The mobile computing revolution truly began when consumers began using their smartphones and tablets for tasks once reserved for PCs.
As this revolution got underway, one area impacted was enterprise software — all the backroom applications that keep a business going. Tasks like inventory management, staffing and accounting, traditionally managed through mainframe, heavy-duty hardware and only accessible through secured networks, were being pressured to go mobile.
In the IT department of Family Dollar, divisional vice president Subodh Mishra watched the mobile trend begin to unfold with excitement, as well as a bit of anxiety. “We saw this as a good direction to be headed, but did not want to proceed without a robust strategy,” he says. “We experimented with a few different initiatives but overall we weren’t fully prepared for this move into mobile.”
A ‘cohesive’ strategy
“You’ve always had retail executives who’ve had this ‘old school’ attitude,” says Tim Trampedach, a computer scientist who has developed enterprise software and also operates Level X Motorsports, an aftermarket auto parts online retailer. “They could look at the boxes of product in a warehouse, calculate the amount still on the shelves and in transit, figure out what they’ll need on a holiday weekend and come up with a number off the top of their head for the buyer.
“Often, their calculations have been right,” he says, “But not all the time. And now in this hyper-competitive market environment, do you really want to leave important calculations up to a hunch?”
Accuracy is even more critical with regards to the online marketplace, since many retailers use Amazon and eBay as an additional outlet for sales. Managers need an up-to-the-minute accounting of inventory.
“When you’re selling on Amazon and eBay, they’re very picky about making sure that what you’re selling is actually in stock at that moment,” says Trampedach. “That’s part of the new marketplace, where there’s little room for error and everything is ‘now.’”
A roving manager armed with a mobile device could theoretically see every product in the warehouse, in transit and on the shelves in real time, as well as monitor staffing levels, invoices and purchase orders, all without having to log in from a laptop and find a wireless hotspot.
At Family Dollar, the IT department wrestled with how to make a mobile enterprise strategy work. The company needed to look at “all aspects of what we needed to do, from infrastructure to application development and delivery,” says Mishra. “Everybody had the right idea, but we were lacking a cohesive strategy and a roadmap to go with it.”
One of the issues was how to make software and apps that were flexible enough to change with the technology. “When the iPhone came out, no one [had] heard of Android,” says Trampedach. “And after Android you had Windows phones. And where was the Blackberry [operating system] going to fit in? How would the apps you develop work with all these operating systems now and in the future? That’s been a big question for developers.”
Family Dollar’s primary need was to assist its district managers, who each covered a zone containing about 15 stores and had to manage inventory, accounting and other issues quickly from each site. By allowing them to stay in touch with the critical information they needed instantly while on the road, Mishra and his staff saw how helpful the right mobile enterprise strategy could be for their district managers.
The company brought in Propelics to help Family Dollar through its transition to mobile enterprise. Propelics helped Family Dollar’s IT department develop a three-phase action plan.
The first step involved mapping out the existing IT infrastructure, locating its gaps and recommended fixes, defining where mobile enterprise apps were needed and how the company’s legal and HR teams would need to be involved. “We knew that because mobile technology was changing so quickly, our strategy had to be very fluid, flexible and open to ideas,” says Mishra. “We spent a good four to six weeks developing it and we ended up with a set of foundational things we saw that needed to be put in place.”
Next, a mobile device management platform was developed that could handle both company-supplied devices and those used by employees. While the company was experimenting with mobile enterprise apps, employees used personal iPhones and Android devices. In order to maintain uniformity, Family Dollar decided to stick with Apple products and company iPhones were provided to managers on the road. Those who had personal iPhones could use them; Propelics advised Family Dollar on how to secure information on non-company owned devices.
The usual process is to require that the sensitive company apps have auto log-ins with company-set passwords. If the phone is lost or the employee leaves, the IT department can easily change the passwords to prevent future log-ins. “The trend of ‘BYOD’ [Bring Your Own Devices] is going to be stronger as people move from job to job and their device really becomes personal to them,” says Trampedach. “That’s going to make security a more studied issue in the future.”
In the third phase, a Propelics representative traveled with Family Dollar managers on their daily rounds to find out what kind of information they needed and how best to access it. This helped create the blueprint for Family Dollar to build mobile apps that would be both user-friendly for the managers and meet their needs for quickly accessible information.
No easy solution
“One thing we learned through this process is that during this time of mobile explosion, it’s very difficult to take [a] process and overlay it on mobile exactly as it is,” says Mishra. “Propelics reminded us that … careful thought must be given to the user experience and design as well as simplicity of use.”
“We often look for that easy way out in programming, where you make a few tweaks and a program that works great in desktop form seamlessly moves into mobile devices, but it doesn’t always work that way,” says Trampedach. “It’s not a bad idea to spend time figuring out where the needs are beforehand, where the problems might be, in order to smooth the rollout.”
Interestingly, one of the shifts in technology may be changing the lexicon. “Nowadays, when IT people talk about ‘enterprise strategy,’ they just assume it’s cross-platform — one that works for mobile, desktop, everywhere,” Trampedach says. “They don’t use the word ‘mobile’ because that’s just assumed. The term they use for it is ‘responsive design.’ Eventually, sooner rather than later, it’s all going to be one.”