It’s no secret that the public has embraced the use of mobile technology.
In addition to making calls and sending emails on their smart phones, they are shopping, scheduling, banking, posting on Facebook and checking the weather. The Apple store says it has hundreds of thousands of mobile applications (apps) available.
Now the next wave of technological development is gathering steam – the use of mobile apps in all facets of company operations, from sales to production to customer service. This is an evolution similar to the integration of computers and the Internet into business processes.
Four of five manufacturers plan to develop and implement mobile apps within the next year, according to IDC Manufacturing Insights.
Manufacturers are using mobile apps in the following ways:
- Sales – Real-time order capture, customer relationship management, up-to-date pricing and product availability information.
- Operations – Supply-chain visibility and real-time information, quality control, equipment maintenance and inspection, warehouse automation and safety procedures.
- Customer service – Point-of-service and order tracking, routing, access-to-product information, proof of delivery, signature capture and payment reconciliation.
As with computer software, apps can be written for the company by developers or off-the-shelf programs can be used as templates. An example of off-the-shelf is Canvas (gocanvas.com), which offers almost 300 manufacturing apps that can be customized.
Existing forms can also be converted to apps. As a subscriber service, Canvas charges monthly fees starting at $20 per user. Other app development companies include Sencha (packaged app development software starting at $995) and Kony, a web-based platform offering a range of services and products.
On the high end, IBM MobileFirst offers an enterprise app development platform starting at $38,000. The app development software needed depends on the number of users and the complexity of systems mobilized. For some companies, simple forms are adequate, while for others, mobile apps need to integrate into back-end inventory, database and accounting systems.
Rather than implementing mobile applications piecemeal, it makes sense to develop a long-term strategy for development, integration and adoption. By spending enough time on the front end analyzing and planning, investment of time and money can be maximized.
Issues to consider include security, user preferences and work patterns, desired platforms, and integration into existing company systems. A planning team that includes employees and managers as well as IT professionals will foster design of a right-sized, user-friendly system.
The first step is to create a map of company processes to identify where mobile apps will add value. Which paper-based or computerized processes are appropriate to move to mobile? Where are the security weak spots?
Prioritize mobilization activities according to cost, most value, ease of implementation and competitive advantage. Identify company goals and timelines, including testing and roll-out for each app.
Next, map out existing computer systems and their requirements for mobile app interface. A major decision is the brand of phones, tablets and pads that will be used. Apps often need to be modified to work on iPhones versus Droids, for example.
Standardization can create significant savings, especially when adding in ongoing costs for maintenance and upgrades. The complexity and software architecture of your current system will determine if you can adapt off-the-shelf software, need to create custom apps, or use a mix.
The potential of a corporate app store to centralize and control the use of mobile apps in the company is discussed in IDC’s report. At this point, only 20 percent of companies are using corporate stores, but IDC projects a “tipping point” in the next 12 to 18 months.
In building a store, the use of a mobile enterprise application platform (MEAP) is advised to create a set of common technologies and formats.
Analyst firm Gartner’s “Rule of Three” recommends the use of MEAPs if three or more mobile apps, device types and back-end data sources are involved in a company system.
A MEAP system includes a server that acts as a bridge between the apps and the back-end data. This server handles security, communications, integration, and support. MEAPs provide toolsets and building blocks that enable app development without requiring new code.
Mobile communications are definitely transforming the face of business. Similar to the adoption of computers and the Internet, the question is not if, but when, companies will take advantage of the productivity gains and opportunities offered by this technology.
Companies that take the time to carefully plan their strategy and implementation will reap the most benefits while minimizing disruption and problems.