Keeping a mobile workforce on track presents its own special challenges. Ideally, managers want to create higher service levels without adding headcount. This requires that existing personnel work more efficiently. In the best case scenario, a mobile workforce can interact with a dynamic infrastructure database and uninterrupted dispatch and approval processes.
This can only happen if the underlying enterprise processes are first thought out and designed to truly model roles and tasks.
Acting locally, managing globally
Your mobile workforce is your feet on the street. Out in the offices, campuses and warehouses, there's a whole set of expensive resources doing critical jobs away from desks. They add their service value when they're walking around. The IT manager's goal is to give them the tools and information they need to be as effective as possible.
A wireless PDA does not a mobility solution make
If I may generalize a bit, IT people tend to get excited about technology. So as the latest gadget comes along, we throw it at our problems. Pagers and short messaging services helped us communicate with the field folks. Cell phones opened two-way communications channels. Now the next great thing looks like Wi-Fi and handhelds. So why haven't service levels gotten any better? Because we haven't done a good job of pushing process out to these mobile communications platforms.
We have to enable the enabling technology
Here's a service mobility model for you. When the Sears service tech is done fixing my washing machine, he can also update inventory to order a new drum bearing to restock his truck, check my dryer's repair history to perform PM on the same call, run my credit card, and look at his job queue all from his laptop in the basement. No offense to Sears, but it can't be rocket science. Sears' mobility solution adds value because Sears puts process into the technology.
Replacing paper goes only so far
Too often in IT, all we have done is put "dumb" service orders and lists into portable storage/display devices. We're used to thinking in console view -- looking at reports consisting of tables of historical data. The offline activities in the field and in warehouses get updated in batch mode at the end of a shift. That makes it hard to make decisions in real time or to apply meaningful SLAs.
Unlock the strategic value of mobility
What we need to do is to build increasing levels of interactivity into our solutions. In the real world, work is a series of transactions. If we can collect data as those transactions occur to make activity visible, we can manage more effectively. Conversely, that data can be used to drive a service lifecycle that's coordinated and self-aware. For example, when a shipping clerk receives a dozen network cards, your asset management system would "know" immediately. Your system could tell a campus tech with a pending repair order that the part was now available for pickup. Any necessary approval requirements could be routed to the manager responsible. Done correctly, this service integration will drive cost down and quality up.
Work step by work step, task by task
Interactivity alone isn't the whole answer, of course. In order to push an enterprise process model out to a mobile workforce, you have to have business processes to extend. Your database should contain assets, their histories and their relationships within the enterprise. Lifecycles should define roles and responsibilities and include tasks and practices and their proper sequence in a process. With this base, you can drive operations to any tech interface anywhere you want -- including to that fancy, wireless, barcode-scanning PDA.
Forge a stronger service chain
In the end, managing a mobile workforce isn't that much different from managing the service delivery resources that sit at desks. You need to see what they are doing and how they are interacting with the rest of your organization, or you'll put yourself in a black hole. It turns out that doing your homework by first getting your business processes in order will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
Greg Lenox, an expert in the processes, methods and practices of IT operations for customer support, help desk, asset management, inventory management, telecommunications management and change management, is president and CEO of Entuition Inc., a maker of operations management solutions in the infrastructure logistics marketplace. At Entuition and in previous positions, he led several major re-engineering projects. His clients included SunTrust Banks, Citibank, Target, GlaxoSmithKline, Baxter Healthcare, Nations Bank, Wachovia Bank, First Union Bank, BB&T, CCNB, CNA Insurance and others.