December 30, 2010
Alexander Ilg founded msc mobile, in 2006 to optimize business processes on mobile devices. The company supports the development of mobile solutions on Blackberry, iPhone, Windows, Windows Mobile, Android and Symbian devices with a strong partner network including Sybase, Createch, T-Systems and British Telecom in North America, Central-Europe and the UK.
Alex has worked in the area of enterprise mobility since 1997 and, via numerous projects, has helped to bring more than 100,000 mobile users live. He was involved in the development of the NetWeaver Mobile and Mobile Asset Management solutions at SAP and received the Innovator Award 2010 for the best mobile solution from Sybase.
What is your definition of mobility?
Mobility is the freedom to access my business systems and data from wherever I am, whenever I need.
What is driving the surge toward mobility now for your company and customers?
Before this year, our company was really in a niche market. People were talking about mobility but many hadn’t started implementing mobility solutions to significant business problems. For us, and for the whole mobility community, SAP’s acquisition of Sybase was a game changer. It made the promise of a mobile platform a reality. And, it put an enterprise focus on mobility which has spurred companies to move in that direction so as not to be at a competitive disadvantage.
How do you see mobility driving growth for your customers?
In general, we’re seeing mobility having a big impact on three main business processes: sales, service and delivery. For sales, we see an increase in orders being driven by better information about the target customer which comes from the CRM system as well as enhanced access to product information and the order process. Order history, current product information and stock levels can now be immediately available. And, the sales person can write the order with the customer, get approval and even get paid in one visit versus spending time with a paper process, manual entry, checking on status and having to follow up with the customer a day or two later.
As an example, we are starting implementation for a toy manufacturer next week which will give the company’s sales people access to their ten thousand item catalog on a tablet. They will now know what products are in stock and when they can be delivered while they are meeting with the customer. They will also get their evenings back since they won’t have to be entering orders into the system each night after a day of sales calls. The implementation is expected to create more productivity, better customer relationships and more orders.
Service is where we are focused at the moment. For many companies, service can be dramatically improved by making data available in the field. With mobility applications and devices, repair personnel can see the history of machinery they are servicing, report errors, access manuals, field logs, technical notes, etc. So the company’s data is more accurate and more accessible. It also flows faster which means problems can be resolved faster.
One of our customers in the Middle East used to have days of downtime every time they moved an oil drilling rig. There is no connectivity while a rig is in transit from one spot to another and that used to mean no work could be done. Now, they have offline access to the system and can use that time to create work orders, error notifications, maintenance notes, etc. that synchronize with the system as soon as a network connection is reestablished. This was a major pain point the company needed to resolve and an investment priority because it impacts revenues.
Direct store delivery is another area, like the sales process, where mobility is having a financial impact. We see companies now able to be more accurate with delivery times, able to determine pricing on the spot, print invoices, and secure payment at the time of delivery. For a large beverage company to be able to invoice a day sooner and be paid a day sooner has a very positive impact on cash flow.
Are companies more focused on hitting a goal or solving a problem with mobility solutions right now?
Our customers are more focused on solving a problem. Their most important people, the people in the field doing the work, are not connected to their business systems in an optimal way. That, more than a specific sales or productivity goal, is what is driving the decision to seek a mobility solution.
What trends are you seeing in mobility?
Two years ago, mobile and mobility were a niche market. People weren’t investing heavily in it. That’s still true today to a degree but it is changing very quickly. Right now it’s still exotic to see a business process on a mobile device but that won’t be the case in five years. Mobility will be a normal part of every enterprise landscape.
In markets such as Asia and Latin America we are seeing companies skip the PC stage and go straight to conducting all aspects of their businesses on mobile phones. We met with a large pharmaceutical company whose sales force in Brazil doesn’t use PCs, only phones. The company needs to provide mobile access to the CRM system and expense reporting. This isn’t just a localized trend either. It’s a trend for many companies operating globally.
We are also seeing that laptop sales are down since the release of the iPad. Tablets won’t replace smartphones but they will fill a need that PCs don’t. Transitioning away from a paper process to using a touch screen on a tablet is easier than using a PC, especially for workers who are less familiar with computers.
Another change is that users will expect better usability. They won’t accept solutions that are built the way we made them even two years ago. People have been spoiled by their Android and iPhones. They expect the same usability for their business solutions and, once they have it, will probably also work more than they do today as they’ll have full time access to work systems.
What advice do you have for companies as they create their mobility strategies?
Unfortunately, we see many companies implementing silo mobility solutions today. We are typically approached by a business leader who is focused on solving a specific problem for his group vs. creating an overall mobility strategy.
But, it’s definitely better for the organization to look holistically at the problems mobility can solve and make platform and other strategic decisions before jumping into solving a particular problem. To fully realize efficiencies and growth from mobility, companies should look at enterprise mobility the same way they look at their core ERP system.
As much as possible, I would recommend focusing on a single platform to leverage the skill sets and administration associated with that platform. Choose a platform that delivers standard solutions you can use out of the box but that also allow you to create mobile solutions if your needs aren’t fully met with the preconfigured solutions. And, look for a platform that links to multiple backend systems, supports multiple devices, and will be there in three to five years, which probably means going with a major player.
I would also recommend identifying or assigning a group inside the company to focus on mobility. It’s not really anyone’s role right now, in IT or in the line functions. So put together a team. Someone from IT, preferably the CIO, should be involved who can represent the implications of implementing and supporting new technologies to move business processes to mobile devices. The leaders of various groups who would benefit most from addressing problems with mobility solutions should also be involved.
Finally, and this is something that is often overlooked, the end users should be involved from the beginning in designing a mobility solution to make sure it fits the need. We like to spend a day with the end users of an application to see how they work so we can incorporate that into the design.
This goes back to usability which is such an important topic for me. In the past, I’ve seen a lot of applications that technically worked perfectly. The data flowed from the device to the system and back so there were no technical issues but the project was a failure in the end with users. In one case, unbreakable devices for field service were being returned to the company as unusable. People had broken them intentionally, even driving a truck over them, so they didn’t have to use them. Obviously, this is something we want to avoid.
Usually, solutions fail because they are too complex. Most solutions don’t suffer from too little functionality but rather from too much. Users are allowed to do things in five different ways and they get confused. Mobility solutions are designed too much like they were for PCs. Look at Microsoft Word. There is additional functionality being added all the time but how many features do you really need or use on that application?
It’s a problem I also see with mobility that people add functionality that is nice to have but in the end it’s not used and it just makes the application too crowded and complex. As soon as an Apple device comes out people make a list of all the things it doesn’t have. I look at the list and say, that’s true, it doesn’t have all of that but I really use my device. I don’t need those features on that device. So it’s critical to understand the information and actions that are important to the end user and then to design for that – to do that really well.