General Manager, Sears HomeCentral Field Support

It’s not every day that an enterprise can say it helped spawn a new tech venture, but Sears Canada Inc. certainly can. The IT vendors that built the retailer’s workforce automation system now say they have solidified the partnership they forged at Sears, and they’re ready to offer other companies a similarly integrated mobile-worker platform.

Yesterday Toronto-based Mobile Computing Corp. (MCC) announced that it would collaborate with Bell Canada, Intermec Technologies Corp., BlueTree Wireless Data Inc. and Homeland Security Technology Corp. (HTSC) to develop end-to-end workforce automation solutions.

I can see where other companies could gain from this approach, but I believe each of the companies inside the consortium have a lot to gain too….They’re all realizing the power of the team is much greater than the individuals.Jeff Miller>Text

While MCC offers the software to connect an enterprise’s field workers to data served from company HQ, Bell provides the equipment to host the app, Intermec offers handheld computers for end users, BlueTree brings the rugged wireless modems for network connectivity, and HTSC has navigation software that points users in the right direction.

These are the companies that worked together on the Sears workforce automation system, which lets the retailer’s HomeCentral technicians find out where the next appointment is, what Sears appliance requires attention, and what the client’s service history is. All of the information comes to the technician via a handheld computer while she’s in the field.

According to Jeff Miller, Toronto-based general manager of Sears HomeCentral field support, his company called on MCC to develop an integrated workforce automation system. Sears had considered building the infrastructure itself, but the company lacked the experience required, and pulling together all of the requisite tech vendors was arduous.

Miller said Sears now has a single go-to vendor if there are any problems with the system. The retailer need only contact MCC, no matter what the situation. “If it’s hardware, MCC deals with getting us hardware. If it’s software, they address the issue.”

According to Margaret Zanel, MCC’s director of marketing, her firm is taking some of the IT management burdens off the enterprise’s shoulders. “Selecting the right partners…figuring out what to do about hosting, (wireless-network) air time, the applications, it’s a daunting task….We do it for them.”

Miller said integration benefits all players. “I can see where other companies could gain from this approach, but I believe each of the companies inside the consortium have a lot to gain too. I don’t think any of them have done it this way before. I think they’re all realizing the power of the team is much greater than the individuals.”

Brian Sharwood, a Toronto-based communications industry analyst at the SeaBoard Group, said businesses are looking for the sort of package deals that MCC is putting together with Bell and the others, especially as enterprises increasingly look upon handheld devices as more than simple voice and data communicators. With large memory stores and IP hooks for a variety of connection requirements, handheld computers are becoming veritable laptop contenders capable of playing an integral role in the enterprise’s IT strategy.

Sharwood pointed out that it’s a challenge for partners in groups like the one MCC created to decide which firm should take the lead, but Zanel said her company has experience corralling numerous stakeholders.

“We’re not new on the block,” she said, noting MCC’s 20 years in business. “We’ve worked with these folks (Bell et al.) for a long time….We all have one goal: provide customers with the best solution.” With that objective in mind it’s easier for the partners to cede leadership to one firm, MCC in this case.

Miller said his team is proud that MCC saw fit to spin the Sears-spawned package into a workforce automation system that other companies can use. In fact, “we’re proud of the whole project,” he said, explaining that Sears field technicians are much more efficient than they were in the past, and customers have noticed the change for the better.

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