I’ve received a lot of webinar invitations recently that all say something like: “Revolutionize Your Business by Connecting the Enterprise to the Field.” My first thought is always: What a great topic! Connecting field and back office operations really does improve decision-making and streamline business operations. But then I realize that I’m assuming the webinar will address all those critical aspects that make field operations successful. Depending on who’s presenting the webinar that may be a bad assumption. I need to remind myself to ask a fundamental question, “What do they mean by ‘connect the enterprise to the field’ and what is the benefit?” After all, connecting the enterprise to the field is not always the same as revolutionizing your business.
Why do I bring this up? Because it turns out that many of these webinars are sponsored by companies that make hardware and/or networking software. These vendors are advocating that companies can increase profits by buying portable computing devices, electronic digital assistants or, more simply, cell phones on steroids that have a network connection to the back-office. The idea is to outfit the entire field organization with these devices and watch productivity soar. It’s a compelling story and in some industries it may even work; just check out the hardware carried by your friendly FedEx or UPS driver sometime. Certainly they can pickup packages and complete deliveries far quicker with that gizmo on their hip. Unfortunately, when it comes to servicing complex equipment, the key to field productivity is not hardware availability, it’s software usability.
To be fair, some of these mobile devices are pretty cool and, if properly implemented, they will let you interact with enterprise applications. But this begs a few questions: Do you want the field organization accessing your enterprise backbone? Is your enterprise software easy for the field to use (with or without a mobile device)? How many different systems are needed for a technician to get all the information they need? How does the system perform when the network connection is lost?
All of these questions go to the heart of usability. In our experience, efficiently servicing complex equipment requires technicians to access information that sits on somewhere between three and six different enterprise systems. (One customer found that the information needed by technicians was spread across 15 different systems.) Teaching the field organization to navigate so many different enterprise apps typically results in confusion, delays and errors. This is ironic because the primary goal of connecting the field to the enterprise is supposed to be faster service and fewer mistakes. Which begs the question, how does a slick phone with a 3G connection solve that problem? Companies looking to improve field service should place higher priority on selecting software than hardware.
Choosing software that really improves field support can be a challenge as well, and typically requires more than a call to your ERP vendor to buy the mobile module of an enterprise app. Field service requires a best-of-breed approach, because the solution must meet a wide variety of needs including: listing the work schedule, maintenance prerequisites (parts, tools, skills, etc.), diagnostics and fault isolation (eliminate NFF and confirm problems), troubleshooting (for unscheduled/break-fix events), parts identification, parts ordering, configuration management/feedback, service bulletin access, document and retrieve best practices, subject matter expert collaboration, closeout notes, compliance, etc. Companies must do their research and ask the experts to determine what really works for improving field service.
Now when I get an invitation to attend a “Revolutionize Your Business” webinar, I find myself looking more closely before accepting. Too often, I find the sponsors aren’t selling what industry really needs.