Getting Mobilized: The Art Of Putting Data On The Road

A home supply retailer shows that making key enterprise data available to mobile employees has a strong return on investment -- if you follow critical best practices.

May 12, 2005

7 Min Read
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With 2,500 employees and annual revenues of $180 million, Chase-Pitkin Home Centers is hardly a small business. Yet it increasingly found itself in the difficult position of competing against the really big home improvement chains such as Home Depot and Lowe's.

"It was critical that we find niches to exploit and be successful at," said Chris Dorsey, Chase-Pitkin's controller and chief information officer (CIO). Six years ago, the company found its niche: serving property managers and other commercial customers. But the company needed help to exploit that niche.

That's where mobilized applications came in.

Mobilizing applications makes key enterprise data available to employees wherever they are. When employees can access such data from customer and job sites or while traveling, orders are filled more quickly and accurately, inventory can be controlled more closely, and a whole host of other benefits accrue.

At least that was the theory when Dorsey and his team started mobilizing some of Chase-Pitkin's key applications, such as their ordering and inventory systems. The clear-cut results of their still-ongoing effort validate that theory."We had our ROI (return on investment) in 14 months, Dorsey said. "And when we calculate ROI, we're very conservative."

However, getting the mobilization effort to succeed required careful management and understanding of the best practices for mobilization, Dorsey said. He and three other experts described both the process of mobilizing applications and some of those best practices.

Find A Problem To Solve
The first best practice for mobilizing applications, according to Mark Hayward, is to do precisely what Dorsey did -- develop the business case for mobilizing data.

"You don't start with technology," said Hayward, chief technology officer for BusinessEdge Solutions, a consulting company and systems integrator for Global 500 companies. "You always start with finding a business problem with an ROI that mobility can be part of."

"One of the hardest things to do at the beginning is to quantify the benefit of an application," said Kirk Wolfe of Enterprise Mobility, an application mobilization consultancy. "After it's done, the benefit is usually obvious, but it's hard when you start out to see where the benefit will come from."Adds Steve Frye, who is chief system architect for Perot Systems' mobilized healthcare applications: "You have to look at where all the time is consumed now in terms of processing time or consumption of human resources or equipment resources. And you have to think outside the box."

One problem for Chase-Pitkin was that, in switching its focus to the professional market, it was making a significant strategic change in the direction of its business.

"We discovered we were set up as a retail entity, but [the change in emphasis] meant we had to get a warehouse and hire a sales force," Dorsey recalled. And that sales force was highly mobile, he added.

Getting buy-in at the highest executive levels is essential both for strategic changes to business plans and for developing the technology to serve the new direction, Frye noted. As CIO for Chase-Pitkin, Dorsey was the right executive in the right place to get top-level buy-in for the mobilization effort, he said.

Engage The Users
Having identified a business problem, Dorsey and his team then started looking at the enterprise's existing technology and how to best use it to mobilize key applications. That part of the process included one essential best practice: Engage end users to get their buy-in.

"If users don't buy into it, it won't be a success," BusinessEdge's Hayward said. "They have to buy into it from the point of view that there's value to them. Plus the user experience is important.""Initially, the entire operation was paper-based," Dorsey recalled. "So my group got together and we architected out where we wanted to take this commercial division. We understood we had to do this thing in phases."

The first phase, in 2002, was to build a Web application that gave sales personnel access to various in-house systems.

"As long as the salesperson was in front of a computer and connected to the Internet, they could enter the URL and they'd have access to all their customers and 69,000 inventory items and place orders," Dorsey said. "Once the order was placed, a pick ticket was placed in the warehouse. We were starting to get away from paper."

But they weren't yet mobile, he stressed. And the system wasn't yet as automated as end users -- the sales force -- needed it to be.

"We got the idiosyncrasies out of the system in 2003, but we realized that if they weren't in front of a computer with an Internet connection, they still had to write down the order, come back to the office and key it in. We were debating whether we should put it on a laptop, but laptops are too big and bulky for places they [the sales personnel] had to go, like warehouses, construction sites or apartment complexes. So we looked into PDAs and concluded that was the best solution since they could use it for e-mail, calendars and that sort of thing."Most important to users, Dorsey said, was that they not lose their work and have to start over again, a problem that can result when the mobilized application depends on an always-on connection.

"With wireless devices that were always on, you'd connect, use the application and, when you were done, you'd get off," Dorsey said. "The problem was, if you lose the connection, you'd lose everything you've done and have to start over. When that happens, users lose confidence and everything spirals downward."

In other words, the device, the application and the connectivity all had to be highly usable, or users wouldn't accept it. That led to an in-depth examination of the company's computing architecture.

Pick The Right Architecture
The experts agreed it's essential make the application fit into your enterprise's existing -- and future -- computing architecture.

"Finding the right architecture lends itself to the functionality you want," said Perot Systems' Frye. Meshing the mobilized application with the enterprise's architecture enables developers to get precisely the appropriate information to users in the field, he noted.In Chase-Pitkin's case, the architecture was well established. They're an IBM shop, using DB2 to store and manage data and the WebSphere middleware and portal for integrating applications and managing and controlling access to enterprise applications.

Within that framework, Dorsey's team developed a PDA version of the Web application that accessed data via the WebSphere portal. It was important, his team decided, to have the application and data reside on the PDAs. That way, if the connection is lost from the field, the data the salesperson enters isn't lost.

"If they're in the field, they can create an order for the customer and not need a wireless connection," Dorsey said. They can transmit the order when a wireless connection is available (the company uses wireless data services from Sprint), or they can return to the office and synchronize their PDA with the back-end systems.

Improve And Monitor
Another best practice is to continually monitor and improve the system, Dorsey and the other experts agreed. For instance, initially, Chase-Pitkin's data synchronization mechanism didn't work as efficiently as Dorsey would have liked, so his team switched to IBM's DB2 Everyplace, a version of the database designed for mobile devices. That worked much better because it updated only information that had been changed since the last synchronization instead of the entire data set, he said.

"Since the [mobile] system rolled out in early 2003, we've been continuously making updates," he said. "The screen real estate is limited, so we've been reconfiguring the look and feel of it and how orders are placed." One goal is to simplify the system.

"You don't want it to consume the salesperson's time so that they're walking with the customer but looking at their device," Dorsey said. "Their job is to cultivate relationships, not to use their device."Currently, Chase-Pitkin's mobile system is used by 18 field reps, but another 30 users will soon get access, Dorsey said. The company is even considering giving its largest customers access to the system from the field to speed up the ordering process.

It didn't take long for the ROI study to find an excellent return, Dorsey noted.

"We found that, if our salespeople had been spending 30 or 40 percent of their time in the field and the rest in the office buried in paperwork, this system allowed us to flip those percentages around," he said. "So they were in the field 60 percent of the time and in the office 30 or 40 percent." In addition, support staff was reduced by attrition since the need to re-key order information was significantly reduced, according to Dorsey.

The bottom line is that this regional business used mobilized applications to solve a crucial business problem, enabling it to be profitable and to compete successfully against larger competition. All it took was a lot of hard work -- and adhering to some well-established best practices.

David Haskin is editor of Mobile Pipeline.0

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