Enterprise mobility: Taking time and space out of the equation

Posted on 13 Jul 2009 by The Manufacturer

Business is increasingly being carried out by people on the move. Success for many manufacturers is therefore directly related to their ability to do the business of business, wherever and whenever they happen to be. Step up Enterprise Mobility. Chris Pope writes.

It’s often said that the only constant is change and the world of work is undergoing yet another transformation. Just as globalisation forced manufacturers to adopt different working practices and technology to remain competitive, they are now facing a similar period of challenge from mobilisation.

Enterprise Mobility (EM) essentially relates to the means by which a manufacturer is able to achieve this ‘anytime, anywhere’ working capability. And the potential benefits touch virtually every area within a business. According to Emil Berthelsen of industry analysts Analysys Mason, “the greatest benefits come from being able to perform the necessary work activities where the work is; i.e. receiving and/ or capturing information at the point of work.” For example, at a production level, the progress of orders across the plant floor including in and out of premises for sub-contracting can be updated in real time providing real time visibility of what is happening and where. The same is true for distribution and stores, where goods in and out can be updated, again in real time and with less paperwork. Mobile sales teams are able to take advantage of increased Customer Relationship Management (CRM) capabilities by having live access to customer profile information to help win orders. If successful, these can be placed in real time, scheduled for production, and the customer given an accurate delivery date there and then. One area showing a particularly strong uptake is Maintenance and Field Service Management (FSM) where jobs can be dispatched to mobile specialists at short notice enabling companies to provide the best possible levels of service.

Achieving this within an enterprise and then out into the value chain may look simple from an information flow perspective but delivering it is highly complex.

From a technological perspective it involves the company’s back-office systems, typically including an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and/or an FSM system, being able to communicate with an appropriate mobile device complete with appropriate mobile application(s) and vice versa via a network, mobile and/or Wi-Fi. For companies looking to adopt a fully unified communications approach, this would also involve its telephony requirements also. And as with any communication chain, EM can only ever be as strong as its weakest link.

Unsurprisingly, Paul Westmoreland, Managing Director of Psion Teklogix (UK) Ltd, sees reliability as a key ingredient to any successful EM implementation, especially when looked at from a Return on Investment (ROI) perspective. While acknowledging that cost and affordability of any solution needs to be balanced against reliability and its impact on ROI, he has the following sobering advice for manufacturers. “It’s naïve to think that organisations can carry out reliable and robust EM activities if they do not invest the right amount in the EM solution in the first instance.”

This has more than just a short term effect because success or failure at a first or second attempt at EM will directly influence the decision making over any future investment in this area within an organisation and ultimately whether the company achieves the benefits it needs to remain competitive. Berthelsen adds that this is especially the case in the current economic and business climate. “You have the paradox where those within manufacturing companies charged with responsibility for reducing costs and delivering efficiency gains are also being encouraged to play it safe for fear of failure.”

For Jonathan Orme of Exel Computer Systems, UK author of the EFACS ERP and EAGLE FSM solutions, there is a strong sense of déjà vu in this. Both he and Berthelsen see a comparison with the issues facing manufacturers now, regarding EM, and those regarding ERP fifteen or twenty years earlier. “For many Small to Mid size Enterprise (SME) manufacturers, any consideration of EM is likely to be their first and consequently there are a lot of unknowns out there. The risks are therefore higher than if they were implementing a new ERP system alone as many SMEs are second or third generation ERP users and have acquired the experience, knowledge and expertise about how to get the best from such systems. It is therefore imperative that they develop a relationship with a solutions provider that can offer the experience and expertise they themselves may lack.”

Inherent in this is the need for a company to have a clear idea of what it is happening to achieve through EM and how this integrates into its wider business strategy.

Yet for Berthelsen, this can be a significant barrier for a variety of reasons. “For EM to be successful, technology needs to work hand in hand with business practices which for some manufacturers which will be difficult for them to grapple with. For example, a company that is still locked into an ‘individual silos of information’ mentality may well have problems adapting to the collaborative approach required for EM to truly work.” In a list that looks remarkably similar to reasons why ERP implementations often fail he adds poor system specification, a lack of vision and understanding at a management level, as well as resistance to change at an IT, business management and individual employee level.

He also remarks on the communication gap that exists between IT and business managers.

“Manufacturers are run by highly skilled business managers enabled and facilitated by technology managed by highly skilled IT managers. The problem is they don’t often talk and when they do, they speak a different language.” Gerard O’Neill from BT Global Services Manufacturing Practice notes something similar concerning the separation of technology and process describing this as the “sub-optimising of a business.” He goes on to say that a key barrier to EM success is where this sub-optimising is taken to such a degree that no-one can take responsibility within the organisation for the project as a whole.

The issue of responsibility is also critical when it comes to dealing with the solutions providers themselves and not just in the unhelpful situation where something goeswrong and everyone points the finger at someone else.

Effective EM relies on each product or system fulfilling its own requirements correctly while also interacting successfully with those it connects with. In the world of ERP this is where heated discussions take place along well worn lines about the benefits of a single solution provider versus a best-of-breed approach.

Yet when it comes to EM, the reality is no-one can provide a complete solution hence manufacturers are left having to co-ordinate an often complex supplier ecosystem.

It is here, especially for larger manufacturing organisations, that the managed services approach offers a positive way ahead, which for O’Neill begins with focussing on the communications network itself.

“Manufacturer companies may be full of smart people but when it comes to communication, it is the network that sees everything, that can track everything, that can record everything – whether data or voice, inside or outside the physical structures of the enterprise.” He continues, “Irrespective of the background business processes, the business strategy that these are designed to fulfil, the workflow which derives from them, it is the network that enables and facilitates the flow of information which makes EM both viable and successful. By focussing on the network and working in partnership with a managed service provider, companies can then determine the hardware and software that will work best in order to deliver the EM reality they need to achieve.”

While acknowledging the role of the network, Orme maintains that for the majority of SMEs, the critical component must ultimately be the back office systems. “In most parts of the UK and many other business locations worldwide, the reality is that unless you need 100% real-time, mission critical connectivity, the mobile networks are now reliable enough to do the vast majority of things, the vast majority of the time. Choosing the right ERP or FSM system is therefore paramount in how to makes best use of that connectivity by providing the right information to the right person at the right time.”

Looking ahead, Berthelsen sees Mobile Enterprise Applications platforms and the related issues of security as being pivotal to unlocking a wider and more successful uptake in EM. Assuming they are, his predictions for EM in manufacturing include a much greater acceptance and use of Software as a Service (SaaS) with business managers making investment decisions increasingly on a usage cost per person. He also anticipates mobile devices being able to run and switch between a number of different applications.

All agree Enterprise Mobility is here to stay and that it will be those manufacturers most willing and able to adapt to the application of technology to liberate EM’s many potential benefits that will succeed and be around when the next change arises.