The reasons for this building interest in field operations and automation have a lot to do with technological advancements meeting the ever-demanding need to improve operations throughout the enterprise. Additionally, there is the factor of customer service being used as a differentiation point among companies. The end result is that smart companies have already formulated – and are planning to deploy – strategies for improved field operations.
Field operations within the enterprise are often left to their own devices. With enabling technology (e.g. wireless connectivity, mobile computing devices, packaged applications) long out of reach of most companies, enterprises had few alternatives. Instead, companies focused on what they could affordably control: internal operations. Bar codes were slapped on every parcel and pallet. Handheld bar code readers and Wi-Fi networks became commonplace. And WMS (warehouse management system) and ERP (enterprise resource planning) solutions were deployed. As a result, control within the four walls of most companies has never been tighter.
TECHNOLOGY ENABLES FIELD OPERATIONS
Now, that same control is destined for outside-the-four-walls operations. It really makes sense – both economic and operational. I speak with plenty of manufacturers that provide aftermarket service. While their manufacturing operations are drum tight, they don’t have visibility into inventory in the field. In addition to inventory, many don’t have visibility into their mobile workers and their activities. Essentially, they’re flying blind compared to their internal operations.
The blunt fact is that this doesn’t have to be the case. Mobility is now a part of life for the many employees who have become attached to mobile phones and PDAs as consumers. Those technologies now need to be strategically deployed throughout the enterprise. Cost and user acceptance are no longer show-stopping issues. The price points of both rugged and semi-rugged mobile computing devices are well within reach of most enterprises. And, most run an operating system that varies only slightly from the desktop versions that employees use on their home PCs.
Wireless connectivity is another area where employees are becoming expert, having selected plans for themselves and their families. In fact, most companies are familiar with or have been pitched on the benefits of broadband speeds and superior coverage areas. It’s probably not a stretch to say that GPS (global positioning system) technology is fast becoming mainstream. (Field techs benefiting from turn-by-turn directions in their personal vehicles have to wonder why their employers aren’t leveraging the same technology.)
Devices and connectivity are important, but packaged applications need to be deployed for enterprises to benefit. On this front, companies have plenty of options that are open, scalable, and designed for their operational needs. Gone are the days of a customized, proprietary deployment that raises support and integration issues. Some of the largest service organizations manage thousands of field workers with software that can be deployed for a field crew of just a few hundred.
Automation and efficiency will be the new watchwords applied to field operations. The sooner companies realize this shift, the better positioned they will be to better serve, retain, and acquire customers.