From The Editor | September 21, 2007

Mobility Or Bust

Deploying mobile technologies in field service applications is not a luxury. It's a competitive necessity and the only way to meet increasing customer expectations.

Integrated Solutions, October 2007

Over the past few months, I had the opportunity to speak in four different parts of the country on the topic of field service. Panasonic, Sybase-iAnywhere, and Verizon sponsored the four-city seminar tour. And, the overall theme of the events was best summed up in the title, "Best Practices In Field Service." Of course, not all best practices can be covered in a one-day seminar. So, we stuck to one of the foundations of best practices for this application: Automation through mobility should be a cornerstone of any sizable field service operation.

It appears simple enough. Mobile computing, connectivity, and field service seem almost inseparable. From Integrated Solutions' perspective, almost every field service article we write includes a strong mobility angle. That's not solely because it's a core technology covered in our pages. It has a lot to do with the field service companies we detail. These companies are automating processes, they are accessing and relaying data in real time, and they are optimizing their resources. And, this all starts with eliminating paper-based processes and replacing them with mobile computing technologies.

While larger field service organizations are leveraging mobility, many midsized operations are not so quick to follow suit. Why? The reasons vary from company to company, of course, but research shows the consistent top two are cost of deployment and security. Both should be real concerns for any company's mobile deployment. However, they shouldn't be immovable barriers that stand between your current operations and vastly improved performance.

Automating your field service team through mobility is going to have a significant cost. Even if the number seems unmanageable, don't shelve the project for another 12 to 18 months. You should immediately start evaluating the returns that mobility can bring your company in the area of productivity. For instance, studies show automation results in each tech closing 20% more work orders per day. (Multiply that increase by your total techs in the field, and performance improves dramatically.) Also, take a look at how your techs currently collect and enter service data into your back end systems. In many cases, the data is recorded manually on paper-based forms and rekeyed at the end of each shift. It's redundant work that can often result in inaccurate and incomplete records. Real-time connectivity eliminates these issues. And, closing work orders at the customer site and exchanging data with back end systems in real time allows companies to shorten billing cycles.

Device security is a real concern. However, there are real solutions as well. A host of vendors have offerings that allow companies to control mobile devices in the field from one central location. From one site, an administrator can perform software updates and audits on far-flung mobile devices. Support personnel can perform remote diagnostics and reboots for any employee in the field. What if the device is lost, stolen, or being used without authorization? Well, these same solutions allow administrators to lock down mobile devices and wipe data from the units. (With the increase in mobility at all levels in the enterprise, it's a wonder that every company doesn't deploy such software.)

There's no question that moving from manual to automated processes is a big step for any organization. Several years ago, there were enough challenges to make a prudent company delay such initiatives. Today, however, field service companies with that attitude aren't being prudent. They're just falling a step behind their competition.