Mobilizing Legacy Applications Is it Time?

— June 08, 2007

They're old, they're outdated and they're tying companies to a never-ending paper trail. In-house applications need mobile solutions, and the time to invest is now.

"There are more companies that haven't adopted mobile applications than those that have," notes JiYoung Kim, VP of marketing for Vettro, a company that provides mobile applications to field sales and service organizations. 

In a society driven by technological advancements, it's surprising to find that many businesses still rely on their legacy systems, which can have mobile workforces relying on pen and paper to convey data to and from the office. In fact, many in the industry agree that the majority of companies today have no mobile solution in place for their field workers.

"We hear the hesitancy come from not knowing where to start," says Kim. To make the task of mobilizing less daunting, Kim suggests that companies focus on one immediate problem that needs solving - something small and winnable. "For example, in many delivery companies, it's about knowing where your vehicles are," she says. "You have to take that first step. The appetite for mobile technology and the pace of innovation can really pick up after that."

Once an enterprise has zeroed in on mobilizing a particular process, the key is to keep it simple. "A lot of these things fail because businesses try to do several complicated things at once," says Mansell Nelson, VP of business development for Rogers Business Solutions, a company that offers mForms, a mobile forms solution based on technology from TrueContext that allows organizations to collect, submit and process field data. "Companies that take one process and mobilize it and get comfortable with it tend to want to mobilize another process in the company in six months to a year."

At What Cost?
Historically, going mobile has been a difficult and expensive undertaking - another reason some companies are still hesitant to take the plunge. But today's vendors are offering solutions that simplify the process for businesses of all sizes.

Ten years ago, Phoenix-based SuperShuttle, a shared ride provider for passengers traveling to and from airports, couldn't afford to complete the implementation of its dispatching application to each of its sites, which it had outsourced to a taxi software company. "It was so expensive to put in that we had to stop," says Mike Hogan, CIO. Instead, the company built its own system for use in its midsize and small markets. "Our only communication with our drivers was to send text messages to their pagers," says Hogan.

To improve customer service and efficiency, SuperShuttle turned to Vettro to provide the middleware and software that would enable the company's backend system with two-way communications using durable Nextel i605 phones. Drivers are now connecting to reservations, payments and financial reporting systems directly from their phones. This has cut down previous processes that involved pager alerts, calls to the office and clipboards for tracking pickups and drop-offs.

Like SuperShuttle, J&J's Tri-State Delivery Service, a warehousing, distribution and home-delivery business in Totowa, N.J., needed a simple solution that would integrate with the company's existing backend system and remove the technical barriers that prevented automation. Rather than abandon its legacy system, which J&J's had made a substantial investment in, it worked with Global Bay, a provider of configurable mobile applications, on the backend warehouse management system provided by New Jersey-based CDA to extend data out to the field.

"In the past, everything was done manually," explains Joe Natale, president of J&J's Tri-State. "When we received a trailer [of merchandise], we were given paperwork for everything on that truck. As the truck was offloaded, the workers would call off individual boxes and describe the piece in their hands. Then checkers would check each item on the paperwork." The process was time-consuming and prone to errors.

Using Symbol MC 9090 devices in the warehouse, workers can now scan a barcode off the truck, and Global Bay's mobile system interfaces with the company's legacy system in real time to pull the order, illustrating to the warehouse worker the number of packages required for that order and the pallet the order needs to go on. Once the order is ready for delivery, the truck driver scans all the items on the truck, delivers them to the customer and receives an electronic signature using the Symbol MC 70. The system wirelessly alerts J&J's backend system that the delivery has been completed, and the backend system alerts Home Depot or Lowe's that the transaction is complete. "Now we're able to double-check merchandise prior to delivery," says Natale. "It has helped prevent the mix-up of freight, and our customer service level has improved."

Although implementing a mobile solution is not as complex or expensive as it was a decade ago, some companies are still hesitant to make the financial commitment. But once they calculate the long-term benefits to the company's bottom line, many realize they can't afford not to mobilize.

"It's not cheap," admits Craig Miller, delivery and fleet manager for Skylands Energy Service, a heating oil delivery company in Raritan, N.J. "But you start looking into solutions and realize this is something that's going to save you money in the long run." Skylands turned to TouchStar, a mobile software solutions provider, to work with Fuel Data Systems, the company's back-office application. Prior to TouchStar, Skylands used three-part paper tickets, which cost about six cents a ticket. The delivery person would insert the ticket in the mechanical meter and turn the crank, and a register stamped the ticket with the zero gallon start point. After delivering the oil, he would have to handwrite the gallon amount on the ticket and manually calculate the price for the customer.

Now, the company has eliminated paper tickets in favor of handheld devices and replaced its mechanical meters with electronic meters and wireless printers mounted in the trucks. TouchStar was responsible for the entire installation. Not only has this sped up deliveries, it's saved a lot of paperwork in the office and reduced the cost of a ticket to about a penny - the cost to print out a customer receipt.

Getting Unstuck
Sometimes the only obstacle between an outdated legacy system and a fully mobilized field force is the company's mindset. "A lot of the smaller, family-run companies use a clipboard and a form, and they have a dispatcher and someone in receivables," says Nelson. "That's the way it's always been done. We find smaller companies are so busy running their businesses, they don't have the time to think about how to do things differently. Their way of doing things differently would be to hire another man in a van."

After 27 years in business, Magi Seal, a company based in Ontario, Canada, that provides in-home treatment of home furnishings with protection products, was still doing business the old-fashioned way, using paper and faxes. But the cost of paper and the inefficiencies it produced eventually led the company to investigate alternatives. At the time, Magi Seal was working with Rogers on its cell phone needs, and Rogers introduced the company to mForms.

"Before, orders were faxed to our techs. They would take the paperwork with them to the customer, complete the work, and have the customer sign the order. When they got home they'd fax the order back to us," explains Brad Geddes, president and COO. Back at the office, employees processed paperwork and made copies to bill customers. "We were killing a couple of trees a week," says Geddes. "It was a bit of a nightmare having to deal with all that paper."

Now techs access orders using HP iPAQ Pocket PCs. The custom forms are pre-populated with customer information, and techs can dial customers directly using the device. Once the order is complete, the customer signs the device, and their signature is captured electronically. mForms has reduced costs, allowed tighter process control, and improved billing cycle times, says Geddes. "We had a 60 percent improvement in our billing process."

Companies mobilizing for the first time can be sure of one thing: Implementations don't always run smoothly, and there will be an adjustment period while the kinks are worked out. For this reason, partnering with the right vendor is imperative. "It wasn't smooth sailing," admits Geddes of Magi Seal's implementation. "We had a few bumps in the road because it was new technology. We anticipated it and weren't disappointed when we ran into some problems."

Still, according to industry research, some 50 to 60 percent of mobile implementations fail, says Claude Alexander, VP of TouchStar. The reason: Many companies don't fully understand how their business operates today. "If they don't understand how many deliveries they make a day or how much time their employees spend dealing with paperwork, there's no way for them to measure the success of a project," says Alexander. "It's important to understand where you are today and change your processes internally to deal with additional capacity in order to achieve a successful project and grow your business."

Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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