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Knowledge on the run: Sales reps, suppliers and customers need mobile access to KM

This article appears in the issue March 2003 (100 Companies) [Volume 12, Issue 3]

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

Sure, it's imperative for every company to develop an extensive knowledgebase and sound KM practices, but what good is that knowledge if it is locked within corporate walls?

Many organizations are realizing that they must unleash knowledge to the mobile work force—and not just on laptops, but on PDAs, BlackBerry devices and cell phones as well. Salespeople calling on an account are only as good as the information they have in front of them when they meet with the client.

“We expect greater than 50% of enterprises to extend their existing, mission-critical applications such as ERP, CRM and SFA to mobile and pervasive devices over the next three to four years,” says Jack Gold, VP, META Group.

And it's not only the salespeople and the field service reps who need mobile access to a company’s knowledgebase. A retailer, for example, should know the moment that a supplier cannot fill an order for the hot, new skirt of the season. Even an hour or two delay in sharing that knowledge can mean the difference between profit and loss. That same retailer could receive an alert on a mobile phone, BlackBerry or PDA and tap into the information as it happens, quickly adjusting and finding a new supplier.

“In the future, people will expect to use portable devices as they now use desktop systems,” according to Nigel Deighton, a VP and research director for Gartner. “Wireless and mobile connectivity for employees and customers will be unavoidable, and mobile applications and devices will become vital as enterprises optimize and accelerate their business processes. Eventually, enterprises will have to implement multichannel solutions for access, not only for employees but also for suppliers and customers.”

The next wave of enterprisewide knowledge applications will clearly have a strong mobile component, according to Marc McCluskey, research director for AMR Researchk. “Mobile work management application vendors have plugged the gap to connect field service employees,” he says. “Enterprise application vendors are looking to fill that gap with mobile platforms. To be successful, the enterprise application vendor must have not just a platform, but functionality.”

Beyond e-mail

Many of the enterprisewide knowledge systems—including SAP, Siebel Systems and PeopleSoft—have added or enhanced mobile capabilities over the past year. Siebel, for example, has signed agreements with several wireless service providers, including Cingular and Sprint.

“E-mail alone does not justify mobile technology,” says Ananth Rani, VP of products and services for Xora, a provider of wireless, voice and alert systems that integrate with enterprise systems. “It has to be e-mail and some applications that hook into the enterprise.” Xora’s Mobility Connectors system, for example, enables access to Oracle, Sybase and other databases through voice recognition and mobile devices.

The drive is toward real-time knowledge sharing through mobile devices, Rani says. What has streamlined the data sharing—which is a concern on some mobile devices with limited capacity—is the ability to provide information on exceptions.

“The VP of sales, for example, knows that the company’s target is to close $10 million in sales every week,” Rani says. “He needs to be able to get an alert if the company is not going to make the target, and that alert is based on information in the company’s enterprise system. But if the VP is not sitting in his office, he can’t wait for his administrative assistant to compile the numbers to find out on Monday that the company fell short of projections. Then it is too late to react.”

Business intelligence companies such as Cognos are working with Research in Motion , the maker of BlackBerry devices, to provide exception reporting capabilities. Cognos NoticeCast, which is integrated into the Cognos Series 7 business intelligence framework, provides organizations with the ability to monitor and alert information in transactional or operational systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain management (SCM), customer relationship management (CRM) or any relational data store. The software notifies and alerts decision makers to issues with customer relationships, supply chain activity, sales and financial performance, or any other business event.

One of the biggest problems in providing mobile access to enterprise systems has been the small bandwidth available on most PDAs, cell phones and other mobile devices.

“Mobile infrastructures offer much lower bandwidth than the LANs for which such applications were typically designed,” says Gartner’s Deighton. “Wireless WAN links are less reliable and cellular access costs can be prohibitive. A poorly executed mobile project can actually decrease productivity and user satisfaction, while increasing costs—exactly the opposite of what was intended.”

To address that problem, one mobile device maker, Symbol Technologies, recently introduced its latest PDA-format handheld computer, the PPT 8800, which comes with enterprise features such as simplified device management and wireless LAN (WLAN) utilities.

Early success in the field

Many of the early successes in mobile enterprise solutions have been in the area of field service. For example, Bell Canada uses mySAP Mobile Business from SAP to provide 4,000 mobile service reps with access to the company’s catalog of 55,000 SKUs and order materials from the field.

“Bell Canada field technicians will have the information to better service customers,” says Renato Discenza, VP of supply chain management for Bell Canada.

One of the key issues in field service has been the ability to provide mobile reps with information about what has occurred on previous calls. Integrating mobile solutions with enterprise knowledgebases enables the rep to access information on the history of the account, which is critical. “Field service is one of the easiest areas to prove ROI for mobile access to enterprise applications,” Discenza adds.

Field sales reps can also benefit from access to enterprise data from the road. “They can see what happened with the customer during the last contact and access things like credit reports and pending customer service issues,” Rani says.

Security concerns

There are security concerns associated with further opening the company’s knowledgebase to mobile users.

“Problem areas in 2002, such as air interface security and encryption, should not overshadow other issues,” according to Deighton. "Merely encrypting the radio interface is like bolting the door and leaving the windows open. As ad hoc capabilities arrive on devices equipped with WLAN and Bluetooth, new dangers will arise and devices will need protection against hacking and malicious code attack.”

Xora’s Rani says companies need to take the same precautions when providing access to enterprise data remotely through cells phones and BlackBerry devices as they do when providing laptop access. “It all needs to be handled with the same level of security to be sure there are no holes,” he says.

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a free-lance writer, 732-636-3612, e-mail kimzim2764@yahoo.com


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