Until now, the company’s technicians had to phone various dispatcher offices while on the road to get information about their job assignments. Not anymore. By summer, all 1,200 service technicians in the 12 countries where BT Europe does business will be able to access the company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system using wireless-enabled PDAs, bypassing the dispatcher offices.
Equipped with a GSM modem, the handheld devices can download new work orders and customer information directly from the central system, as well as order parts. And once a job is done, technicians can use their PDAs to notify headquarters.
Diamonds in the Rough
While these cases demonstrate that having access to real-time data can be beneficial, only recently has the capacity existed. Until the last year or so, says Hyers, “coverage has been an issue. There weren’t networks fast enough to support this sort of action.” He likens the problem to cars and roads. “There’s not a critical mass of cars on the roads until there are roads to support them.”
Now that those networks-such as Verizon’s Express Network or Sprint’s PCS’s wireless data network-exist, Hyers believes that “U.S. business will ramp up quickly because of the high technology adoption rate” in this country.
The opportunities are vast. For example, according to a 2002 survey from The Yankee Group, field service technicians and engineers already account for 28 percent of all mobile workers – defined as workers who spend more than 20 percent of their time away from their primary workplace-at large corporations. And the report predicts that by 2008, more than 2 million U.S. field service workers will use software solutions that combine wireless data capabilities.
Of course, given the status of the U.S. economy and the clampdown on capital spending, especially IT spending, it’s not surprising that companies are pushing for small-scale pilot tests of mobile services before full-scale roll-outs.
Take, for example, what National Marketing Services (NMS) is doing for some 300 of its 1,200 field workers. The retail merchandising services firm, based in Edison, New Jersey, is currently using FieldTrac, a mobile application from Unique Solutions, to service its video-distribution clients, which include Universal Studios.
The application, says Steve Workman, senior vice president of sales and marketing, was driven by the needs of “a very item-intensive business.” Aided by data-synchronization software from Boise, Idaho-based Extended Systems, FieldTrac allows NMS’s field workers to collect merchandising data and perform inventory tracking and reporting in real time.
“The technology is a big improvement over the interactive voice-response system and paper reports that we used to use,” says Workman, adding that it allows field workers “to spend time on other productive things like stocking more product in the stores.”
And if it proves successful in the video-distribution segment of the business, the company may consider rolling it out to other retail areas.
Who Should be Wired?
The decision about whom to equip with mobile technology depends first on the type and geographic reach of the company, and second on “salary divided by time on the road,” says Ray Jodoin, director of wireless research at In-Stat/MDR.