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April 2003


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5 Commandments of Picking a Systems Integrator

Picking the right mobile systems integrator for your business doesn’t take a miracle. Remember these five commandments to help you find a heavenly fit.

By Tim Scannell

Everyone has a relationship horror story. It all begins with an initial meeting. You size up each other and weigh the pros and cons of going forward. You prepare for the date by doing a little homework, perhaps coming up to speed by studying the latest topics of conversation and hippest buzzwords. Then you get together and start slowly, learning a little more about each other and channeling the flow of the encounter toward a satisfying conclusion—and perhaps more involved meetings.

Suddenly, things go south very quickly. He’s a little too loud and boisterous. She has this annoying little habit of twirling spaghetti 30 times with a fork before eating it. You both discover you really don’t have anything in common and are operating on entirely different social wavelengths. What seemed to be a bright and promising relationship has suddenly become a disaster, with both parties watching the clock, skipping dessert and promising themselves to never do this again—at least not with this person!

Although somewhat different, picking the right mobile and wireless systems integrator has many similarities to the techniques and circumstances of everyday dating. Only in this case, it’s your company looking to match up remote worker needs with the right technology and applications. The decision-maker, for example, searches for a potential systems integrator, maybe asking friends and associates if there is anyone experienced in the market and researching past projects to see what the integrator has done and where they have succeeded.

When you do find a likely integration suitor, you first sit down and talk about your solution’s needs. Then maybe you choose to embark on a small pilot program. If things work out, you might continue the relationship and explore other mobile initiatives. If they don’t, well, the very least you might be left with is a reluctance to deal with other integrators, skepticism when it comes to your peers’ recommendations and a negative view of mobile and wireless.

“The first time a salesperson goes to take an order and she can’t because she doesn’t have a cell [signal], she will hate it and think it isn’t a good tool,” says Mike Ostrowski, director of the consulting practice for Optimus Solutions, a mobile and wireless systems integrator based in Norcross, Ga. “And once you give a salesperson a bad taste, it’s hard to get them to try it again.”

Following the Rules

Like many of the other top integrators and value-added resellers out there, Optimus follows a number of basic rules when it comes to first dealing with a potential mobile and wireless client, and then working with that client to successfully provide solutions. These guidelines range from first having an 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.

The exact wording of these tactics might change a bit as you move from one industry segment to the next—from manufacturing to insurance to pharmaceuticals, for example—but their fundamental nature pretty much remains the same when dealing with integrators or vendors. Or at least the ones who are known for delivering on their development promises.

Because reputable and dependable systems integrators tend to follow these rules for approaching, analyzing and ultimately satisfying a mobile business need, enterprises that are shopping for someone to come in and solve a field force automation challenge can use the same rules to identify compatible technology partners (and eliminate those that might prove to be an ill fit).

With that in mind, we offer the following Five Commandments of mobile and wireless systems integration. (Hey, it’s a tough economy and there are cutbacks everywhere, even when it comes to integration commandments!) While not necessarily etched in stone, these rules can provide an effective means of avoiding problems down the road.

1. Know Thy Industry—and Thy Client

Most systems integrators worth their salt usually specialize in three or four key industry segments, such as insurance, healthcare, hospitality or transportation. The larger ones might have individual departments specifically dedicated to a segment and experts within each of these departments who not only have technical expertise in mobile and wireless, but might also have some experience working on the end-user side of the fence.

Getronics NV, the Dutch systems integrator that absorbed Wang Global in 1999, is one of the largest and most flexible systems-independent integrators and consultancies in the world, with more than 26,000 employees in 30-plus countries. The company specializes in information and communications technology, with a current emphasis on voice over IP systems—which executives claim currently delivers the most obvious and immediate return on investment for business users.

The company 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. “Since we do monitor the success of a system, we can easily dispatch people to fix things that don’t work.”

Matthys points out that knowing a client’s business model, as well as their methodology, is important to the success of a project. “We’re in partnership with these people and we want to be sure they’re comfortable with the technology we’re recommending.”

2. Thou Shalt Understand Back-End and Front-End Systems

One of the most common mistakes made by wireless developers and integrators is paying too much attention to the mobile front-end and not enough on the back-end infrastructures that will ultimately support all the data collection and information transfers between mobile workers in the field and a centralized data resource. In a nutshell, this was the key mistake made during the early days of Internet business and e-commerce. Major retailers spent months and months fretting about Website design and throwing their entire catalogs online, but not enough on the behind-the-scenes support structures. As a result, when the orders came flooding in just before Christmas a few years ago, systems failed and shipments were delayed for weeks.

Although client devices and remote access are the most obvious elements of mobile systems, successful systems integration projects are usually designed to extend a client’s current legacy data, resources and applications out to laptops, handhelds and mobile phones. This means that integrators should have solid experience in the bowels of IT and a firm understanding of core operating systems and database structures. “Anybody can get e-mail on a Palm device or make a Website that’s pretty,” says Optimus’ Ostrowski. “But can you create a Palm application that gives information to sales people that helps them close deals?”

Taking a holistic IT approach to mobile systems was a key reason why ArcStream Solutions landed a mobile engagement with office superstore chain Staples, says ArcStream director of marketing Ali Towle. Staples, which sells more than $11 billion worth of products each year, wanted to deploy mobile technology across its sales force, but ArcStream integrators first wanted to explore 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 has the potential to save the superstore chain more than $1 million per year. Everything in the plan, however, is dependent on and extends out from Staples’ primary IT resources. “We see it as a long-term relationship, with a goal of helping them to evolve over time as new technologies come about,” says Towle.

In most cases, the company makes an effort to “sit down with business owners and the end users, and really try to flush out the functionality of their current systems and discover what exactly their problems are.”

3. Thou Shalt Consider Mobile ROI, But Understand That Measurements Can Be Tricky

One of the questions asked most frequently of vendors and systems integrators in the mobile space is: What kind of a ROI can an end-user organization expect by deploying mobile and wireless technology across a sales or field force? Unfortunately, mobile ROI is one of the most difficult things to truly measure in any great detail because each worker approaches and uses mobile devices and mobile applications differently. Ideally, a mobile device should make a productive employee more productive, and increase the performance levels of all employees through such features as data sharing and remote, rapid access to critical information. That isn’t always the case, however, because such variables as training, service, support and unfamiliarity with a new operational platform usually come into play.

Most integrators and their customers usually break mobile ROI into two specific segments: hard ROI, which involves the obvious costs and benefits of line items such as replacing expensive notebooks with cheaper handheld devices or eliminating hard-wired systems with less expensive wireless access; and soft ROI, which focuses on such facets as the amount of time saved by accessing a file wirelessly from the field, or being able to easily pull 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 or predict.

Surprisingly, Getronics’ Matthys says she does not see too much demand for ROI measurements and statistics from her clients, although she admits that might be because the hardware, software and wireless networks are becoming more reliable and already offer a clear cost-savings picture. Also, “people just understand the technology much better,” she admits.

Still, ROI is emerging to become one of the most important considerations surrounding mobile and wireless systems, if not at the outset of plans and deployments then during the later stages when companies want to measure productivity benefits and the effectiveness of vendor- and integrator-supplied applications.

IKON Office Solutions, for example, started down the wireless path about a year ago in an effort to coordinate the efforts of its more than 8,500 field technicians, support personnel and mobile workers located throughout the U.S. A serious concern for the office systems supply company was sending fast and accurate information from its back-end systems to client machines in the field. (Traditionally most communication is handled via voice and old-school mobile phones and text pagers.) The company has been developing its ROI measurement tools in house and gradually phasing them into the overall operation. But no matter how you, your vendors or systems integrators slice it, there is no getting around it. ROI is important because it will not only measure productivity, but also help eliminate many of the redundancies in your current manual workflow and legacy applications.

4. Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor’s Mobile and Wireless Solutions

Much of what is happening in the mobile and wireless market is being driven by the technology. It’s not the healthiest of situations considering the fact that the technology is being rolled out at a
blistering pace. Many companies are holding off on mobile purchasing decisions because they just don’t know what types of systems to adopt or support. Many others make the mistake of implementing an open door policy toward devices and applications, vowing to support any and all that appear as they proclaim they are “technology agnostic” (which is sacrilegious talk to any dyed-in-the-wool IT manager coming from the wired, corporate network side).

The truth is that a fair number of mobile and wireless referrals come through the IT grapevine as one company learns about the success of another’s deployment and hopes to duplicate systems that may involve the same type of workflow or applications. You know the routine: Acme Conglomerate’s Gadgets Group, based in Philadelphia, finds out that the company’s Worldwide Widgets Division in Vancouver has deployed wireless applications to its mobile work force. So the execs in Widgets do a little digging to find out what vendors and systems integrators were involved so they can perhaps implement the same solutions (and maybe at a discount because, after all, the initial development work has already been accomplished with these heavy thinkers over in Gadgets).

While this sounds like a terrific strategy, most systems integrators are very careful about re-purposing modules of programming that were developed for a previous client or created in partnership with that client. All of the work completed for clients of Optimus Solutions, for example, remains the intellectual property of that client, notes Mike Ostrowski. Financial institutions, such as banks, are very sensitive to the competitive advantages of their particular mobile solutions, and are therefore reluctant to share the exact specifications of that system with anyone. Healthcare providers, on the other hand, don’t necessarily worry about sharing information because hospitals do not overtly compete with one another for patients (at least not in the traditional business sense).

“It really depends on the situation,” says Ostrowski, noting that Optimus and most other integrators do use pre-developed modules to some extent to avoid reinventing the wheel with each new client—a practice that would ultimately increase overall development fees.

There are, of course, instances when the methodologies and applications developed for one client can easily be shared with another without fear of violating any kind of confidentialities.

Optimus is now working with a bank, for instance, to provide a mobile solution that will enable the institution to meet SEC rules that stipulate how long e-mail, short messages and even electronic chatting is saved and stored in a bank’s databases. The client has already agreed to share the technology, if it is successful, because in this case “it’s not a competitive advantage thing, but an industry-wide mandate,” says Ostrowski. “Bank A is not going to be hurt by Bank B having the solution, because it’s mandated that they have it.”

5. Thou Shalt Slow Down, Especially In Wireless Planning and Development

The basic concept behind mobile and wireless systems, at least if you believe what the vendors tell us, is that adding these systems will increase productivity, speed up current hard-wired or paper-based systems and shift a company’s revenue-generating engines into overdrive. But deep down you know you and your systems integrator are going to have to practice some restraint. If you pick the right systems integrator, it will be a group of professionals who are experienced enough in coordinating and developing such projects to know that the best formula for success is to roll out solutions carefully and slowly. A gradual approach is the right one for most projects.

Getronics usually takes a step-by-step, phased approach to many of its engagements, especially those involving larger customers that have a more significant investment in complicated legacy systems. Getronics’ integration team will map out a project by meeting with executives, managers and staff from virtually every department that will potentially be impacted by a mobile and wireless project. Then the team breaks the project into segments. The idea is to allow the customer to put the brakes on development at any time in the project cycle without losing forward momentum when they decide to return to the project or channel the development in a new direction.

“What is done up to that point is productive and will enhance future activities,” says Matthys. “If we get to that point and we realize we aren’t going to meet the ROI we have set up, then we are not going into Phase 2. And after Phase 2, we won’t go to Phase 3 unless it continually shows that there is a good investment.”

ArcStream’s approach to a project is just as methodical. Most projects begin with an initial discussion about the company and its general business objectives, then continue as the team workshops with the business owners and potential users of a mobile system.

Finally, ArcStream and the end users conduct a review of just what the client expects from a mobile deployment. Once the discussion dust has settled, ArcStream will usually launch a pilot program to test an embryonic system in the real world.

ArcStream’s Towle admits that ROI success and productivity are difficult to measure in some applications because users of an installed system can be so diverse and eclectic in their approach to mobile and wireless. One of the company’s first clients, for example, was Harvard Medical School. The institution was relying much too much on many different paper-based systems to track students as they moved through myriad rotations on the road to becoming doctors and interacted with professors.

An e-mail-based solution put a significant dent in the amount of paper that flowed throughout the famous school, but the ROI of the system depended very heavily on how well each individual used and interacted with the system. Measuring the effectiveness of the project was made even more difficult by the unusual schedules and programs that are a part of the unique Harvard Medical School experience.

“Variables such as productivity and user satisfaction are just hard to measure,” says Towle. “And this can present lots of challenges for systems integrators.

Tim Scannell is president of Shoreline Research www.shorelineresearch.com), a consultancy based in Quincy, Mass.

Copyright ©2004 Leisure Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
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