There’s an old saying that everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.
These days, the adoption of wireless technologies for the e-business world seems a bit like that. Companies understand the great possibilities that wireless brings to e-business, but for a variety of reasons many are hesitant to exploit those business advantages.
Of course it’s right for business managers to understand the merits of a new technology before jumping in, but with a thoughtful approach it’s not necessary to stand on the shoreline talking about the weather while competitive advantage goes sailing by, or worse, is adopted by a competitor. A review of the wireless landscape below, and a checklist of ten important considerations, should help most business managers break the inertia of indecision.
“Basically, wireless computing is e-business set free,” says Mostafa Elbagoury, executive consultant, telecommunications and wireless for IBM Canada. “While the industry is still evolving, every business should be trying to understand wireless technology and preparing to take full advantage of it as it becomes more available.”
Indeed, studies show that large companies are already moving rapidly to do exactly that. Their ideal scenario is a wireless-enabled mobile workforce able to communicate with a field or head office anywhere, any time and from anyplace. Also known as business-to-employee (B2E), this mobile workforce will be able to link into e-mails, legacy databases, bulletin boards, and customer service records with the same ease that their counterparts do back at the office. A sales representative will have access to the company’s historical database to check on the ordering history of a particular customer before stepping into that customer’s office. Or, a service representative will be able to quickly call up a problem history of an account he or she is about to service. E-mails can be received or sent at will – managers can stay in touch with their field force – and orders can be submitted, confirmed and a shipping date established before the sales representative leaves the customer’s office. The benefit is greater business efficiency, streamlined processes and more satisfied customers, all of which leads to repeat business.
Who’s Going Wireless?
According to an International Data Corporation (IDC) survey sponsored by IBM Canada Ltd., 56 per cent of surveyed senior executives at 100 of Canada’s largest companies said their organizations have a wireless strategy in place, or would have one by the end of 2001. They see improved productivity, better customer service and cost savings as the primary business drivers to support growth and increased profitability.
According to it.analysis.com, a United Kingdom-based information technology consulting group, wireless will soon be coming into its own. That position is supported by IDC’s estimate that there could be more than 84 million wireless users in the US by the end of 2005, while the number of business users of the wireless Internet in the US will grow from 2.6 million in 2000 to approximately 49 million in 2005.
All of these statistics point to a keen interest in wireless by senior decision-makers, who see the enormous potential for business growth based on employing the new technology. These same industry leaders know what they want to do with wireless technology, but most also believe that the industry has some issues to address before they will feel comfortable committing to big budgets to accomplish their goals.
When asked what sort of impediments they saw to wireless adoption, a high percentage of decision makers came back with a list that reflects concerns over security, integration with back-office systems, cost, transmission speed, and industry standards. While one could also argue a lack of a huge choice in wireless applications at the moment, many industry insiders see this as a moot point; once major multi-national companies begin to equip their employees with handheld wireless mobile devices, the applications can be ramped up fairly quickly to fill the new and expanding needs of a mobile workforce.
No doubt, these decision-makers will demand that their concerns are acknowledged and fixed so that they can be sure their investments will generate quantifiable business benefits. Interestingly, while there are indeed problems that must be rectified by the industry, there are also a number of factors that are under the direct and personal control of potential customers.
For instance, to maximize one’s investment, it is advisable to seek partners or solution providers that have proven wireless successes in their business arsenal, and the expertise, tools and technologies to provide complete solutions. A truly effective wireless integrator will show that he or she is able to attach any device through any network to access any data that you have or may need. Beware of solution providers that try to dissuade you from a certain wireless path simply because they have limited expertise or knowledge of your desired solution or strategy.
Following is a checklist of the top ten factors decision-makers should bear in mind when devising a wireless strategy for implementation:
Consider your business objectives.
Explore in detail how a wireless network can enhance your ability to achieve these objectives by offering opportunities for greater efficiencies through improved connectivity. Solicit ideas from across divisions and departments to achieve the maximum number of benefits on a company or organization-wide basis. Also, realize that your existing network will have to accommodate change, which will offer technical and process challenges as well as greater business opportunities. Failing to acknowledge and deal with these factors up front can lead to major problems during and even after implementation.
Do not see a wireless network as a solution to existing network or process problems.
Rather regard it as an evolution of your business systems. If problems already exist in your current environment, a wireless network will likely magnify them. Carefully examine your current business processes to ensure a solid base on which to move to a wireless solution. Anything that doesn’t run well on a Local Area Network (LAN) will not run well on a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN).
Realize that every network (wireless and non-wireless) is susceptible to a certain level of risk.
The question is, are you prepared to assess and, afterwards, assume that risk? It is incumbent upon an organization to do that assessment and then be prepared to accommodate and take the necessary steps to mitigate that risk.
Privacy concerns regarding wireless transactions and communications may also surface.
Once again, an organization must assess the risk, decide what is likely, and what is or is not acceptable. Then it must seek solutions that will reduce the level of any invasion of privacy that could result in the inadvertent sharing of proprietary information. As in the case of security, understanding the risk in advance is preferable to an unpleasant surprise down the wireless road.
Standardization is another area that must be explored.
For instance, two standards have been adopted by the wireless industry – Bluetooth, which is acceptable for short distance transmission, such as within an office, and 802.11b, which is acceptable for a mobile workforce on a Wireless LAN within an office building. Match your needs to the right standard. Explore both your current and future needs as much as possible. It won’t pay to find that future business strategies are hampered by an inability to extend your wireless initiatives to serve your business.
Mobile devices must also be carefully chosen with an eye to current, and future, needs. Decide what you want to accomplish, consider what devices and options are available, what coverage is needed, which carrier makes the most sense, and what interfaces are required.
Capacity will be a key determinant of the flexibility of your wireless network.
Therefore assess how much bandwidth will be available with your chosen network. How big will the ‘pipe’ be through which you communicate? Will you merely have capacity for text, or text complemented by complex and byte-hungry graphics? Voice or voice and video? Study and understand any limitations to ensure your organization can live within them.
Gateway servers, their number and positions, will be determined by the geographic distribution of an organization.
These servers will have to be positioned at strategic points to carry traffic and provide the responsiveness necessary for an efficient mobile workforce. As an organization, you will have to determine the locations that will be of strategic advantage to your users for mobile access.
Determine what content will be appearing on your wireless network.
Companies will have to decide how to filter, block or streamline wireless content as well as customize the presentation of the material so it can be displayed on a variety of devices if desired. For instance, while you may equip your current field force with a particular handheld device, a future business acquisition may result in a new field force equipped with different devices. Presentation flexibility should be a cornerstone of your wireless strategy so that you can serve both devices.
Expectations of wireless customers must be realistically managed. Right now, many customers have inflated expectations of what wireless can do. They must realize that its capability depends to a great extent on bandwidth, coverage, cost and technology of the devices. And, while technological advances are being trumpeted in the press almost on a daily basis, moving from a prototype to a working model can be a journey of unknown length.
Consider The Complete Package
With realistic expectations firmly in hand, wireless customers must ensure that the available products and services complement and support their business objectives. In addition, they should consider the whole package of options, from their mobile devices, to the wired/wireless network, gateway servers, application management, security and support. Without doing so, the returns from a wireless initiative might be severely limited at best.
Companies thinking about investing in wireless networks should choose a wireless solutions provider with the depth and breadth of skills and services to provide one-stop, across-the-board shopping. For instance, ask questions such as: