If you're like most I.T. people in the enterprise, you're hearing the word "mobility" spoken around the office with far greater frequency than ever before. Just a few years ago "mobility" meant notebooks, virtual private networks (VPNs) and WiFi or 3G mobile data access. Increasingly a mobility strategy means enabling your workforce with smartphones.
There's little doubt that your workforce is already aware of this technological evolution and the cool new smartphones from the likes of Apple, BlackBerry, Nokia and others that make it possible. Perhaps your employees are already deploying these devices within your organization without your knowledge.
Indeed, industry analysts1 suggest that unsanctioned mobile adoption by so-called "wannabes" is one of the fastest growing mobile user constituencies. Regardless of whether smartphones are assigned to mobile users or whether users are quite literally taking matters into their own hands, the expectation is that I.T. will support these devices, and that mobile apps will be made available to aid in employees day-to-day work activities.
If it isn't already in your plan for the upcoming year, you'll be wise to make an evaluation of mobile devices, networks and applications as part of a comprehensive mobility strategy your top goal for 2009.
Happily in this day and age, a mobility strategy does not have to mean replacing legacy software systems -- not even the old ones that have been outdated for years but to which your company has grown too accustomed to consider replacing (at least not without pain and terror). There are tools available that will allow your organization to build its own custom mobile applications that integrate with your legacy software, giving that software new life and new functionality. Far more cost effective than a wholesale replacement of your back-office software, and also far more efficient for your company, consider building your very own custom mobile applications as one of the cornerstones of your new mobility strategy.
But be aware, there are challenges to building mobile applications, and without proper planning your mobile initiative could become a costly failure.
To help your mobile initiative be successful, consider these five important aspects to mobile enterprise application development before beginning:
1. Build apps for employees, not devices
It's critical to understand how employees want to work. Building a feature-rich mobile application and deploying it to employees together with the coolest smartphones on the market won't guarantee your application gets used. Not only are mobile devices and PCs fundamentally different in technology, they are also fundamentally different in how your employees will want to use them. All over the world there are people who spend their whole work day sitting in front of PCs. Nowhere in the world will you find anyone who wants to sit down at a desk and spend the day entering information or producing documents on a smartphone.
Therefore, a necessary step in mobile enterprise application development is understanding the workstyle of your employees. The biggest failures in mobile application deployments have been those that expected employees to change their work habits in order to use the mobile app. Applications must complement the way employees work, not require the employees to make changes.
2. Understand the difference between desktop and mobile apps
Irrespective of the mobile device, desktop computers and notebooks are far more powerful computers. It stands to reason, then, that the applications which run on mobile devices must be fundamentally different from those created for PCs. Compared with mobile devices, PCs have big screens that display more information, faster processors and more memory for interpreting content dynamically, greater storage for caching data locally, and access to faster networks for retrieving data online.
Mobile applications must be optimized for the smaller form factor, which means a smaller display and limited input mechanisms. They must be lightweight so as not to consume too much memory or require too much processing power. They must take advantage of store-and-forwarding messaging to work around wireless bandwidth constraints and high latency.
3. Adopt a task-centric approach
Your company has invested tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, in the software required to operate your business. For that kind of money, you expect the software to be comprehensive and able to fully address its mission. The instruction manuals are thick, and to get the best usage from that software, your employees require training. None of that will translate into a mobile environment, so don't try. That's not how your employees need to work. Mobile devices aren't the right platform for behemoth software packages, but they are perfect for completing tasks.
Therefore, it's important for you to understand the tasks your employees need to complete, and where they are when they complete them. A great many tasks streamline business operations when completed in the field. Other tasks are more efficiently completed back in the office. There is no reason to mobilize these latter tasks, instead focus on those that improve the workflow when completed remotely.
4. Break out of the silos
One advantage of custom mobile application development is that you can integrate multiple back office systems into a single mobile application built to complete important tasks. Don't put the mobile application into artificial silos created by individual back office systems like customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP) or supply chain management (SCM); nor should you create silos based on vendors like SAP, Siebel or Oracle.
It is highly likely that completing a single task uses elements from each of these. Build your task-centric application by integrating the right elements from multiple software systems into a single mobile application.
5. Make it work
Increasingly there is acceptance of mobile solutions as viable enterprise tools, especially among your employees. If your mobile application addresses your employees' needs while not forcing them to make dramatic changes in their work style, you'll be surprised at how readily your application will be adopted and used. But be cautious, because the acceptance of mobile solutions comes with the high expectation that your application will properly execute the task to which its designed and that it will work -- every time. Make sure you have a roll-out plan that allows for testing and the ability to fix issues before you push out a widespread deployment.
If properly built, your mobile application will become a transformative force within your company, making it more responsive to customers, improving workflow efficiency and giving your employees greater control and flexibility to get their jobs done quickly and correctly. A well built mobile application can even help you leapfrog your competitors and directly improve your company's bottom line.
Michael Liebow is CEO of Dexterra.
1 Pelino, M. (2008). Enterprise Mobile User Forecast: Mobile "Wannabes" Are The Fastest-Growing Segment. Forrester Research.