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End of the Wire

End of the Wire

The fanfare surrounding wireless technology is so thick it can be hard to find payback amidst all the promises. Meet three heads of IT in Australia who learned to see past the hype and deliver real benefits to the enterprise.

The mobile enterprise boosters want to convince you that wireless is still pretty cool. But there you are, stuck between your justified cynicism of emerging technologies and at risk of becoming an old economy dinosaur if they take off, and the humiliation of being spellbound by hype and ending up an idiot if they don’t.

Some vendors, service providers and systems integrators speak of the “real-time enterprise” as if it is something you just order from a menu. They refute claims of overestimating the desire for enterprise mobility and ignore charges of overselling the simplicity of achieving a true wireless operation.

So how are Australian IT executives planning their deployments of an integrated mobile enterprise solution? What do they have in place? Why did they put it there and how is it performing? CIO Connected spoke to three Australian organisations that have “been there, done that” ? freight management and logistics company SnapX, document management company Fuji Xerox and professional services consulting firm Sinclair Knight Merz ? to reveal what they have learned and what still keeps them awake at night.

But first, some perspective.

Wireless has as much to do with human behaviour as it does technology or a business case (see “Talking About My Mobile Generation”). It changes lives and companies forever. According to Meta Group analysts, 30 per cent of all corporations are likely to wireless-enable their enterprise applications over the next three years compared to the current rate of less than 5 per cent.

But while wireless technologies can help many enterprises, not all need mobility. Research firm Gartner says that by 2007, only 50 per cent of the people given mobile data will actually benefit from it, due to poor implementation, confused management and the cost of supporting services and technology. Gartner analysts say enterprises need to consider three main technology areas for mobile wireless ? network services, mobile devices and mobile applications ? and assess its needs against the maturity, costs and capabilities of wireless technology.

Gartner also says no one wireless technology will meet all corporate business needs. Companies developing a wireless strategy will need to support an array of technologies, such as wireless LAN (WLAN), GPRS, UMTS and Bluetooth, for at least another five years.

Nigel Deighton, vice president and research director at Gartner, says that transforming a company into a wireless enterprise is difficult, not insurmountable. “Don’t worry about the technology, we have plenty of it and it works pretty well by now,” he says. “Worry instead about how you are going to integrate mobility into your working culture. It makes little difference to strategy if technology continues to change over the next five years. The crucial point is to understand how wireless and mobile technologies can improve enterprise performances, and to start rethinking business processes.”

Typical of the wireless cheerleader community is Australian provider of Wi-Fi Internet access Azure Wireless. Azure claims that usage of its Wi-Fi hot spots in Sydney and Melbourne has increased by 300 per cent recently, with many users logging on daily. Early usage patterns indicate people spend about 30 minutes per session and primarily access corporate e-mail, paying between $11 and $20 an hour.

A more sceptical view is proffered in the study Worldwide Hotspot Forecast, 2002-2007 from IT advisory firm IDC. The report says that despite the rapid growth in both the number of Wi-Fi locations and users, early figures represent little more than the creation of a hot spot infrastructure. Building a functional network that retains subscribers over the long term will prove far more difficult than today’s Wi-Fi hype admits.

“In many respects, the hot spot market feels like another technology gold rush,” says Keith Waryas, research manager for IDC’s wireless business network services program. “What we’re hearing now are the promises of fame and fortune typical of an early deployment phase. It is imperative to remember that this market is still exceptionally young and rife with uncertainty. Most business models are not yet proven and the competitive landscape is still unclear. The hard work needed to achieve Wi-Fi’s promise still lies ahead.”

Ernst & Young’s risk and technology services group says security remains the biggest issue facing users of wireless networks. In a report entitled The Wireless Technology Steeplechase, Ernst & Young partner Craig Boyhan examines WLAN technologies. Boyhan believes that as well as security, WLAN users need to consider other key technical issues such as capacity, privacy, scalability, interference and mobility. Boyhan says these risks are a major concern to the corporate market because they prevent WLAN use for core business applications.

Yet Gartner believes the market has reached a stage where the benefits of deploying wireless now outweigh the risks. It says WLANs can be secured using virtual private network (VPN) technology, while the new Wi-Fi protected access security solution (WPA) adds robust authentication and encryption to Wi-Fi certified equipment.

Can they all be correct?

It’s (Not Necessarily) a Snap

SnapX

One man who knows about the challenges involving wireless applications ? such as security, data accuracy, transfer speed, network coverage, costs and ROI ? is Terry Mosse-Robinson, the CEO of SnapX. The Australian freight management and logistics company, which has a reputation in the transport industry for world first technology, employs 320 people in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Its clients include NAB, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Cisco and Siemens.

“There are not many differentiators between transport organisations other than customer service and technology, so that’s where we’ve pushed our efforts,” says Mosse-Robinson. “Three years ago we operated like most other transport organisations in Australia, using local radio frequency networks. They were open channel, fixed to the vehicle and limited to a particular geography. It wasn’t convenient to tell a driver he had a pick-up from level 64 of the MLC Centre, only to have him get back to his car to discover his next pick-up was on level 63. We realised at that point we needed to get mobile communications onto the couriers themselves.”

SnapX wanted mobility to improve the quality and reliability of its service and to reduce costs. It also wanted an ROI within two years. So it implemented a wireless job management system that integrated with its legacy systems, had low bandwidth networking, ruggedised GPRS-enabled PDA devices, Web-based management and a national IP network over the Internet.

The business benefits so far? Increased reliability to 99.8 per cent; driver communication cost down by more than 70 per cent; an increase from six to 20 in the number of daily jobs for each driver; and improved accuracy with barcoding and electronic signature capture. SnapX says the base communications cost of having mobile workers is under $1 per day using GPRS.

One of the courier industry’s most attractive service offerings is sending signatures in real time for immediate proof-of-delivery. At SnapX, this alone has led to a dramatic reduction in costs and delivery times. What used to take days now takes seconds. Also, barcode scanning reduces the number of errors introduced into the SnapX system by human input of data.

On the Road Again

SnapX purchased its technology outright. It uses a robust all-in-one device custom built for “on the road” work: a dedicated industrial PC-phone from Symbol with a network that uses real-time communications, Windows CE software and the graffiti tablet.

SnapX first moved from radio frequency (RF) to SMS. But SMS is not a commercial platform. Come Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, for example, the network becomes clogged. As a store-and-forward system it is not always on, and with some jobs taking up to four communications with a driver it was costly and slow.

“It doesn’t sound much but if we can save five minutes on a job, multiply that by a couple of hundred drivers per day, per week, per year . . . the enterprise efficiencies are enormous,” says Mosse-Robinson. “We now have service parameters as short as 20 minutes. We use that speed as a point of difference in the marketplace and it helped us secure Australian Air Express as a client. This is the advantage we have over our opposition. We know of one competitor who has lost a significant amount of business in one market because of our efforts.

“Two years ago we used to take an average of 10 minutes to allocate our bookings. On 4000 jobs a day that’s 40,000 minutes of lost productivity. Today, the information gets out within two minutes and often within one minute.”

Some SnapX customers are now talking about strategic technology alliances that would allow SnapX to license its product and create a new revenue stream. At first, the company was protective about its technology investments to keep its differentiation. “But the differentiation window is months, not years,” says Mosse-Robinson, “so why shouldn’t we share some of the financial pain and license it to other people. Other organisations like the platform we’ve built and they’re looking to deploy other services on it.”

It Don’t Come Easy

Mosse-Robinson says nothing came easily for SnapX in its quest for more mobility. For a start, the devices are expensive. SnapX secured price protection in the deal it forged with Symbol and Optus, but as early adopters it paid a higher price. Mosse-Robinson expects those costs to decrease significantly over the next 18 months.

“Do your investigations,” he says.

“When we looked at earlier solutions we were a little naive. This time we investigated the technology better. We knew the pitfalls. We were able to deal with beasts like Symbol and Optus because we had experienced some of the pain previously. We were not going to allow that to happen again.

“We were not interested in what vendors all try to tell you a certain solution can do. We only cared about our business and what we wanted to do. Sales people are sales people. They will always try to run their agenda ahead of yours.

“But when you’re dealing with a large organisation you have to hold your ground. We had to be determined to get what we wanted from our technology partners. You may strike vendors who want to take you on a bit of a journey. That’s about what they want. It has to be what you want. Vendors may respect your agenda but the challenge is to make sure you come first.”

Fielding Calls

Fuji Xerox Australia

Wireless technology has also transformed customer relationships at Fuji Xerox Australia (FXA). More than 420 of FXA’s customer service engineers use Bluetooth technology, GPRS, a laptop and a mobile phone to access FXA’s network for live information on customer requests. When customers contact the FXA service centre it takes 23 seconds for the call to enter the system and find its way to a laptop in the field.

“This makes us more proactive,” says Andrew Taylor, FXA’s business and systems support manager. “The service engineer can go to the next customer with the part needed to fix the machine already in hand.”

Previously, life was far more cumbersome for FXA. It had one call dispatcher for every 30 service engineers. In a business that suffers waves of activity the engineers would attempt to reach a dispatcher at the same times. Backlogs would occur. The same applied if the engineers needed a spare part. They would call the FXA store, wait for a storeman to be free, ask for the part, wait while he checked and then have the part dispatched to the job site.

Mobile wireless allows FXA service engineers to access all of a customer’s contractual information and dispatch themselves. They complete the job and enter the details into the system while they are with the customer. They use a Compaq notebook and a GPRS-enabled device from O2 called an xda: a pocket PC phone that includes Internet access, e-mail and Pocket versions of Outlook, Internet Explorer, Word, Excel and MSN Messenger.

“We still have some areas where coverage is dicey,” says Taylor, “but we’re up to over 96 per cent in all our areas. The number of calls that are closed using the wireless solution out of our total calls is indicative of how successful the deployment has been. Before we went to the GPRS solution we were at less than 50 per cent. Within three months of moving to GPRS we were over 95 per cent. It’s not perfect. A perfect solution would be one device. We’re almost there.”

Before implementing its mobile wireless solution the customer service process at FXA took an average of 25 minutes per call. It is now seven minutes. FXA has gained more than an hour a day per field engineer. Extrapolate that across more than 400 people and the saving is substantial. At the same time, FXA now has less than one-third the number of dispatchers ? yet the number of customer calls they take has doubled.

Fun, Fun, Fun

Taylor, who emphasises he is not from the IT industry, says his team “had a bit of fun” during the implementation. FXA chose Compaq and Volante Systems as partners because they had the closest fit to what FXA wanted.

“What I found is that we had to be very specific about what we wanted and what we were promised,” Taylor says. “There were many times in review sessions with our technology partners when they said this was coming and that was coming or that we’d be able to do this in the future or that something else will be here in three months. But it never eventuated.

“There was a great deal of slippage in product delivery. We had to be very careful and very specific in getting commitments. It gave us many sleepless nights. Things we had pinned our hopes on had to change because it turned out they were not available.

“The best example is that there was a multi-port option on the back of the notebook that was going to give us the ability to have a wireless modem included. That was fantastic because it meant one device. I wanted to wait until that was available. We were told it was coming in three months. Three months passed and it was going to be another three months. Then that passed. In the end we had to move forward without it. That whole process of promises in the IT industry is . . . interesting.”

High Anxiety

Since FXA was combining several components for its mobile wireless solution, Taylor was anxious about its deployment. He says the three things FXA held dear throughout its mobility update were a solid business case, strategic partnerships and a willingness to embrace change.

“Within your business case you have to make sure you’re going in the same direction as the company,” Taylor says. “This means getting solid support from other parts of the organisation. That’s vital. Our buy-in went all the way to the managing director. You need that when you’re going to spend more than $2 million on technology. The other people involved were the finance director, the head of sales and marketing, the head of services and the divisional heads of the company. In our structure the finance director heads up the business services group that includes IT.

“We also made sure about our strategic partnerships with our suppliers. You don’t do business with just one group. You work with different suppliers because no one organisation does everything. And it’s not just about them supplying you with a box. You tell them the solution you’re trying to put in and ask them how they are going to partner with you to help deliver that solution.

“And you’ve got to think like a user. You have to remove any barriers they have. You have to be adaptable. You can’t be overly determined to go a certain path. Where you start with the project and where you finish will probably change.”

A Civil Solution

Sinclair Knight Merz

Another company employing leading edge mobility is Sinclair Knight Merz, one of Australia’s premier professional services consulting firms. It recently implemented a global remote access solution for more than 700 mobile employees worldwide. Delivered by Rosser Communi­cations, a Sydney-based systems integrator, the system is based on the iPass high-speed dial-up service that provides users with a one-click connection to the Sinclair Knight Merz corporate network. With more than 1000 projects across the world at any one time, the company requires a solution that allows employees to access a network holding more than 100,000 files ? whether they are working on docklands projects in London, roof designs for Olympic projects in Athens or the development of geothermal fields in eastern Russia.

Prior to implementing iPass, Sinclair Knight Merz used a dial-up solution from a large telco that was not accessible in every location in which the company operates. It evaluated a number of ideas based on a variety of key factors: global presence, stability, cost savings, security, ease of use and the ability to integrate with its virtual private network. “We even have engineers working in Antarctica so the remote access solution absolutely has to provide us with global coverage,” says John Miller, IS technology manager, Sinclair Knight Merz.

“The iPass solution provides us with many more locations, stable connections and automatic updating of numbers that in turn reduces maintenance and support dollars. We’re also saving our network engineers around two hours a day in remote dial-up support activities, enabling them to focus on other duties. They can participate more effectively in their individual virtual teams where real-time collaboration is imperative. And we are saving up to 50 per cent of our dial-up communications costs, running into hundreds of thousands of dollars this year alone.”

The Sinclair Knight Merz system also allows mobile workers to access the company’s Worldwide Information-Sharing Environment (WiSE). This means a project manager in London can communicate in real time with an engineer in Kuala Lumpur and a supervisor in Sydney, improving review and response times. Other standard applications such as e-mail and timesheets can also be accessed. Billing simplification has been another benefit with Sinclair Knight Merz now able to gain a complete breakdown of communications costs from each location of every mobile worker throughout the world.

Around the World

For companies contemplating a similar global deployment of a mobile service, Miller has some sage words.

“Run a pilot in as many different locations as possible,” he says. “The problems and challenges you may face in one country or region may be very different to those experienced elsewhere. Based on the feedback you receive from your pilot, prepare quality user documentation explaining how to use the service and the costs involved.

“And closely monitor the uptake of the service. If you are replacing an existing service you should have a reasonably good idea of how many hours per month you expect to save. Also, set a date for the decommissioning of any legacy services you may be running.”

And dealing with vendors?

“We had more than one vendor trying to push our chosen solution. My advice would be to choose a vendor that is sympathetic and compliable with the needs and requirements of your organisation. For example, SKM as an organisation is reasonably skilled from an IT perspective and we were keen to deploy and integrate the service using our own staff.

“Our chosen vendor supported us when we needed it, but also knew when to give us room to operate. This is in contrast to other experiences where the vendor was adamant about how we would deploy and run the application.”

A Prescription for Success?

Best practices for transforming your organisation into a wireless enterprise

Gartner believes that to transform a company into a wireless enterprise, certain areas must be understood in order to manage the risks and optimise the opportunities.

It says that from a strategic standpoint, successful initiatives to date have defined business process improvement objectives, such as higher efficiency or better product quality. Technology-driven initiatives have had disappointing results. Any wireless initiative should be driven by business requirements, have clear business objectives and provide tangible benefits.

From an organisational perspective, wireless solutions cannot be deployed successfully without understanding the potential impact of adoption and the mobility needs of the people involved. Issues include new work practices, skills and training, and potential legal and ethical risks in the relationship between employer and employees. Gartner says enterprises must analyse their mobile workers and identify common profiles to build wireless solutions that address each category’s specific needs.

The financial imperative means a wireless initiative is perceived to be successful when measurable benefits are obtained within 18 months. Managers should plan wireless projects, focusing on applications that provide these benefits quickly. They must remain aware of the details of the total cost of ownership. Controlling wireless costs is a major challenge ? particularly for wireless access services such as GPRS.

Regarding the technology, Gartner says most promising mobile and wireless technologies are immature. Heavy investment in emerging technologies, such as Bluetooth, or early deployment of new standard implementation releases, can be risky. Enterprises must understand the likely evolution of technologies and focus on those that are reasonably mature. Gartner warns that a battle among network vendors for market share has led to sales of uncertified products based on several emerging 802.11 standards. Gartner advises companies to be wary of uncertified WLAN products, to purchase only certified equipment and to seek guarantees of ability to upgrade to emerging standards.

Talking About My Mobile Generation

Are you a member of the mobiles?

Is checking your palm pilot an hourly habit? Have you replaced your home phone with a mobile? Is it used as a clock, calculator, phone book and entertainment system?

If you answer “Yes” to these questions, then you’re one of “the mobiles” - the pinnacle of the technology lifestyle pyramid as defined in a new study from the US-based Context Research Group. Context is the world’s leading ethnographic research company. It helps clients learn the truth about what customers actually do, not what they say they do. Context employs more than 3500 anthropologists around the world who observe people’s day-to-day experiences at home, work and play.

Two years after its groundbreaking ethnographic study of attitudes and behaviours related to wireless use around the world, Context Research has released its follow-up report. The Mobiles: Social Evolution in a Wireless Society chronicles the altered lifestyles and personal conduct of people who have integrated wireless products into their lives. The study took place last year in Sydney, Beijing, Rio de Janiero, Rome, Stockholm, New York and San Francisco. The findings indicate changes in the emerging mobile lifestyle in relationships, community, education and social norms.

“People love their wireless products not only as toys, but they have become more attached to the functions of devices and the information they can provide,” says Dr Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist for Context Research. “People have moved from being too busy to learn how to use many devices, to making time for learning what they need to know. And where people used to express concern about never being able to get away, that has become a reality. They are always within contact range.”

Previously, Context said cultural differences, difficulties learning to use devices and a lack of emphasis on the utility of wireless had kept the industry from reaching its potential. Context says companies that address these issues will close the gap between expectations and actual user experiences and enable wireless to deliver on its promise to create more satisfying communications and make it easier to access information.

“While everyone’s talking wireless, our findings suggest that no one has truly figured out what consumers really want and fully tapped into the opportunities wireless presents,” says Dr Blinkoff. “We got inside the minds of people and what they are saying to wireless manufacturers and marketers is: don’t over-promise what the devices can do; and make it easier for me to use them.”

Context says at the heart of consumer confusion about wireless is the insistence of companies to design wireless devices and applications for business while putting social utility second. This situation exists despite findings that show the most compelling applications are social, not business based. Context says developers would be wise to look at social interaction models in developing business applications.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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