Magazine Article | July 25, 2006

Prepare For Mobile Workforce Automation

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Do you know the challenges you’ll face with your mobile deployment? Here they are and how you can overcome them.

Integrated Solutions, August 2006

Every line-of-business owner needs their mobile workforce to be more productive in the field, and it is only natural to look to technology to deliver that goal. This in turn drives CIOs to investigate and deploy new technologies to improve processes and enable mobile workers to be more effective and efficient. Given the strategic importance of automation and the technologically savvy decision makers involved, why do efforts often fall short of expectations, or worse, fail altogether? In most cases, the technology does what it is supposed to do. So if it isn’t the technology itself that causes the projects to fail, is it end user resistance to change, lack of user adoption due to complexity, poor training … what?  

Reasons range from a steep learning curve for the nontechnical end users, to users being creatures of habit who are averse to change, to users not wanting “Big Brother” watching.  The bottom line is, it is the lack of user adoption that causes the most pain.Most employees are willing to withstand a reasonable level of frustration during any new system deployment. Regrettably, that line is crossed all too often. Perhaps the decision makers were ignorant of the current process, specific uses, or the day-to-day environments that mobile workers encounter. Or, perhaps the technology’s capabilities are overexaggerated and employee impact is overlooked.

By taking the following steps, you can alleviate the user-adoption challenges of a mobile deployment:

  • Be prepared to maintain a larger support staff for the first six months than you might otherwise have. The larger the end user change impact, the more support you’ll need to have in reserve.
  • Don’t skimp on training. Some people learn new technologies better than others. If you are automating a paper-based process and migrating to some sort of handheld device, anticipate a longer learning curve.  The solution is not as intuitive as you might think.
  • Maintenance/repair/lost hardware costs are often underestimated. Add a certain percentage to your first year budget for lost, broken, or stolen hardware, and have some in reserve for rapid replacement.  
  • Reevaluate the mobile workers’ “new duties” that technology has enabled. A good example is mobile data capture. In the past, information was written on paper, and someone else took that piece of paper and keyed the important data into a system. When you automate the data capture process, the mobile worker now performs the data entry task. Anticipate some resistance, and be prepared to address the “additional workload” question. Also, anticipate that the new form of data entry — mobile data entry — might provide less data. Industry feedback has shown that when mobile workers are asked to perform the data entry, they will input the bare minimum amount of data. Don’t expect the level of detail you used to get from the paper-based process.


Another way you can reduce the pains of a mobile deployment is to investigate all of the mobile technology options, not just the ones you are familiar with, have read about, or have used. Technology is constantly changing and improving.  Be sure to research current product capabilities and near-term product releases, which might make your deployment easier.

Here’s an example of a mobile deployment that went bad due to users rejecting the initial mobile technology. A Fortune 500 financial institution deployed a tablet PC solution to its mobile workers for data capture using electronic forms. After spending millions on the system, it was scrapped. Why? Because users couldn’t see the screens outdoors, the electronic forms were confusing, and the stylus did not feel natural, among other concerns. After researching several alternatives, the company deployed a trial project of a digital writing solution. It enabled the mobile workers to write on paper with a ballpoint pen device, capture, and transmit the handwriting in near real time; the solution converts the handwriting to digital images and useful data. The pen-based solution addressed many challenges such as minimal training time, strong user-acceptance, and lower cost of ownership.
Change is never easy. Costs are usually underestimated. Technology does not always defeat human nature. There are multiple offerings in the market to address a variety of skill sets, human factors, and data capture challenges. To have a successful mobile deployment, think from the end-user perspective, anticipate issues, and be informed of the technology before beginning.