Mobility – it’s not a feature; it’s a necessity

The ubiquity of mobile communications and computing is changing the perceptions of your field workers. Are you ready for the them?

 If you manage a fleet of field technicians, and you haven’t factored in how the advances in mobile computing are altering the perceptions of your field workforce, you are losing ground. And, you may be losing customer loyalty and highly qualified employees as well. The ability to interact with backend systems and access critical business information in the field over mobile devices is no longer a feature for field service personnel. It’s a necessity.

From the early 1990s when mobile workforce management (MWFM) became a ”thing,” advances in mobile data access and the automation of field service have gone hand in hand. According to Mary Meeker, since 1995, Internet penetration globally has gone from 1 percent to 39 percent, whilst mobile phone user penetration has gone from 1 percent to 73 percent. Likewise, MWFM has expanded from usage within a few organisations to almost 100 percent of utilities and communication companies in the US and Western Europe.

While the corporate world has lagged the general consumer market in the provision of mobile applications and services in the past, the gap has closed. Smartphones and tablets have crossed into (maybe “invaded” would be a better word) corporate culture. With these devices comes the “always on” attitude; high bandwidth access to rich multimedia channels at one’s fingertips. Mobility, therefore, is now a given.

With this in mind, it is inevitable that new entrants to the field workforce of utility and communication companies will be computer-literate, will already own a smartphone, and will be used to managing relationships via social networking sites. Gartner says that by 2018 more than 50 percent of users will use a tablet or smartphone (rather than a desktop or laptop computer) first for all online activities. Crucially, mobile communication and Internet access will be ubiquitous; the user’s view of it will be that of a fish’s view of water. This trend is likely to continue.

The effect of these trends? The implementation decisions required of utility and communication companies for MWFM projects aren’t getting any simpler. The choices regarding mobile form factor and platform are likely to become richer. The rate of hardware churn in the consumer market is unlikely to ease, making the platform decision more difficult — not to mention the issues that face your IT department in dealing with the support problem inherent in consumer-grade devices, such as breakage and obsolescence.

Network costs will likely continue to fall, but the amount of data flowing to and from the field will only increase, leading to higher mobile network invoices. The cultural expectation of “always on” together with use of multimedia attachments to work orders will drive this.

It is now widely perceived that integrated social networking and knowledge management is becoming important in field service delivery as a potential aid to coaching and self-help (e.g., crowd sourcing within field operation units). The ability to determine the exact current location of technicians will also ensure that expertise location and management is another tool for field service organisations.

Given the tendency of larger organisations to lag the consumer space in terms of mobile technology, is the workplace environment offered to your field staff worse than the individuals obtain in their own time? Will that tempt crews to bypass work networks where possible? How will the effects of ubiquitous Internet access affect utility companies when the customer expectation of interaction, personalisation and active participation spills into the world of field operations?

With these trends and drivers in train, I suggest we are looking at a Third Generation of Field Service — the return of autonomy, but of a different kind, to field crews, which they perhaps lost in the first wave of WFM enablement. Such a rebalancing needs trust. Increasing data capture of field service job progression must not be misused by corporate; likewise mobile crews must not abuse the capabilities offered by increased interaction in the field.

All of the capabilities I’ve discussed here are available today from leading MWFM solution vendors, including ABB. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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About the author

Mark Willson

I have been working in the IT industry since 1977. From 1992 I have been focused on providing solutions for utility and telecommunication companies, majoring on geographic information systems (GIS) and mobile workforce management. My current role of Industry Solutions Executive in ABB enables me to provide software-based solutions for the real-world challenges of utility companies.
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