Monday, January 02, 2006

Business Processes and Handheld Computers

It is important to recognize the impact on business processes - caused by extending your internal software applications out to your field workers. It is far different than just adding another desktop computer to an empty cubicle. With handheld computers, the user must think about battery life, environmental issues such as water, sand, temperatures, etc, and how they are going to connect to the enterprise software application. One must stop and think about the traditional methods of using paper forms, clipboards, etc, and how a handheld computer will change these processes.

One of the first questions to ask is, "what will change?" If a field worker is accustomed to paper forms attached to a clipboard, how will they need to change their habits and routines to take advantage of a handheld computer. It may be that the real advantage of using a wireless handheld computer is the value of sharing information real time. So again, how will having real time updates of information in the field change the business process? Can you open and close work orders, check available inventory, schedule repairs, review customer files, check the shipping status of parts, find directions to your next job site, invoice the customer while still at the job site? If you do want to provide the customer with a paper copy of the completed work order or an invoice, what kind of printer do you need? Printers can sit on the seat of your pick-up truck, mounted to the dashboard of your truck, or attached to your belt for complete mobility.

From the hardware perspective, "Where do you keep the handheld computers (at the field user's home, in a locker, at the job site? What is the process for replacing one that breaks? Who keeps them charged? What security is required? How many workers use the same handheld computer?" All of these questions are asked by my PSO (professional services organization) team when they are scoping out a project.

It is important to "walk in the shoes" of your field users. Make sure you walk with them and see how the business process is actually done in the field. The success or failure of many mobile application projects are dependent on the field users' acceptance of the solution. Often a project's designed business process changes considerably once you have "walked through the real world" process in the field.