A strategic approach to enabling mobile business applications

Today's successful enterprises are discovering that granting mobile access to critical business applications can increase productivity and revenue. This guide will cover how to develop an overall strategy for mobilizing applications and how to tailor that to your specific needs. Learn about the most common roadblocks and how to devise a plan that will avoid problems in your applications rollout.

Today's successful enterprises are discovering that granting mobile access to critical business applications can increase productivity and revenue. This guide will cover how to develop an overall strategy for mobilizing applications and how to tailor that to your specific needs. Learn about the most common roadblocks and how to devise a plan that will avoid problems in your applications rollout.

Table of contents:

  1. Mobile business applications -- moving beyond email
  2. Defining a mobile strategy
  3. Implementation steps to success

Mobile business applications -- moving beyond email
Many companies have deployed some form of mobile email for the workforce as their first foray into wireless applications. Yet some are still hesitant to deploy applications that enable connectivity to back-office systems. Despite the maturity and success of most email deployments, companies are still highly cautious when looking at more complex applications. They worry about complexity, deployment costs, security, user reluctance to work on small devices, and -- having been unsuccessful in early implementations -- they are often gun-shy about trying again. Yet this reluctance to deploy applications is outmoded thinking. Forward-thinking companies are deploying mobile applications in a short time, at reasonable cost, and often on existing infrastructure. And they are reaping significant gains in end-user productivity and business efficiency.

Enterprises wishing to deploy mobile solutions to the workforce should start with a strategic plan that focuses on what the users need to get their jobs done, the kinds of infrastructure that are already in place and can be leveraged, and how business needs will change over the next few years. This last component of a mobile strategy is particularly important because it will determine not only what gets implemented now but what degree of flexibility will be required to enhance and improve the applications over time. Failure to take into account the needs of the business in the long term will mean a mobile solution that is unable to change or grow with the business, representing a less-than-optimum investment strategy and potentially requiring rip-and-replace of the solution within a short time.

Extending email 
Most organizations that have deployed even simple mobile applications can leverage those applications to encompass a broader reach of user and company needs. For instance, enterprises that have a wireless email solution can extend the core capability of the application to deliver push, two-way data to the user by including targeted connectivity to back-office solutions, particularly if the interactions can be contained in a forms-based approach. Most modern mobile solutions, including virtually all wireless email systems, provide a mechanism for such application extensions.

Certainly, the limitations of the device need to be taken into account, and complex, visually interactive applications are best reserved for higher-end devices (e.g., notebooks). But a significant portion of mobile workers can be empowered with relatively simple applications that use existing infrastructure through XML and other Web-based interfaces and with readily available visual application development tools. While not suitable for all situations, the relative ease of deployment and lower cost make these extended solutions attractive for a variety of business needs.

Increasing complexity
There is, of course, a need for more complex, custom solutions where highly complex workflows and/or interactions are required. Such deployments must include selection of devices, mobile middleware extensions of existing application platforms, and connectivity options that optimize the user experience and provide for ease of back-office platform integration. While more complex and more expensive than the solutions outlined above, these deployments generally represent a more flexible and more highly integrated approach.

Here, too, companies should look at their existing infrastructure to choose a solution that most easily fits in with their platforms, solutions and tools strategy. This will minimize any additional investments in one-off technologies and also minimize the need for enterprise staff to learn new technologies and tools. Companies focused on specific technology choices (e.g., Microsoft .NET, JAVA, IBM Websphere, SAP, Oracle) can find targeted solutions for mobilizing their environments from both the vendors themselves and from third-party providers.

End users matter
In order to succeed, no matter which path is chosen, companies must focus on the needs of the end users. The majority of failed mobile deployments result not from bad technology but from poor implementations that often produce negative productivity gains for the end user and are consequently abandoned. It is imperative that companies understand the needs of the end user, and they should include end-user representatives in the early stages of solution design to maximize the ease of use and productivity of the resultant application. This is a step that is often overlooked by IT in defining and creating solutions, frequently resulting in re-architecting and changes during the trial phase that could have been eliminated with up-front end-user input.

Companies must also focus on the overall security of the solution, as the need to safeguard corporate data assets and comply with existing and future regulations is of paramount concern, particularly in such highly regulated industries as financial services, healthcare and retail. Careful evaluation of the inherent security of any application platform or extension -- including any email or other existing mobile solutions -- should be undertaken at an early stage of the design phase.

It is only through a holistic approach -- taking into account user needs, company infrastructure, security, and business needs -- that mobile solutions can be successfully deployed, providing maximum gain to the whole company and its workforce.


Defining a mobile strategy
Despite a need to move toward mobile applications for the workforce, the majority of companies have not yet formulated a sound mobile strategy (our research indicates less than 35% have a mobile strategy in place). This lack of strategy often prevents companies from achieving maximum benefits in their deployments and further prevents them from formulating a sound strategy for future integration and deployments. We believe that nearly all companies should create a mobile strategy. A number of key points must be included in any mobile strategy if it is to be successfully implemented.

Define current and future requirements
First, any mobile strategy must include a detailed understanding of the business requirements of the organization. It is not enough to understand the current needs of the field worker. It is imperative that any strategy focus not only on the here and now but on how any deployed technology can be adapted for use three, five and seven years in the future. Most companies undergo significant change in business needs on a regular basis, and it is not uncommon for companies to change a significant portion of their business model every five to seven years.

Therefore, any strategy should include substantial input from the various lines of business (LOB) within the company. This will provide a roadmap for where technology is heading. This must be a joint strategy process between LOBs and IT, however, with IT setting the boundaries of what technology may be able to do, as end users often have unreasonable expectations for technology capabilities.

Evaluate assets
Next, an enterprise should evaluate its existing assets, viewing each of its major assets in terms of its potential to meet the long-term goals of the organization. Assets such as existing devices, application platforms, network access, support infrastructure, security solutions, application development tools and databases should all be evaluated for the potential they provide for the needs of the future. If it is found that certain technologies will not meet the needs of the long-term strategy of the organization, a plan must be put into place that will either replace the technology or find a way around the technology so that long-term needs and goals can be met. Update, replace or substitute planning must be included in the long-term strategy for any technologies that are found to be inadequate.

Assess skills
Third, any mobile strategy should take into account the overall capabilities of the organization. Are the necessary skill sets available within the organization to analyze, design and deploy mobile solutions? This should include the specialized skill sets needed by IT staff in various areas, including networking, development, security, applications, device management and support. It is not uncommon for organizations to have a good deal of internal resources available for existing fixed applications, but many such resources are inadequate when it comes to the specialized skills needed for mobile and wireless deployment.

Any strategic planning process must take into account the need for skill training or re-training of existing staff to obtain the needed skills in-house. Alternatively, some organizations will decide to outsource these requirements rather than expend the effort needed to develop internal skills. Both internal and external resource allocations are viable options, but a mobile strategy must address this need to prevent any critical shortage of the resources required for success.

Management and user support crucial
Next, it is imperative that any mobile strategy get support from executive management. It is likely that the mobile strategy will include significant needs in funding and resources to implement all of the goals of the plan. This will require a long-term commitment and potentially some action or direction from high levels of management. Many organizations fail to do this, and subsequently mobile strategies fail to fully materialize in their three-to-five-year planning horizon. As with any corporate strategy, the mobile strategy should reflect the needs of the entire organization and should also be rolled into any overall strategic planning process for the enterprise as a whole so that it does not become an "orphan" outside of the overall corporate plan.

Finally, any mobile strategy should be fully communicated to the staff and LOB managers so that each party involved in the creation, use and deployment of the strategy understands what is being implemented and why. This is an essential step because, as with any technology change, it is important to have end users on-board and supporting such change. In fact, a subset of the strategic plan should be created specifically for the purpose of educating the user community about what is being done and why. While often neglected, this "internal marketing campaign" results in a smoother implementation path and provides a great way to obtain feedback for fine-tuning purposes. Communicating the mobile strategy should be a foundation of any implementation process.


Implementation steps to success
Any successful mobile strategic plan must include requirements for ensuring that applications destined for use within the organization are successfully deployed with the least amount of corporate pain or critical business disruption. Yet many companies do not adequately plan for the rollout of mobile applications and consequently take a long time to achieve an error-free, stable installation -- as long as nine to 12 months in some cases. Further, some organizations experience major business disruptions as they switch over to new technologies that they hoped would bring them immediate efficiency improvements and economic payback.

The ability to roll out and support end users with new mobile solution deployments has often exceeded companies' ability to cope and provide the unexpectedly high levels of required resources. Specific implementation steps are required to ensure successful deployments in the least amount of time, with the least business disruption, and without straining already limited resources.

Step 1: The pilot phase
First, almost all new technologies will need some fine-tuning before they can meet all the stated goals and objectives of a project. It is likely that any mobile solutions deployed in the field will need some adjustments before achieving full production quality. And trying to scale too quickly only compounds the problems. Therefore, any mobile application should undergo a pilot phase before being rolled out to the greater population of users.

The pilot phase should include a subset (usually no more than 10% to 15%) of the entire end-user community and should be viewed as a trial rather than full production. Backup systems should be included that allow business functions to proceed normally so that all users can minimize any disruptions should major glitches occur. High levels of end-user support must be included in this phase of deployment, both at the help desk and from engineering groups.

End users must also be encouraged to provide feedback on any functions that are not performing to expectations, whether through technology/programming failures or through design errors. The pilot phase should last until the organization feels that the application is fully functional and errors have been removed. This phase usually lasts three to six months.

Step 2: Segmented rollout
Once the pilot phase has been completed, the application should be rolled out to the entire user base. It is often impossible to roll out the application to everyone at once, particularly if it is a large group. Therefore, a segmented rollout plan should be created to provide specific groups of users with the solution at specific times. This should be dependent on the ability of the organization to adequately deploy and support the users.

An important part of the rollout includes user training, not only of the application but of any new device or connectivity provided them. Many organizations fail to train their end users adequately and consequently see a massive number of help desk calls for the first three months of deployment. In some cases, this volume can be three to five times the expected volume of support calls. Of course, the help desk staff must also undergo rigorous training in the new solution so they can efficiently address the support calls that the new solution will inevitably generate.

Step 3: Evaluation
Finally, after deployment, many organizations don't adequately monitor the operational aspects of the new solution. Is it meeting its goals? Are end users happy with the solution? Does the operational activity achieve its stated goals? Has end-user or LOB efficiency been increased? It is important that the organization monitor any new deployments for at least six months to ensure that the project has met its goals and to provide the ability to make changes if the goals are not met. This is a critical factor in any successful implementation; unfortunately, many enterprises fail to do this adequately. Many IT groups feel that their work is done once the solution is deployed -- and this is not the case.

It is important that companies understand that creating a successful application deployment requires a disciplined and dedicated approach. It should be included as part of any mobile strategic plan, and if not done correctly, it can significantly impair the effectiveness and efficiency of the solution. Adequate testing, piloting, rollout and support are key to the success of any mobile project.

About the author: 
Jack E. Gold is founder and principal analyst at J. Gold Associates. He has more than 35 years of experience in the computer and electronics industries, including work in imaging, multimedia, technical computing, consumer electronics, software development and manufacturing systems. Gold is a leading authority on mobile, wireless and pervasive computing, advising clients on business analysis, strategic planning, architecture, product evaluation/selection, and enterprise application strategies. Before founding J. Gold Associates, he spent 12 years with Meta Group as a vice president in Technology Research Services and also held positions at Digital Equipment Corp. and Xerox.

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