Apps To Go

An ROI so obvious that no formal study is needed: Now that’s a strategic initiative that a CIO can get his or her head around. And, according to three technology executives we contacted, that’s the situation with mobilized applications.

Mobilized applications send enterprise data ranging from e-mail to more complex information such as CRM and ERP out to wireless devices in the field. Early corporate adopters say the initial results of their wireless initiatives are compelling.

At TaylorMade-Adidas Golf, sales personnel now go to customer sites — golf pro shops, typically — with CRM and inventory data stored on their handheld computers. Similar applications are starting to be used by sales personnel for Sun Microsystems.

“If you’re in sales, you pull your cell phone out and see how you’re doing meeting your goals, then you can look at order status and the price book,” Sun’s CIO Bill Vass said. “If a customer asks what something would cost, you can tell them and see what their volume discount is. Or, they can look up service center tickets for defects we’re fixing, so when they walk into a customer, they know before they’re asked about it.”

Devices such as Research In Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerrys have long delivered corporate e-mail in real time, which has proven popular and also is often credited with increasing mobile worker productivity. Employees are just as enthusiastic about receiving database-driven information, executives say.

“It’s now part of our culture,” said Jim Harding, CIO of Henry Schein, a distributor of healthcare services and supplies. “We couldn’t walk away from it if we wanted to.”

No ROI Necessary

At TaylorMade-Adidas, the mobilization effort has sped up the sales cycle, enabled sales personnel to make more calls and has also had a significant and positive impact on manufacturing.

“The time it takes to service an account has been decreased greatly,” said Tom Collard, the company’s director of Information Systems. “I’ve heard it’s decreased as much as 50-to-80 percent.” When an order is entered from the customer’s site or shortly thereafter, that information is automatically passed on to the company’s ERP system, he added.

“This allows us to react better to the demands of the market,” Collard said. “That’s the link to the manufacturing process, which drives our buying patterns with suppliers. Now, we’re much less prone to over-buy or under-buy.”

Sun’s Vass has seen similar results.

“We do little manufacturing internally. Most of it is outsourced,” said Vass. “So the ability to get information in real-time is a very good thing. It will reduce inventories, backlogs and improve spare parts inventories.”

At Henry Schein, the mobile system plugs into the company’s home-grown CRM system.

“It gives our sales people tools for selling, getting customer data, reports, even electronic catalogs,” Harding said.

TaylorMade-Adidas puts handheld computers in the hands of sales personnel and Vass said all types of devices including smart phones, PDAs and laptops, are used by mobile Sun workers. In Henry Schein’s case, most mobile users access the data using laptops because they need the larger screen for showing videos to customers.

Dollars & Sense

These are all devices that field personnel would likely carry anyway, the executives noted. Beyond the cost of devices, enterprises must acquire a wireless data service, typically provided by wireless operators. They also must prepare the applications to be delivered to devices with small screens and less small processing power than desktop computers. And, there can be expenses for middleware to handle the mobilized data as well as making sure the data is delivered securely.

However, the executives agreed the expense of mobilizing applications is relatively small.

Sun’s Vass estimated the total additional cost to his company at between $600,000 and $700,000, most of which was in personnel time, not in capital expenditures. There are currently 2,700 Sun employees using the mobile system and, eventually, there will be as many as 10,000, Vass said.

Collard estimated TaylorMade-Adidas spent about $400,000, including the mobile devices, for about 160 users worldwide. Harding didn’t provide cost figures. But in all three cases, the executives agreed that the ROI was so obvious that they didn’t bother with a formal study.

“We haven’t done a hard ROI study,” Collard said. “But it was so apparent that nobody’s questioning the investment. It’s obvious that it’s all upside.”

Unlike some strategic technology initiatives, the users of mobilized applications uniformly love it, so adoption hasn’t been a problem.

“The executive staff supported it, which made it easier since it wasn’t IT pushing technology down the user’s throat,” said TaylorMade’s Collard. “We initially had some traditional sales reps who were used to the way they did things, but it offered so many advantages that even the ones who were resistant came to appreciate it.”

So while mobilized applications comprise the cutting edge for many enterprises, those that have dived in have a clear message: For many enterprises, this strategic initiative is a chip shot.