Using Information for on-the-spot Decision-making

By: Jose Allan Tan

Ralph Szygenda, CIO of General Motors, said that successful companies have the right information available to them for making 'on-the-spot' decisions around the world and 'round the clock.

Global businesses today operate 24x7. At any given time, decisions are being made that will impact someone's operations somewhere in the world.

When you order a PC from Dell from your home in Sydney, you are triggering a build process either in China or Malaysia. You are also indirectly putting Dell suppliers on alert as to what components they will need to restock for the PC vendor. Dell's logistics partner will also be notified when to collect the PC from the warehouse, its shipping route and when you expect it to arrive at your doorsteps.

There is tremendous pressure on businesses to move faster than is traditionally possible. Anticipating what the market wants is expensive. Reacting to changes in the business can be slow, cumbersome and you risk losing potential revenue that might otherwise be gained from having first mover advantage.

Regardless of what your role is in your business, having information on-the-spot or at the point of need is crucial to the execution of your job. It has direct impact on the profitability of a company. A number of vendors like Motorola, Intermec and RIM are delivering solutions to empower staff to collect and make decisions on-the-spot.

Mike Muller, Head of Asia Pacific for Motorola's Enterprise Mobility business (formerly Symbol), says that its about making sure that persons doing the job, on the spot, have got the right information, the right application and the right infrastructure to make the right decision. "It's really around getting the information from the point of work, into a central point, and then getting information back out again into the point of decision. And it's really around compressing the time for all of that to happen," adds Muller.

The solution is borderless, industry-transparent, and like the Internet, it works 24x7x365. Muller cites the example of an airplane sitting on an airport tarmac.

If there's a 747 sitting on the ground in an airport that needs maintenance, the airline is losing money for as long as it's on the ground. They want maintenance work on it immediately, the real-time information around parts availability, access to online manuals, and everything they need to be able to get that plane up and going again as quickly as possible. "That's really the promise, and also what enterprise mobility is delivering today. It's really about compressing the decision time, making sure that wherever you are, you've got the data, you've got the application, and you can do the work," says Muller.

Beyond the product literatures and the explanation of well-meaning sales executives, the challenge for many businesses today is to integrate mobile solutions into existing applications that may not have been designed to support such technologies.

The desire to bring in the benefits of mobile technology into the enterprise comes with a number of challenges. Security is top of mind among businesses and operations managers concerned about data theft.

There are lots of documented stories about confidential information being leaked out or stolen. But in many cases, the device from where theft or loss occurred was one that was not sanctioned by the enterprise.

"In one example, the information was an Excel spreadsheet stored on a SD memory card loaded onto a personal digital assistant (PDA). Without a companywide policy on how information is stored and accessed, the CIO will never know what devices employees are using and, more importantly, what information is being stored in these devices," adds Muller.

Technology is now available where you can remotely manage mobile devices out in the field. You can lock the device the moment it leaves a designated area. You can even trigger a disable code that literally makes the device into a brick.

After you've passed the security concerns, the next challenge is identifying the right solutions and making sure the integration is seamless.

After security, cost is the next factor that determines the solution that gets deployed. There are two types of cost most executives need to look into: acquisition cost and operational cost.

"We help customers build effective business cases for each solution and in many cases these are self-evident. If a customer can see that they can get an extra 10 percent productivity out of their sales force, or that their drivers can deliver five extra packages a day. You know, these kinds of things are very easy to do to get around the cost," notes Muller.

Muller also points to high data costs in many parts of Asia that could be a limiting factor for companies operating in those areas.

The third challenge has to do with people. Blue-collar workers in logistics, warehousing and retail may find the technology cumbersome to learn and intrusive on their daily lives.

"You can have the best application and infrastructure in the world but if you have a workforce that is afraid or unable to use the device (for lack of training) you will never get the payback you expected," says Muller.

Muller suggests positioning the new technology as part of career advancement and having a small number of people who become champions of the technology. Once people see the benefits of the technology, widespread adoption follows closely.

Which technology or solution is right for your business? The good news is that competition continues to drive down the cost of technology. The bad news is that when you have so many vendors out in the market, identifying the right solution and the right provider is a challenge in itself.

The reputation of the solutions provider is important. You are investing in a technology that has a lot of potential, so getting the right technology and the provider is very important.

"There are many great products in Europe and the US. If those vendors are represented by one guy in one country plus a bunch of resellers who have never sold the product, you may want to think of your options carefully," cautions Muller.

Check the ancillary product offerings of the vendor. Make sure it is not a one-product-wonder. Point solutions have the nasty habit of being proprietary, with limited scalability and functionality. You'd also want to stick with a company that will be around long after the technology has evolved into something totally different.

Also very important is provision for local support. The provider must have local support capability and the infrastructure to go with it. Ask the provider if they have the support capability in your country (and in your local language).

New technologies always present risks. A proven strategy is knowing what others before have done. Ask for references in your industry preferably in your country or region. Make sure you get the chance to talk to them about their challenges. Learning from their mistakes and achievements will make your life a lot easier.

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