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m.logistics Magazine | On Track & On Target | Mobile workforce management - always on the move

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18 June 2012

Mobile workforce management – always on the move

The vogue for hosted mobile systems is gathering momentum, while affordable new solutions for smaller businesses are joining them. m.logistics takes a look at trends in mobile workforce management systems


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A lot is happening in the world of mobile workforce management systems at the moment. The market is moving towards hosted mobility platforms and software-as-as-service, and suppliers are launching scalable pay-as-you-go solutions to attract small and medium businesses.

Meanwhile, some of the organisations using these mobility systems are finding they need to take account of a growing trend towards the "bring-your-own-device" (BYOD) approach to provisioning. Usually this involves mobile workers using their own smartphone for business, though sometimes the device will be a tablet computer.

What’s undeniable is that the business world is going mobile. And whether you’re tracking your workers, sending jobs out to them or making sure you deliver excellent customer service, success depends on real-time communication with your workforce.

"Real-time communication is the key to improving mobile worker management systems, whether in the service or logistics industry," says Nigel Doust, chief executive of Blackbay. "If you can see a trend developing in real time, there is an opportunity to do something that will minimise the disruption for the customers.

"The key is to capture the data and then use it to communicate with the customer – either by email or with a text message."

Whatever system you use, it needs to be able to compare what actually happens in the field with what was planned, so that service delivery can be measured and corrective actions can be taken. That’s the view of Sergio Barata of Telogis.

"Often the best person for a job is not physically the nearest to the task," he says. "It could be someone with the appropriate qualifications, or with the parts available. There could be local variables to consider, such as traffic or even poor weather. It is important that work schedules have the real-time flexibility to cope with day-to-day requirements and these dynamic variables."

TomTom Business Solutions’ online fleet management application, Webfleet, is one of the growing number of systems that now incorporate a time-based job planning option producing the shortest travel time for the worker rather than working on the basis of proximity to call points. According to the German Aerospace Centre (DLR),TomTom’s HD traffic and IQ routes reducing average drive times by 13 per cent and up to 30 per cent in congested areas.

Combining various data sources such as proximity of technician or driver to job with travel time to ensure the fastest response is growing, agrees Doust. "On some service operations, fixing a fault may involve sending a second technician with a different skill set. Making that simple is a key to controlling costs while maintaining high customer service levels."

Mobility platforms and SaaS

HTML 5 will transform mobile workforce management, predicts Doust, by making it easier to develop and deploy applications over the Internet.

Already there is a growing trend to towards software-as-a-service and hosted management platforms. "Managers have got used to mobile data, and to the idea that data is in the cloud at some point.

A Web-based solution is easy to deploy, to scale up and down, and to upgrade," says Jonathan Chevalier, strategic development director at workforce management company Cognito. This company’s workforce management platform, Fieldforce IQ, combines performance management tools with advanced scheduling and intelligent workflow in one integrated platform. 

For many organisations the capital investment needed to implement an in-house workforce management system is prohibitive, says Telogis’s Barata. "A location intelligence platform offered as a SaaS solution that delivers route optimisation, vehicle telematics, mobile client and planned versus actual interfaces makes much more sense."

"Small business are scared of committing to a three-year contract," says Graham Whistance, managing director of Momote, which has redeveloped its MyMobileWorkers applications for rugged devices and smartphones as a pay-as-you-go service. Any solution also needs to be simple, says Whistance. "It's about getting information to the device, capturing data on the device and returning it to the business."

Instead of a subscription per device, Momote charges users 25p per job. "Many SMEs already have air-time contracts for mobile workers, and the data MyMobileWorkers sends is tiny, so won’t usually breach any data limits. It’s scalable, so customers can add workers to match the peaks and troughs in their own activities." Paying per job also makes it simply to see the productivity gains, Whistance says.

Analysing service performance is vital for companies with large numbers of mobile workers, says Chevalier. "The more mobile workers you have, the harder it is to know what’s happening out in the field and how to rate individuals. Service managers wants to know what’s happening – not just the good experiences, but also bad, especially if it might generate a complaint. It’s part of the service delivery response. That’s why customer satisfaction feedback has become very popular – especially the kind derived from surveys done live in the field.

Mobile apps

Online app stores where consumers can download apps to their smartphones have proved phenomenally popular, and are now starting to appear in the B2B arena as well.

Business systems specialist SAP recognised that more of its customers wanted their applications available out in the field and acquired Sybase, the mobility platform company, in 2011. Previously its enterprise customers were limited to using SAP’s Netweave mobile integration point, explains Adrian Simpson.

"However, this was essentially a mobile application with integration into a backend system. In contrast, Afaria 7.0 is a true mobility platform that now underpins what we call the four ‘cs’ of mobility: content and applications, connecting to multiple back-ends, delivery to the consumer via various devices and operating systems, and control through device management applications."

Earlier this year SAP strengthened its presence in the mobile app sector with the acquisition of software company Syclo. Through its SAP mobile applications store, SAP now offers 30 applications specific to SAP users, with an further 60 available from partners.

"It’s a portfolio of applications that address different sizes of organisation. There will be general applications where there is commonality, but we also focus on specifics for different industries, identifying the best process for each and matching workflow applications. The Sybase platform supports this shift – it can deliver the correct content to the correct app, to the correct device and OS."

The "bring-your-own-device" trend is posing a challenge for workforce management systems, says Chevalier. "Service managers want greater control over what’s happening on the device and about workflow than may be possible when workers use their own devices."

He draws an analogy to company cars. "Knowledge workers get a car allowance already, and will now probably get an incentive to use their own mobile devices. Service engineers, however, still require a fully-equipped company van." There are hidden costs too, he points out. "Supporting myriad devices adds costs, and data and voice costs might be higher because of the contract the employee is on."

Getting SMEs on board

Persuading smaller companies of the benefits of workforce management applications is the next big challenge, says Giles Margerison of TomTom. "Only 20 per cent of SMEs have some form of workforce management system in place, yet there are benefits even if you are running five or ten vans."

Managers usually cite driver issues as a reason for delaying adoption, he says, so suppliers now focus on issues that which workers are likely to appreciate, such as fuel-saving and worker safety benefits, diluting the "big brother" element.

"High fuel prices are proving a big incentive for smaller companies to take the step into workforce management. Lone worker safety helps sell it to sceptical employees."

Devices: fit for purpose

There is a lot of choice in mobile communication devices, and users now have more influence than IT directors. That’s the view of Damien Perrey, European sales and marketing director managing director for Ryzex.

"It is the IT manager's dream to have everything on one device, but the focus has shifted to giving mobile workers tools that allow them to do their jobs effectively. There’s less interest in having the latest technology or the sake of it. Users have got to be happy for managers to get the desired improvements in productivity. Mobile workers are your brand – you need them to be happy to deliver good service."

Adrian Simpson, chief technical officer at SAP in the UK, concurs and thinks field service is one area where managers will need to address the growing BYOD trend. "Multiple devices in the workforce are becoming common – even when it comes to company-issued and managed devices. IT managers no longer control what devices are used, so the emphasis must move on to the need to manage, not to dictate which devices are permitted."

Damien Perry says buyers need to take a long-term view. "Technology is changing rapidly. Larger screen sizes and a switch to the Android operating system are two trends. Technology can deliver what you need now, but think about what you will need in three to five years’ time, and about implementation and good management, post-deployment."

Phone-based solutions

More mobile workers are using their own or company-supplied smartphones, and application providers are exploiting the additional functionality of these devices to develop subscription-based hosted management systems. They are easy to implement and scalable.

Romexworld, a subsidiary of CityLink group, has worker management and protection solutions that can be delivered via most GPS smartphones or PDAs with BlackBerry, Windows or Symbian operating systems.

The applications incorporate Google Earth views displaying real-time, precise location of mobile workers, a panic button facility with 24/7 monitoring for lone worker protection and automated privacy for non-working hours.

Geofencing allows alerts on arrival and departure at customer sites including polygon sites and entry into the London congestion charging zone. Excessive speeding can be monitored. There are no hardware or installation costs; users download MyFix software to workers’ phones, then pay a subscription.

"Many workforce management solutions play only to the bigger audiences," says Steve Webster, managing director of Yes Europe. His company has developed Your Mobile Worker, a workforce management packaged specifically for SMEs. "Many of the applications included in some packages are not suited to the smaller audiences," he says, "so while they may use only a fraction of the solution on offer to them, they still have to pay the full cost."

He says many SMEs only require a basic system: assign remote workers to a job or task, allow the worker to write notes on the job, confirm completion and gain a customer signature. "It really can be this simple."

Additional applications can be added to customise the solution, including tracking, photo capture, splat diagrams or user-defined text. The solution will work on smartphones running on all the major operating systems such as Windows, Android, IOS and Blackberry.

 

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