The lure of mobile technologies is magnetic, with its promises of seamless communication and increased responsiveness. But achieving ROI from mobile devices -- whether it's personal digital assistants, mobile phones, data cards or Pocket PCs -- requires strategic purchasing, deployment and support planning, according to experts.
Focus on specifics for success
The key to a compelling business plan for a mobile technology is determining its key benefits and building a deployment approach to ensure maximum returns, said Rebecca Wettemann, a vice president at Nucleus Research Inc. in Wellesley, Mass. Instead of a lengthy laundry list of 20 to 30 benefits, focus on the two or three most important gains you hope to achieve. "These include increased productivity, reduction in administrative or communication costs, improved efficiencies," Wettemann said.
Assess the project by "breadth" (how many employees or customers will be helped by the application) and "repeatability" (frequency of application use), with the objective of maximizing benefits, not minimizing costs, Wettemann added.
Take the case of the Visiting Nurses Association of Boston (VNA), a provider of home health care and hospice services, and its use of convertible tablet PCs. In an effort to streamline data collection, Kate O'Neil, vice president of operations at VNA, and Fran Lorion, CIO, devised a business plan aimed at improving the quality of patient reports. When executed, mobile nursing staff members were provided with Fujitsu LifeBook Tablet PC convertible notebooks, allowing them to create forms and update patient records without multiple trips to the office.
Not only was quality of care improved, Lorion said, but clerical workers could also be reassigned from data-entry duties because clinicians were able to enter information themselves. "Billing information was also more accurate and timely, and communication was enhanced," Lorion said.
Determining mobile ROI
Estimating the ROI of a mobile technology is never easy. "How do you put value on the ability to respond to an email on a smart phone? Or being able to take a laptop around campus and work collaboratively with colleagues outside a conference room?" asked Philippe Winthrop, wireless and mobility research director at Aberdeen Group Inc. "The point is that much of the value is implicitly there."
Winthrop suggested thinking about the "opportunity costs," or what would happen if a mobile technology was not used to determine ROI of mobile technologies. "It's like using a security system -- you don't see the value until it fails."
For example, ask yourself how much it would cost to move an employee from one location to another on a fixed network versus a wireless one, where you just pick up a laptop or other mobile device and go. "These are the kind of gains that come from wireless solutions," he said.
Forecasting ROI based on worker productivity is another tactic. "If an employee can become 10 to 15 percent more efficient over the course of a day, then that translates into getting that same amount out of their salary," Winthrop said.
ROI that justifies actual deployment on any technology should be 15 to 25 percent, according to the ROI Institute, a Birmingham, Ala.-based training and research company. But every organization is different in terms of what level of ROI constitutes a worthwhile investment, whether it's mobile Voice over Internet Protocol or Wi-Fi hot spot service, according to Winthrop: "Figure out what your hurdle rates are. In some cases, a 5% improvement could translate into millions of dollars of savings."
In the rapidly changing mobile technology market, Wettemann said IT decision makers also need to look at the payback period. "How long before you get your money back from the project?" she said. "Look for payback periods of less than one year. This is especially important because new releases and devices are constantly evolving, and you want to take advantage of these without having your capital tied up."
Mobile technologies are quickly coming of age. To take advantage, "You need to be efficient about how you design your applications," said Michael King, mobile and wireless research director at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "Then if you jump in with both feet, I think you'll be OK."
Cindy Atoji is a Boston-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology.