Everyone is familiar with the saying, 'You are known by the friends that you keep.' This is true not only in social situations, but also in mobile and wireless, since your next deployment is only as good and successful as the companies and people who are recommending and installing the technology. This is why it pays to do your homework when searching for the right fit in systems integrators and developers who may specialize in your particular industry segment.
After all, it just wouldn't be smart to hire an integrator that specializes in transportation issues to inject mobile and wireless solutions into your manufacturing application. Sort of an apples and oranges situation, but with a much greater impact than mixed
A little while ago we talked with a number of systems integrators about how they initially deal with potential clients and what course of action they recommend as they work to develop and installed mobile solutions. Universally, all of these integrators recommended that a company first do its homework in terms of finding the right partner fit.
Essentially, this homework involves a close look at the company and its success rate in delivering solutions, and also making sure that the companies that make that all-important short list follow a relatively strict set of guidelines in approaching and working with a client. The key is to avoid the companies that fly by the seat of their pants, and take a serious look at those that stick by their own set of rules and standards of operation.
One wireless integrator we looked at in particular, Optimus Solutions, follows a number of basic rules when it comes to dealing with a potential mobile and wireless client. These range from having a firm understanding of a client's basic business model and demands within a particular industry, to taking a simple and gradual approach to development and deployment. These guidelines may be tweaked a bit when dealing with different industry segments, but the fundamental nature stays the same, said Mike Ostrowski, director of the Norcross, GA company's consulting practice.
Searching for the model integrator
One other large systems integrator, Getronics NV, which is the Dutch systems integrator that absorbed Wang Global in 1999, recommends that you also sniff out an integrator who is familiar with your business model as well as your technology needs - since the success of both are so tightly linked. This particular integrator takes a 'soup to nuts' approach to systems development and deployment, assigning experts to plan, design, stage, configure and proactively monitor a mobile and wireless project, says Judith Matthys, director of operations, advanced networks, for Getronics U.S.
One of the most common mistakes made by wireless developers and integrators is paying too much attention on the mobile front-end and not enough on the back-end infrastructures that will ultimately support all of the data collection and information transfers between mobile workers in the field and a centralized data resource. Since successful systems integration projects are usually designed to extend a client's current legacy systems and resources a variety of mobile devices, the really good integrators should have a solid background and history in traditional IT infrastructures.
One integrator that makes a habit of taking an IT approach is ArcStream Solutions, Inc. In fact, it was this attitude that helped the company land a major contract with office supply leader Staples, Inc. (which sells roughly $11B worth of products each year.) The company wanted to deploy mobile technology across its sales force, explained ArcStream director of marketing Ali Towle, but before diving into the project the integrator assigned experts to study the structure of the client's entire IT operation. They eventually developed a 'mobile implementation roadmap' for Staples that included real-time order processing, sales data entry and customer credit approval capabilities – a system that had the potential to save the superstore chain more than $1M per year. Everything in the plan is dependent on and extends out from Staples' primary IT resources.
We are always advising end users to ask some tough return on investment (ROI) questions before committing to a systems integration or development project. But, as we all know, mobile ROI is one of the most difficult things to really measure to any great length since each person approaches and uses a mobile device and mobile applications so differently. Ideally, a mobile device should make a productive employee more productive, and increase the performance levels of all employees through such things as data sharing and remote and rapid access to critical information. That isn't always the case, especially when you throw such variables as training, service and support into the mix.
Avoiding the 'siren's call'
The really good systems integrators usually break mobile ROI down into two specific segments: 'Hard ROI', which involves the obvious cost benefits of replacing expensive notebooks with less expensive handheld systems or eliminating hard-wired systems with less expensive wireless access; and 'soft ROI', which focuses on such things as the time saved accessing a file wirelessly from the field, or easily pulling up the latest information on a client just before a key meeting.
Unfortunately, it is this second type of ROI – the soft kind – that is the most difficult to measure. One of the great problems with mobile and wireless technology today is that much of it is like a siren's call on rough and uncharted seas. Plot the wrong course, or trust too much in that enticing lure of technology, and you just might end up on the financial rocks. Our recommendation on this front is to trust your instincts (since you know your business best) and talk to your peers about what they are doing to implement mobile and wireless solutions.
Also, try to avoid those systems integrators who rely too heavily on packaged and re-purposed modules of programming. Obviously, a lot of the software developed for one particular industry segment is used as the basis for developing applications for multiple clients. However, steer clear of those integrators who are not willing or able to adjust and tweak these pre-packaged chunks of programming for your particular needs and demands.
It really depends on the situation," said Optimus' Mike Ostrowski, noting that Optimus and most other integrators do use pre-developed modules to some extent to avoid re-inventing the wheel with each new client – a practice that would ultimately increase the overall development fees. Finally, the golden rule for most of the top systems integrators is to roll things out carefully and slowly. Ideally, integrators should take a step-by-step phased approach to its engagements, especially those involving larger customers that have a more significant investment in complicated legacy systems.
Projects should also begin with an initial discussion about the client company and its general business objectives, and then a more detailed sit down with the business owners and potential users of a mobile system, and finally a review of just what the client expects from a mobile deployment. Once the discussion dust has settled, the goal should be to develop and launch a pilot program to test a developing system in the real world.
About the author: Tim Scannell is the founder and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. He is also the Editorial Director and a member of the management team of Modezilla.com (www.modezilla.com), a mobile and wireless venture focusing on worldwide trends and developments in wireless and highly-mobile systems. Scannell has more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor in the computer industry, working on such publications as Computerworld, PC Products, Mini-Micro Systems, Systems Integration and most recently Computer Reseller News. You can reach him at:email@example.com