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B2E Mobile e-Business: Driver, Passenger or Spectator?

IBM UK, Bedfont Lakes, Middx, UK


Mobile e-business has the potential to deliver business-to-employee interactions capable of creating significant competitive edge. The real-life advantages of mobile access to business critical applications require that all organisations, including technology builders, have strategies in place for interacting with their own employees. The business-to-employee (B2E) opportunity will be the starting place for the real, extended application of mobile e-business.

1. Introduction

Analysts have predicted that by 2003 all new mobile devices will be data-enabled. Based on this type of forecast, we can envision the beginnings of a mobile 'information highway', where users can access data services whenever and wherever they want. Today's e-business capabilities will be transformed and extended to suit mobility - creating a platform for personalised and specific mobile e-business applications.

The opportunity for mobile e-business falls into three categories: business-to-employee (B2E), business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C). Of these, the B2E arena is most advanced with working applications already on offer - e-mail and calendaring, for example. And, existing line-of-business applications can also be extended to mobile, with the mobile infrastructure increasingly established for those customers who have already re-engineered their systems towards the Internet.

Informing employees and giving them access to company line-of-business systems, wherever they are, makes complete business sense. Employees need to be updated on business-specific activities and have access to task-critical information when they are in the office - so, why not when they are in the field?

Mobile e-business is a natural progression of e-business - delivering applications and services to employees on the move. Importantly, mobile e-business is not only for companies selling consumer leisure gadgets, but also for organisations seeking to achieve added productivity, increased profitability, improved competitiveness and optimal return on investment.


2. Background

Until recently, e-mobilising a workforce has not been a viable option due to the combined absence of infrastructure and mobile devices specially developed to drive out-of-office B2E applications. However, with device technology accelerating at pace - and with the advent of high bandwidth networks - a new infrastructure will soon be in place for truly mobile data and voice access.

The first enabler is WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) closely followed by General Packet Radio Service (GPRS), which will bring about 'always on' connectivity to mobile networks. These will be followed by Universal Mobile Telephony System (UMTS), or third generation (3G) services, and other broadband technologies that promise to allow a billion people world-wide to interact with e-businesses via inter-connected, intelligent mobile devices.


3. Applications

Logically, mobile e-business will have the biggest impact on companies with a predominantly mobile workforce.

According to research commissioned by the AVT Corporation and carried out by Wirthlin Worldwide in December 2000, which surveyed Fortune 1000 executives, 84 per cent of companies expect their workforces' need for mobile communications to grow dramatically. It stated that users believed to have the greatest need for Internet-enabled mobile devices are sales staff (71 per cent), senior management (59 per cent) and technical service staff (46 per cent).

However, as employees become increasingly flexible in their place and patterns of work, the desire for personal access will be across ail types of business that seek to optimise employee efficiency and performance. For example:

  • Sales teams can view their clients' sales history - updated from the office on their mobile devices - providing truly mobile knowledge management.
  • Off-site research and development teams can feedback findings and collaborate on results via mobile devices.
  • Field repair teams can use the diagnostic tools from the office system while visiting clients.
  • Production line managers can access and advise faults in-the-line while on-the-road.

Updating databases, accessing customer information and reviewing schedules are just some of the examples available today. But in the future, applications will be even more compelling. Imagine the sales potential of live video footage of a product delivered to the customer via the salesman's mobile device.

To suit mobility, applications and middleware will become increasingly tailored to provide personalised services. And, in future, there will be no limit to the applications available to innovative organisations.


4. Developments

With so much potential for mobile B2E, where should businesses and technology builders begin in order to take full advantage of the options available? Being ahead of the competition involves employing key technologies and capturing essential advice and services. Sooner is better than later when it comes to considering and adopting a comprehensive mobile e-business strategy.

The key to making the most of mobile e-business for B2E interactions is connecting the infrastructure and mobile device to line-of-business systems - intranet collaboration, client billing information, client databases, production lines, e-mail, calendars and customer relationship management applications. In short, providing personalised and specific ways to take advantage of company information and resources.

But wireless data is not 'Internet Lite'. To apply data to mobile devices, organisations cannot simply stretch out their online applications without tailoring the application to the mobile device and without taking into account the users' needs.

Knowledge of how to introduce new practices into specific system and business requirements is one of the first barriers a business faces as it considers a B2E strategy - with system security and privacy over a wireless infrastructure a close second.


5. Technology Pilot

Since June 2000 - and still on-going - IBM has conducted a pilot giving a selection of its employees throughout Europe mobile access to company information including directories, e-mail and calendars. The pilot system is based on IBM Lotus/Domino Notes, which is available via PCs to all IBM employees, as well as millions of other users world-wide. Within the pilot, Domino/Notes services are delivered to mobile handsets and PDAs via Domino Everyplace Suite. Security of transactions is ensured via a unique password and ID for users and the inherent secure features of IBM's own IT infrastructure.

The initial user group was selected from different parts of the organisation so that a variety of user profiles could be incorporated - sales, marketing, technical, consulting and general management. Mobile users from 15 different countries across EMEA have participated. As a result IBM can ultimately assess the programme across a broad spectrum of functionalities and requirements. Training for pilot members was carried out via distribution of a downloadable script tile delivered to participants over IBM's Lotus Notes system. As the software programmes running on the mobile device were standard Lotus applications and IBM's 'Blue Pages' corporate directory - which are in everyday use by participants - all users were able to be operational in a short period of time. Feedback from pilot participants indicates that ease of set-up is essential to the successful adoption of mobile B2E applications.

Evaluation of the pilot is still underway and a number of evaluation techniques are being implemented. These include response testing via the transmission of a centrally-generated Lotus Note e-mail message. This technique enables comparisons to be made in terms of response from 'fixed' and mobile Lotus Notes users. In addition, a summary questionnaire will be installed on the mobile device for completion at the end of the pilot.

Preliminary qualitative feedback indicates minimal objections on the part of the pilot participants. Users have cited a number of positive attributes that include: "checking for critical information on my way to meetings,"; "easy access and total connectivity,"; and, "better responsiveness to urgent matters," as important benefits.

Other interim feedback from the project showed that more than 85 per cent of participants accessed the WAP business services regularly. In addition, more than 85 per cent of users also report that they were happy with the service and were comfortable using the technology and applications for their business needs. Participants continuously rated the overall service from 'Very Good' to 'Excellent' and connected to the WAP services for their mobile e-business requirements on average twice a day. Regarding future developments, feedback indicates that users anticipate even greater levels of office-type functionality at the mobile device level.

The IBM pilot is part of a dedicated mobile e-business strategy in Europe that will involve more than 4000 mobile e-business service professionals and includes IBM's 'Quickstart' engagement packages. Mobile Quickstart engagements are designed to get businesses mobile fast, and are currently used in a variety of industries including travel, retail and financial services.

The pilot has cemented IBM's future plans to expand the capability across the company to its entire mobile workforce, providing them with mobile e-business functionality. In the United States, IBM has also begun rolling out Research in Motion Inc's successful BlackBerry device to 6,500 of its 15,000 field service engineers. In one of the largest mobile enterprise applications, IBM's ITS department - who make up the mobile workforce that travel to customer sites to help repair or upgrade systems - will now have 'always on' access to multiple applications.


6. Conclusions

Across all industries, mobile e-business will provide employees with direct mobile access to the information that they need to work efficiently and productively. Ultimately, these employees will interact with other e-businesses globally - further enhancing business performance. While mobile e-business may seem like an application of the future, its benefits can be harnessed now.

For example, TELUS - the second largest telecommunications company in Canada - has adopted a mobile B2E system using IBM software and hardware to provide secure, managed access and to allow dispatchers to monitor jobs for up-to-the-minute status. The system is designed to provide more flexibility for rescheduling jobs, while improving cycle time for their internal workflow.

As a result, TELUS has achieved an average 26 per cent increase in repair volume, and an average 24 per cent increase in appointments met within the allowable, two-hour timeframe. With increasing emphasis on customer satisfaction TELUS has seen increased productivity.

So, forward thinking organisations are already realising the benefits of mobile B2E. And, not surprisingly, IBM plans to accelerate its mobile B2E offerings to enterprises. As with the Internet, mobile e-business has the ability to create new commercial platforms and improved methods of working. Companies must act now to ensure their strategies embrace its full potential. If not, they may miss a unique opportunity for real competitive advantage.