Magazine Article | November 1, 2003

Keep Your Field Workers In The Hot Spot

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Field workers need access to back end applications to optimize their time and skills. Make sure you follow these eight steps to avoid causing more inefficiency than you alleviate.

Integrated Solutions, November 2003

Thinking about pushing your enterprise applications such as e-mail, ERP (enterprise resource planning), or CRM (customer relationship management) out to your field workers? Maybe you already did, but things aren't going so well and the phrase "wirelessly enabled" has become the butt of every field worker's joke. Don't despair; help is on the way. Follow the eight tips below, and you'll be on your way to putting your field workers in the wireless hot spot and keeping yourself out of the other kind of hot spot.

1. Keep Field Workers' Needs In Mind
If you thought the first step was brainstorming about how you can extend your Siebel or SAP application to your field workers, stop. You're asking the wrong question. "Companies need to first evaluate the business need for going wireless," says Eugene Signorini, senior analyst for the Yankee Group (Boston). "Determine exactly what information business workers need to do their jobs more effectively and work your way back from there." By taking this approach you'll avoid trying to transmit too much data across the wireless network, thereby reducing costs and saving your field workers the grief of waiting for information to arrive.

2. Use The Right Wireless Devices
There are a myriad of wireless devices on the market today. Choosing the wrong one is like trying to change a light bulb with a pair of pliers. "To avoid using the wrong tool for the job, consider how field workers will access information and what kind of information they will upload and download," says Carl Coppage, manager of emerging technologies of technology research and development for Sprint PCS (Overland Park, KS). "For instance, if workers need wireless access to video and colorful graphics you'll want to consider laptops and tablet PCs, not PDAs [personal digital assistants]." If they will be receiving and sending mainly text information, on the other hand, PDAs are the less expensive, less cumbersome choice. In that case, consider the difference between devices with small keyboards compared to using devices that have a stylus and touch screen. Is there a chance these devices are going to get bumped, dropped, or exposed to extreme temperatures? Make sure you buy devices that are ruggedized. The extra money paid up front will pay for loss productivity due to downtime later.

3. Keep Customization To A Minimum
Unless you're the exception to the rule, it's a given that you are going to support text pagers, PDAs, laptops, and maybe even some multipurpose devices. Each one of these devices has a different screen size. One option is to custom write an application for each kind of device and each kind of operating system. "It's better to choose a middleware vendor with connectors already built-in for your back end applications and wireless devices," advises Dave Malloy, operations manager for the enterprise data sales team at Verizon Wireless (Bedminster, NJ). Less customization means simpler upgrades, less expensive support costs, and lower TCO (total cost of ownership). Don't just compare application costs when shopping for middleware; find out who has the connections you need.

4. Optimize Offline Functionality
Just because you have devices that can send and receive data over a wireless network doesn't mean that's all they can do - and, it's not all they should be used for. "Make the most of your devices' offline capabilities by deploying software that includes session management functionality," says Coppage. "Specifically, you'll need to be able to pick up where you left off if your service drops out while uploading or downloading information and you'll need to be able to automatically sync back up to your back end applications once you move back into wireless coverage." Another time-saving feature is to avoid having to login again after you've lost connectivity and then get back into coverage. Session management software, which may be part of your middleware solution, makes this possible.

5. For Wireless, Think Thick Client
In an ideal world we would all use the Internet to access and upload data to a centralized database. No data would be stored on the device, which would make software upgrades and support a piece of cake. For the world of wireless you'll need to be more practical, however. "Design your wireless solutions with thick client architectures," says Signorini. "Most devices can hold enough memory to store a portion of the back end application, which means users will wirelessly ping the application server for a small amount of data." By storing data on the device and sending certain fields of data - as opposed to sending whole files - companies can worry less about overcoming the limitations of wireless and can capitalize on the benefits of mobility.

6. Store Read-Only Data On Removable Media
There may be some data that field workers access, but don't change. For example, schematics, wiring diagrams, photos, building codes, and maps provide useful read-only information, but in most cases won't need to be updated by the field worker. To avoid overfilling the wireless device's hard drive, it is advised to keep read-only data available on other media such as CDs, DVDs, or other removable storage media.

7. Save Time, Money By Compressing Data
While there are many different wireless data plans, just like there are many different cellular plans, the most common wireless data plan entails paying for data transmissions according to how much data is transmitted. Besides following the already mentioned advice of sending only the necessary data, there is one more step you can take to reduce costs. "Overcome wireless bandwidth restrictions and reduce transmission costs by using data compression software," says Malloy. "I've seen application performance improve by as much as 50% and costs drop significantly with compression software."

8. Complement Your WWAN With WLAN Hot Spots
As much as you try to optimize your use of wireless, there will be times when you need to wirelessly send information back to headquarters or to another service representative or client, and plugging into a landline might not be a viable option. Public WLAN (wireless LAN) access points, known as hot spots, are coming to the rescue. "Using wireless devices equipped with network interface cards, hot spots enable users to establish wireless connections with many times the bandwidth of a dial-up connection," says Jeremy Pemble, VP of public relations for AT&T Wireless (Redmond, WA). "After leaving the hot spot area, the network card switches the device back into WWAN [wireless wide area network] mode." Presently there are approximately 12,000 hot spots in the United States and Canada, primarily in such location as airports, colleges, and metropolitan areas. Analysts predict that number will escalate to around 78,000 within the next four years, making this option a viable wireless complement for many field workers.

But, you don't have to wait for hot spots to spring up in your area to get value from a wireless solution today. What you do need to do is make sure you follow the above steps so you can minimize the limitations of wireless and maximize the value of being mobile.