Magazine Article | August 1, 2003

How To Avoid Handheld Hell

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Providing handheld computers to your field force workers can help your company become more efficient. But if you don't implement the technology correctly, those benefits (and your job security) may never be attained.

Integrated Solutions, August 2003

The benefits of adopting handheld computers are no secret to enterprise IT staffers. They know that handhelds enable workers to become more mobile and accurately enter data on site. The non-technology alternative entails scribbled notes, data entry back at the office, misinterpreted data, incomplete forms, misplaced forms, inaccurate reports and ... well, you get the picture (and the headache).

IT people also know that implementing handheld computers and field force automation aren't plug and play. Let's examine the integration issues and common mistakes surrounding this technology.

Integration Issue #1: Software
Entering data from the field and pressing one button to send it - just like e-mail - is attainable with a handheld. But where will it be sent? What will happen to the newly collected data once it enters your ERP (enterprise resource planning) or CRM (customer relationship management) system? These and other questions must be answered via software customization.

"When you enter orders from the field, you need access to a number of points within the back end," says Kevin Wilson, VP of eMerging solutions at bar code and mobile computing systems integrator Stratix Corp. (Norcross, GA). "You can tie it into CRM to provide you with customer history, and you can dig into your ERP system to see the entire supply chain. You have to know what systems you're tying into."

The collected data can also be entered into your company's accounting system. This option obviously complicates the software integration, but it can reduce your company's billing cycle by several days. "Without a handheld, field service workers have to carry a paper notepad and take care of billing after the fact," says Don Adams, VP of sales, central area, for AIDC (automatic identification and data collection) manufacturer Psion Teklogix (Mississauga, Ontario). "On the mobile device, all they have to do is press a button and verify they performed the service required. That information immediately goes to accounting so they can send an invoice."

Integration Issue #2: Connectivity
Next, determine if your field force workers need wireless communication or if they can batch data, periodically transferring it from a terminal. "If you need to share data every hour or half hour, you'll need wireless," says Joe Teixeira, owner/president of data collection systems integrator Data Capture Solutions (Manchester, CT). "If you can wait until the end of the day, just use a batch terminal. Your workers can take the handheld device home and transmit it either via a cradle or download it to their computer and send it via e-mail to the database."

If you choose wireless, don't assume your workforce will be connected 100% of the time, says Mike Colwell, VP of solutions marketing for AIDC manufacturer Intermec Technologies Corp. (Everett, WA). "To me, it's a business rule that your handheld applications must be able to run offline. To make another assumption is dangerous," he says. "There are a tremendous number of dead spots away from your company's campus where you won't be able to connect. For example, if you're servicing air conditioners in New York City, you may get great connectivity at street level, but large air conditioners are usually in basements where there's no connectivity." Rural service areas and shielded rooms in hospitals can also pose problems for wireless mobile workers.

Another obstacle to adopting wireless handheld devices is cost. Research firm Gartner reports the total cost of ownership for mobile users is 50% more than desktops. This takes into account not only the wireless device (which needs a faster, more expensive processor than a desktop) but also the extra expenses of servicing the devices, purchasing wireless backbone hardware, and establishing access points.

Stratix' Wilson says companies making this wireless-or-batch decision have to focus on payback, not initial costs. "Ask if it makes sense to be real-time wireless," he says. "If it can alleviate your help desk labor and prevent delays in ordering and shipping, for example, the benefits may outweigh the extra costs. If you're not going to receive payback for the up-front costs times five, the project shouldn't be going wireless."

Mistake #1: Mismanagement Of The Project Time And Scope
Can you name your last IT project in which the scope didn't change at least slightly? Of course not; change is the norm for sizeable IT tasks. But don't let the unavoidable changes bog down your handheld implementation to the point where no benefits are realized because of unnecessary delays.

"You have to know your biggest pain point and think it through as far as you can," says Data Capture Solutions' Teixeira. "But as the handhelds are implemented, people use them and begin to ask if the devices can address more issues with a little more software. There's nothing wrong with adding on those tasks as long as the area where you need help the most is being addressed. It's like when you build a house, you know what you want, and you design it that way. As they build the house, you might want to move a wall or two because you've actually looked at the structure and you see what you can change."

Psion Teklogix' Adams agrees that addressing the "real problem" is foremost, but reasonable changes must be accommodated. He said the best way to avoid unnecessary changes is to receive project approval from upper level management and then organize a small team to implement the technology. "Don't have a large committee make the decision because you'll never get agreement among everyone," he says. "What should be a short process then becomes a multiple-year process."

Adams recommends that members of the implementation team should include IT staff, the top manager of your field force department, and a worker who will actually use the handheld. Stratix' Wilson adds that anyone within the company should be able to request changes to the scope of the project, but the suggestion should receive approval from the implementation team.

Mistake #2: Not Changing Your Business Processes
The results of your handheld implementation should go beyond reducing the amount of paper used by field force workers. Automating your field force is a prime opportunity to assess your company's current business practices and improve them.

"If you focus only on eliminating paper and don't fix your business process problems, handhelds might actually make your business more difficult to run," says Kristi Urich, director, field service industry marketing at Intermec. "Companies often overlook the need to change business processes when they install handhelds for the first time.

"A mobile workforce of 200 people has 199 different ways of doing things. But, if they all use handhelds and share standard electronic forms, you can devise a system that establishes consistent business practices."

Mistake #3: Inadequate Testing And Training
Getting buy-in from upper level management was mentioned earlier, but getting users involved for prototype testing is just as important. "If you haven't addressed user buy-in before the handhelds are deployed, you're going to have a rocky start," says Stratix' Wilson. "Get a team of proactive users to test the pilot system and give you feedback. When they see the benefits of the system, they'll talk about it to other users and get acceptance from them."

Intermec's Urich says IT staff should not be responsible for training users. "That's a bad idea for many reasons," she says. "First, you'll put them behind schedule on other IT issues. Also, they're not skilled at adult education."

Whomever you choose for user training (many integrators and vendors of handheld computers offer user training programs), get them involved as early in the adoption process as possible. "Have them engaged as soon as you test software integration, and keep them in the loop all the way through," Urich says. "They can help you with user interface testing and will know what obstacles the users will face before they start training. The faster that users adopt the handhelds, the faster your company will realize the benefits."

Urich contrasted two customers: One tried implementing a training program after the system was installed; they spent 2 1/2 years getting users acclimated to the new system. Another customer involved trainers during the testing process and saved $300,000 in postage and paper in the first year. "Every day you delay is another day you miss out attaining ROI," she says.