassing, the next one of which begins in early 2009, and will take around nine or 10 months to carry out. Address Canvassing requires more than 100,000 workers who go out and physically account for new construction, torn-down buildings, and any other changes to addresses.
Both NRFU and Address Canvassing are processes the Census Bureau wishes to improve through mobile technology. They have already developed a solution for Address Canvassing, and will use it in 2009; as for NRFU, they have scoped out a mobile solution, but they aren't yet sure they'll use it in 2010. The same customized devices will be used for both processes -- the devices are normal PDAs but without some of the standard features, such as camera or email. In both cases, security requirements include two-factor authentication, encryption, and device lock down and data wipe in the event the device is lost or stolen.
GPS is also required in both processes in order to pinpoint households that might not have traditional addresses -- a common occurrence in rural areas, where the postman might identify a house as something along the lines of "the small house across from the old oak tree."
Royal Mail Group
Royal Mail Group (RMG) has about 30,000 managers, most of whom have some sort of mobile service, such as email on a PDA, or a laptop with a 3G card. They also use mobile technology to help in some key business processes. This usually involves scanning items so they can be tracked. Currently, they have 17,000 mobile devices to scan packages at collection points, and about 7,000 to scan packages within buildings. In both cases, data is synchronized through a fixed connection, when devices are placed in a cradle.
RMG is looking to gain competitive advantage by providing real time tracking all the way to the door. A step in this direction is something they are currently working towards: deploying 25,000 devices in vehicles. The data will be synchronized in real time using GPRS, and devices will be docked in a cradle in the vehicle to ensure good battery life. WiFi and fixed connections will be available at the home base, if for some reason GPRS fails.
Bibby Distribution uses mobility in ways Robert Lee calls "passe" -- for example, mobile email, and PDAs and laptops with wireless adaptors for roaming users. But the most important business processes to which they apply mobile technology are those around their core business: making deliveries on behalf of clients.
In particular, they rely on mobile computing technology when they undertake delivery during the night. This happens for the automotive sector -- for example, they have clients who repair peoples' cars and need to make an overnight delivery to make the vehicle available the next day.
This involves unattended deliveries, since nobody is around at night. Delivery is sort of like an airlock: they put the merchandise in one side and it's secured, then the client takes it out the other side when ready. In this situation, service levels are absolutely extreme -- that is, no failure is acceptable. They barcode the vehicles and each site has a barcode, so they have put in place a mechanism to prove delivery took place.
Bibby Distribution can automatically generate a message confirming delivery. Clients want this in different forms: some want a text message, some want email, and some want a good old fashioned phone call. Many clients only want to hear when there's a problem -- for example, if a car is blocking the way of the delivery truck, or if the client has changed the lock and the driver can't open a gate.
Being able to generate these alerts allows Bibby Distribution to overcome what would otherwise have been delivery failures.
Transport for London
Transport for London (TfL) has approximately 2,500 mobile IT users, where they define mobile users to include people with BlackBerry-type devices, laptop users, and home workers.
Within two years they plan to have a total of 12,000 mobile users, with most of these users being operational staff. Phil Pavitt calls this their "real mobility need": supporting staff who are out in the transport network -- and need quick and accurate answers to customer questions. For example, if a customer asks a TfL employee when the next tube to Ealing is, the staff member will be able to use a mobile device to get that information right away and with complete confidence.
At first, the information provided to operational staff will be limited to the mode of transportation for which they work -- for example, bus or underground -- but increasingly, TfL will provide mode-independent information that will enable bus staff to provide advice on tube availability and vice-versa.
Beyond equipping operational staff with that kind of information, TfL would like to put the same information directly in the hands of customers. For this reason, TfL needs to provide a service that is as device independent as possible. This second phase, where customers get the information directly, will not occur until at least two years from now.
In part two, these CIOs will share their views on what's missing in mobility for the enterprise.
Pat Brans is an author and independent consultant based in France. He has held senior positions with Sybase, HP and CSC
1 Rick Swartz was CIO of the U.S. Census Bureau at the time of this interview. He left in April 2008 to join the U.S. Department of Treasury. It was during his time as CIO of the U.S. Census Bureau that most of the big decisions on mobile technology took place, so I thought he would be the most appropriate person to talk to for this article.
2 Ray Vaughn is technically not a CIO. He is the IT Director responsible for all things mobile within Royal Mail Group. He reports to Robin Dargue, who is the CIO. Robin thought it would be best for me to talk directly with Ray.