We've been proselytizing for quite some time about the steady uptick in enterprise wireless activity and the increasing number of new network deployments. Our research, both official and on-the-fly, tells us that this will be a significant year in terms of cautious and well-planned wireless installations and launches, with the bulk of the activity centering on five key vertical areas: Health care, pharmaceuticals, utilities (oil and gas), education and financial. Applications in these areas will span a wide range of activities from traditional sales and field force automation to remote monitoring and control. These applications will also encompass a wider range of wireless technologies, from plain old vanilla 802.11b to more focused RFID and embedded wireless and sensing architectures.
As activity and spending picks up in the enterprise segment, we thought it might be a good time to review basic strategies that target wireless deployments and go over some of points a savvy IT manager should keep in mind as they consider wireless technologies.
Point 1: Small and manageable is better than large and expansive
Faced with a challenging economy, tight IT budgets, and field workers already pushed to the limit as they seek to boost productivity and capture more revenues, many companies may be reluctant to commit to any large-scale mobile or wireless deployments. But commit they must, since mobile and wireless is looked at as a competitive edge asset. Fortunately, there are certain strategic advantages to launching smaller projects that can easily be expanded as the funds become more available and revenue flow more certain. This is the reason why, right now, a fair number of mobile initiatives are being funded by the business side of corporations and not directly by the IT department.
It is important, though, to avoid making the three classic mistakes involving mobile and wireless projects: 1) Going forward without a clear understanding of the connectivity solutions and limitations; 2} deploying tactical solutions that do not really address the overall business problems; and 3) Underestimating the needs and expenses involved in training and supporting a mobile workforce.
Point 2: Slow and steady will win the wireless race
While the temptation will be to charge gung ho into wireless deployments, especially as prices for equipment plummet, it is smart to take a baby step approach to enterprise mobility and wireless, rather than trying to restructure the entire wired and/or wireless network. Although the pressure is on from the business side to launch wireless projects to achieve that competitive edge, IT will ultimately be charged with operating and managing and supporting the network one it is up and running. As such, a lot of the IT managers we have talked to over the past few months have stated emphatically that noting will happen without their say so and control. In fact, a lot of the very conservative pilot deployments that have been launched over the past several months -- even in this vexing economy -- have been spearheaded and run under the radar by the IT department.
Point 3: Your vendor is your friend...maybe
By far the biggest change we have seen in IT departments over the past year or so is in how enterprise users now deal with vendors and network solutions providers. Not only are end users more technically savvy than ever before, but they are well up to speed on the importance of such things as return on investment (ROI), solutions-based development, and accountability. Basically there is a much greater understanding of what can be done and not be done with the technology, says one systems integrator at a large worldwide consulting organization. A smart vendor will respect this and work with a potential enterprise customer as a consultant and solution project coordinator. A not-so-smart vendor will continue to push technology and pseudo-solutions that may have no relation to the business at hand or the market segment in general.
Solutions should smoothly integrate and complement a company's business requirements, and they should play well with existing applications and systems within that company. Users shopping around for solutions and the vendors that offer them should seek those sellers who take a holistic approach to deploying a technology. Also, work with vendors who can deliver more significant value to the entire business process, rather than those who promise to transform existing processes.
Point 4: Fly with a pilot before taking off into wireless
Most mobile enterprise deployments begin with some kind of a pilot project, or at least the successful ones do. Opinions vary on how extensive these early trials should be, although most companies right now prefer very small and limited deployments that are relatively inexpensive and might involve five to 10, or in a bigger company 10 to 100 people. The experts agree that a conservative approach works best in a tight or gradually improving business environment. The key to success, however, is to keep the bigger picture in mind when growing these modest deployments. Also, make sure your pilot efforts are in sync with the core business model of the company. This often means doing quite a bit of homework before plugging n that first wireless access point. Most successful deployments start with a clear understanding of each mobile worker's daily job function and responsibilities. The best efforts start with identifying that mobile champion within an organization who, more often than not, is not the person directly involved in IT or networking.
Point 5: Keep a sharp eye on ROI
The truly successful wireless deployments are the ones that involve both IT and executives on the business side. However, it may be a challenge getting both sides to come to agree on the specific and expected return on investment (ROI) benefits of a project. For example, users in the field may measure ROI by the reduction in work steps provided by a technology, or even how smoothly a mobile system meshes into their normal work habits. The bean counters, on the other hand, have a very black-and-white viewpoint of technology: It both increases productivity and pumps up revenues, or it does not.
IT managers and department heads who would like to be around when the calendar shifts to 2005, or even at the turn of the next quarter, should keep in mind that no matter how important the technology you still have to keep the budget mavens happy. People on the business side of the fence have to believe that wireless and mobile technology will truly change the way they are able to drive revenue. Without this belief, it is just deployment of technology for technology's sake, and the effort is doomed to fail when business-side enthusiasm wanes.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.