Next-Gen Solutions for Your Mobile Workforce

This year could be a tipping point for enterprise mobile applications.

By Ananth Rani, Senior Vice President of Products and Services, Xora Inc.

Mobile applications are growing at a fast clip for businesses of all sizes. A Frost & Sullivan survey of 300 decision makers in North American companies small and large found a high rate of adoption of mobile applications. Nearly 60 percent of participants had deployed applications for mobile office and mobile messaging, and 50 percent are using mobile apps for unified communications and workforce management. (Source: Premium Mobile Enterprise Applications-What’s Working in North America, August 2010)

The market for mobile workforce management solutions is an area of particular growth because the ROI is clear. With the software increasingly available as a service, companies can realize faster time to benefit with minimal maintenance. Companies avoid capital expenses on hardware and software licenses and don't need to spend time or money installing, managing and securing the software. From day one, they can focus on delivering new capabilities to field workers and collecting valuable data.

The combination of cloud delivery and fully featured, GPS-enabled smartphones helps companies gain several benefits: reduced labor expenses, higher job completion rates, reduced paperwork, improved customer service and response times, productivity improvements, reduced liability, and more accurate billing and record keeping. Companies in merchandising, distribution, health care, utilities, construction, and transportation – as well as government entities -- are prime candidates for mobile workforce management.

According to Frost & Sullivan, a majority (40 percent) of companies that use mobile workforce management technology say it is “very necessary” to achieving business goals. Mobile workforce management tools can help a company gain efficiencies that boost the bottom line, which is critical today, with revenue growth still slow for many industries. Even small companies can save $100,000 or more annually from using these applications.

Dr Pepper Snapple Group (DPSG), a global beverage company based in Plano, Texas, was looking for a location-based tracking solution to help enforce accountability for merchandisers delivering products to retail locations. By obtaining more accurate tracking of employee hours and the time spent to complete each delivery, the company hoped to make field operations more efficient. The company, with 19,000 employees and 2009 revenues of $5.53 billion, also wanted to improve customer service and reduce its costs per (soda) case by 3 cents. After deploying a Web-based solution for workforce management, delivered via mobile phones, Dr Pepper Snapple Group estimates an annual return on investment (ROI) of $8,128,656. Customer service benefits included improved coordination between distribution and merchandising, as well as better tracking of completed deliveries and set-up at each store.

More than 2,700 drivers and merchandisers at DPSG use the software to log in and out of jobs during their workday. Now, managers can verify on-time delivery and track deliveries per day so they can give feedback to help employees work smarter. The company also plans to integrate the solution with its existing dispatch systems to optimize routes. Future integration with payroll systems will enable electronic reporting of hours, eliminating manual processes for updating payroll data.

There are many advantages to delivering advanced workforce management capabilities over mobile phones. Typically, such solutions involve minimal training for workers, many of whom use mobile phones (and now tablets) to conduct personal business. The light form factor of these devices lets field workers easily and quickly enter and transmit different data types (including images and forms) back to the home office where managers use the data for real-time decision-making.

Yet there are still barriers to adoption for the enterprise, including:

  • Cost of required hardware
  • Back-end integration expense
  • Solution customization expense
  • Lack of corporate data security
  • Employee resistance
  • High total cost of ownership, especially with dedicated in-vehicle systems

Next-generation Solutions

Fortunately, a few critical trends mitigate some of these barriers. Hardware costs in the past have been related to purchasing in-vehicle devices or new phones with GPS capabilities. Today, most mobile phone models support location-based software and provide all the capabilities as a vehicle tracking device -- plus many more. As a result, a company may not need to purchase any new devices to start using the software. With mobile phone costs declining every year, any additional required purchases are more affordable today than a few years ago.

Other hardware costs are incurred to manage the infrastructure. Many enterprise mobile applications operate in the cloud, so that managers can access data from any computer and don't have to install, secure, or manage software and servers internally. The service fees an enterprise pays its cloud provider cover the software and all related maintenance, support, and security. Companies may still need to implement encryption and authentication technology for data exchange between the home office and mobile phones, and may choose to install device security. Remote device wipe technology is another proven safeguard for protecting any data on a lost or stolen device.

Customers requiring integration with back office systems can often get help from their cloud provider for a reasonable fee if they don't want to perform the integration themselves. The ideal mobile workforce management solution has the flexibility to integrate with accounting, payroll, CRM, dispatch systems, or industry-specific third-party systems via simple coding or third-party connectors. Such integration points can help derive additional value from mobile workforce management.

For instance, an employee delivering products to a customer could send a delivery receipt from a cell phone to headquarters; a home health aide could input visit details on the phone that are uploaded to the corporate accounting, compliance, and CRM systems by an office worker. Later, employees can run reports on the data collected by phones to review KPIs for on-time deliveries and jobsite productivity, which can help with more accurate project bidding and support sales efforts. Leading workforce management applications can send alerts to users based on critical thresholds, such as when a worker is late to a jobsite or travels outside the regular route.

Graybar, based in St. Louis, Missouri, is another Fortune 500 company that has reduced costs and serviced customers better by using workforce management software on mobile phones. The company distributes electrical, telecommunications, and networking products and had been using paper forms for timesheets and delivery tracking. Now that the workers’ phones collect that data, the company has saved on overtime related to inaccurate reporting and on administrative costs from manual data entry.

Furthermore, Graybar can give more accurate updates to customers. Once a customer accepts a shipment, the driver uses the cell phone’s camera function to capture a photo of the signed packing slip and the goods delivered. The mobile software attaches these images to the job record, captures signatures through the phone’s touch screen interface, and creates an electronic delivery record. This record also integrates with Graybar’s SAP system for near real-time job data. Graybar customer service representatives use online maps to check the location of trucks throughout the day. This allows them to alert customers about shipment arrival times and to re-route drivers to different locations as needed. These tools can help even a very large company be more nimble and responsive to customer needs, down to the minute.

Even so, the cultural changes of real-time tracking of workers’ locations, activities, and hours may be an initial hurdle because of the "big brother" effect. It's important for field force managers to work with employees so that they not only understand what information is being collected and for what reasons and communicate the benefits. By focusing on customer service and productivity, for instance, workers can help their companies grow, which protects jobs. In addition, many such systems provide features useful to workers on the job -- through route optimization via GPS technology and for real-time updates to schedules from the phone. That puts vital information about deliverables at a worker's fingertips and also helps them swiftly navigate traffic and unfamiliar areas, reducing delays and stress. Finally, workers know that they are getting paid for every hour worked, since the mobile software collects time stamps for the beginning and end of their shifts.

Accessing updated statistics from the field allows managers at the home office to respond on the fly to changing project or customer-service needs. A major U.S. police department, for instance, uses location-based mobile workforce technology to keep track of officers in the field. In crowd situations for example, the technology helps dispatchers quickly respond to incidents by knowing which officer can get to the scene fastest. In addition, officers are able to get out of squad cars and walk around in the community knowing that their Blackberries are transmitting their current location even when they are outside their vehicles. That capability can help increase participation in the community, reduce crime, and save dispatchers precious time.

The Future

Location-based technology, affordable and feature-rich smartphones, and cloud-based delivery models have offered groundbreaking opportunities for companies to better manage their workforces for competitive and economic reasons. Increasingly, the software requires minimal input from a worker. For instance, a company could designate "geofences" or “workzones” around locations on a route that can help confirm deliveries and job site hours without an employee even touching the phone. Job dispatchers can send job instructions and turn-by-turn directions to the worker’s phone. Managers can receive alerts when drivers are speeding, through a portal updated continuously by GPS feeds from the phones.

Down the road, companies will start to use mobile apps to perform many tasks. The real-time mobile exchange of critical business information could mean scanning data such as product barcodes for integration with inventory systems, or scanning customer signatures on forms for an electronic record of receipt. Disaster recovery is another area of opportunity. A government agency in Florida used a location-based mobile application to collect and transmit data about oil spills from patrol boats so that emergency management personnel could respond to areas of critical need first.

Mobile phones, however, won't be the only devices using the software. Companies of all sizes are beginning to test tablets for sales, marketing, and field workers because of their ease of use and superior information display capabilities. For employees that fill out lots of forms, need to search and correlate data, or regularly share graphs and presentations with others in the field, tablets might be a superior platform.

For small and large organizations, mobile apps are getting more serious. This year could be a tipping point for enterprise mobile applications: advances in mobile hardware and Web-based software will help mobile workers be highly efficient on the road and support real-time decision-making in the corporate office.

Ananth Rani is senior vice president of products and services at Xora Inc. You can contact the author at arani@xora.com.
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