Ask most executives about deploying wireless data across the enterprise and you’ll likely be met with a litany of reasons why they choose to opt out, thank you very much. Today’s deal-breakers center around the problems of cost, data throughput and connection reliability.
As America’s jobless recovery grinds on, IT and telecom cost ramifications are still a major challenge for many organizations. The average monthly fee for an all-you-can-eat wireless buffet can add $80 per user to telco expenses—on top of your voice plans! Pile on the capital outlay for new devices capable of handling wireless data and applications, and the most frugal of managers undoubtedly wince.
On the burgeoning wireless data networks, geographic coverage and signal reliability are still unreliable and dropped connections can be frustrating, especially if users must reauthenticate their sessions every time they’re reconnected. In the best-case scenario, this raises the blood pressure of your harried mobile workers; at worst, these crush worker satisfaction and productivity. Connection and throughput shortfalls can exist not only in rural settings, but also where you might least expect them—even within the walls of your own building.
Despite these challenges, the truth is that introducing wireless data applications to your organization doesn’t have to be wrought with peril—as one of the behemoths of corporate America can attest.
Enter Big Blue
Not only is IBM a global leader in providing mobile software to enterprises all over the world, but one of the company’s key business units—its Pervasive Computing Division—actually walks the walk when it comes to extending the enterprise right to customers’ doorsteps
The concept of pervasive computing in IBM’s ultimate vision seems almost Jetson’s-like: “Field and sales force automation and extending connections, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg of what pervasive computing focuses on,” says John Prial, VP of market development and sales, IBM Pervasive Computing. “We see computing models extending out to new classes of devices, whether they’re PDAs or cellphones; automobiles or vehicles; RFID tags or boxes and inventory systems; connected homes, refrigerators and appliances. More devices are getting computing power and connectivity; therefore it’s very important that they be managed as part of a broader system, with applications that interoperate across different areas.”
Translated into daily business terms, “Pervasive Computing is a broad brush initiative across IBM that focuses on services, solutions, software and hardware, and ties all of these pieces together into one coherent view for our customers,” according to Prial. So when the Pervasive Computing sales team wanted to increase productivity and improve its presentation of this coherent viewpoint to its customers in a more responsive fashion, Prial knew a wireless strategy was the right choice. Not only would Pervasive Computing help sales reps reach their jaw-dropping quotas of $56 million per year, the company would also be able to better educate its sales force and customer base on the mobility benefits inherent in IBM’s own products and services.
Stepping Up to CDMA
The pilot began in April 2000 with 100 employees armed with IBM ThinkPads, Novatel Wireless and Sierra Wireless CDMA PC Cards and CDMA wireless connections from Sprint PCS and Verizon Wireless. On a typical day, IBM sales reps make 6 to 10 customer calls. While on the road they need to be regularly online and connected to other members of the huge, collaborative team required to service big-ticket customers across the entire IBM support structure: technical sales staff, software account managers, product management and marketing program teams, the customer care organization and the laboratory.
When the stakes are this high and team members need to find each other at a moment’s notice, twice-daily dial-up synchronization and standard e-mail is not always appropriate. Lotus Sametime, an instant messaging application, is utilized in conjunction with e-mail to provide immediate access to group members. Real-time wireless access to colleagues, as well as critical customer data in IBM’s Siebel CRM system and sales support materials housed on the company’s intranet, facilitate the complex collaborative efforts required to sell at this stratospheric level.
Sales reps can also form virtual rapid-response teams and share content on demand by creating ad hoc community environments using QuickPlace, Lotus’ groupware application. This enables IBM’s road warriors to truly connect and extend the enterprise all the way out to the customer site. All of these mobile solutions are supported via off-the-shelf IBM products: the company’s back-end systems are accessed wirelessly through using WebSphere Everyplace Connection Manager, which establishes a secure VPN connection, and applications and collaborative tools are made available through WebSphere Portal software.
Got It Covered
So how does IBM’s team overcome those wireless data obstacles? In order to accommodate the needs of the sales force, IBM must ensure that its strategy addresses both the largest possible nationwide footprint and the fastest possible data throughput. IBM has opted for Sprint and Verizon’s CDMA 1xRTT networks for national coverage.
Going above and beyond 1xRTT, however, IBM is trialing Verizon Wireless’ bleeding-edge CDMA 1xEV-DO network in Washington, D.C., and San Diego for two out of three sales reps in these markets. “I’m quite pleased,” says Prial. “WebSphere Connection Manager does the compression and decompression; we are getting about 200 kbps on the network and a 3 to 1 ratio on the compression. We have the unlimited data package, so there’s really no additional cost and we’re getting better throughput. So even if there’s no Ethernet connection, we’re happy.”
Fortunately for IBM, its wireless data investment began paying off early: in the beginning days of the pilot, the sales force reported that having high-speed wireless access to each other, sales support applications and data led to average increases of 5.5 hours of customer facetime per week, a key indicator for improved effectiveness in a multimillion dollar sales environment. Productivity benefits were also realized: reps no longer needed to make trips back to the office to sync or retrieve support materials; they could access colleagues more readily; and they were able to get work done from the road between customer calls.
From a customer service standpoint, they can now reach into a broader infrastructure wirelessly, and provide on-demand answers to questions about features and delivery. Plus, they enjoy real-time access to the expertise of tech specialists and other IBM teammates. IBM sales reps actually using mobile and wireless solutions powered by the company’s products has also induced a halo effect with clients. “The customers recognize the fact that if IBM is making this investment, we clearly are seeing the ROI,” offers Prial. “That is probably the best marketing tool I can use.”
Since the original 100-person launch, the pilot has grown to more than 800 employees in a variety of other sales departments within IBM. Today the system is being rolled out to more than 2,000 members of the company’s global sales force. The reception to the new technology has been overwhelming. “The hardest part is to figure out who to give this to,” says Prial. “I can’t roll this out fast enough.”
Plans and enhancements for the future include developing more metrics to measure ROI of the wireless deployment, the creation of more reporting tools that are accessible wirelessly, and piloting mobile solutions on handheld devices across different platforms, including Microsoft’s PocketPC, Palm OS, Linux, Symbian and RIM.
So what message does Prial have for all those wireless data naysayers who see the challenges as hurdles? “I don’t want to ever declare something as the next killer app, but clearly high speed data for connecting mobile workers is going to be very critical over the next few years.” •
Randi Rosenberg is a freelance writer and consultant based in New York City.