Tooling up the road-warrior army

The most important part of rolling out a mobile application is to make certain a mobile workforce can use it. That's a point made by all four of the finalists in the 2004 Computerworld Excellence Awards' Excellence in the Use of IT for a Mobile Workforce category.

The most important part of rolling out a mobile application is to make certain a mobile w

orkforce can use it. That’s a point made by all four of the finalists in the 2004 Computerworld Excellence Awards’ Excellence in the Use of IT for a Mobile Workforce category.

Vector wanted to provide real-time information to mobile employees working on its electricity, gas and fibre-optic networks, particularly for when a power cut occurs. Employees were communicating with radio and using a paper-based system to keep track of maintenance and faults. Vector hoped an electronic system would streamline the process of recording and distributing business information, increase the productivity of mobile staff, provide customers with better information and ensure information systems were more accurate and up-to-date.

The mobile workforce was issued with Compaq PocketPCs, using Vodafone's GPRS network to communicate with Vector's customer management, financial and GIS systems. Staff were given one-on-one training and regular monitoring to ensure that the system would be adopted. Vector had an indication of the project's likely impact when the mobile employees in a trial wanted to keep their PDAs rather than return them.

The company says its mobile data solution has resulted in a 70% reduction in the time spent despatching mobile staff, a 98% accuracy rate in its information catchment, a 20% reduction in the time spent responding to customers experiencing a fault and 40% more data captured from an electricity fault. Vector chief executive Mark Franklin notes that the company can't prevent faults caused by incidents such as car crashes, but the mobile data solution has improved Vector's ability to respond and the service it provides to customers.

Excell Corporation, which holds a contract to maintain Manukau City's water and drainage systems, also needed to provide its mobile staff with up-to-date and accurate information and improve the quality of updates from the field. The iService Excell project allows real-time communication between Excell's service and job management system and the ruggedised Symbol PDAs issued to mobile crews.

Job requests are despatched by Excell's customer centre and appear immediately on the mobile devices, sorted by urgency. The PDAs automatically connect to the customer centre when returned to their cradles in Excell vehicles, and will reply with information about the job completion and any follow-up activities such as traffic management. If a job takes unexpectedly long, the reasons for the delay are captured.

Excell selected staff with an interest in IT as early adopters and gained useful feedback, allowing fine-tuning before the final rollout. Those early adopters were also used to help train their colleagues and as examples to other staff that they would be able to use the new system.

The company says iService Excell has improved the morale of mobile staff, lessened the paperwork burden on customer centre staff who are now able to better focus on customer service, and has been used as a positive advantage for Excell in tendering for maintenance contracts.

Faced with an expanding business and workforce and a full workload over the next three years, P & A Construction decided it needed a system to better coordinate and capture the activities of its staff. The dbonairtime project -- known as Airtime -- allowed project management and accounting databases to be synchronised between the field and P & A's head office.

Airtime is built on top of dbonair, a mobile application development environment. It allows timesheets to be completed with WAP or PocketPC devices without requiring an active mobile network. Once completed and synchronised, preliminary reports are available immediately on the web.

P & A decided that overcoming useability issues with staff would be key to the project's overall success. Because building sites are tough on equipment, and the company didn't want to force a system on staff, a range of mobile devices were used. P & A refers to matching the device to the person, rather than the person to the device.

P & A says Airtime lets the company immediately review the status of each site and has freed administration staff from the onerous task of typing in timesheet data. The system provides much more transparent financial data, has reduced errors in data capture, and provides cost savings with more accurate and timely data.

The New Zealand Automobile Association was also faced with increasing demands on its customer service centre, and wanted to improve its response times to motorists requesting mobile assistance. It kicked off the Road Comms project in 2001, which entered its third phase last year when the AA issued mobile service staff with in-vehicle toughened tablet PCs with a GPS system to track a vehicle's position.

The AA involved its mobile staff with the Road Comms development, including field-testing devices. A "significant" training program ensured that staff would be able and willing to use the new system when it was rolled out. Touchscreens were used to keep data completion in the field as simple as possible.

The AA says Road Comms has resulted in fewer system outages and fewer abandoned calls to the service centre, down from 13% in 200-01 to 7.5% in January 2004. The system has coped with a larger membership and more calls for support, and more roadside callouts. Mobile service staff have improved their individual productivity by 6%, morale is improved, and response times are faster. The AA says it used to receive about three complaints for every compliment; the ratio is now about equal.

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