|Convergence will drive business excellence
|Desi Lopez Fafie
|Regional Director Africa Operations
Mobile technology has implications for business greater than simply being available any time, anywhere. Mobile technology plays a vital role in merging the back-office with desktop information and workflow systems. In doing so, for the first time, companies can map their business processes to their streamlined, integrated information systems. Instead of bringing the transaction to the computer, mobile technology brings computing to where the transaction occurs. As a result, duplication is eliminated and operations improved with minimal disruption to information systems.
It is hard not to notice the excitement among us as information technology vendors and the worlds of telecommunications and IT draw closer together. In true technophile fashion, the IT vendors demonstrate with enthusiasm the thrill of accessing e-mail via the cellphone, synchronising palmtops with the computer desktop, and picking up voicemail via the Internet. Purely at the gadget level, the technology impresses. The real implications of converging technologies, though, will soon be realised in Africa, when the convergence of IT and telecommunications becomes the primary driver for business excellence. The benefits of telecommunications in business go way beyond connecting people everywhere, all the time. The advantages of being connected any time anywhere are not debated. The fact that cellular is growing in Africa at a staggering rate that outstrips that of landlines makes an undeniable case for mobile IT enablement. Still, mobile has taken business much further than just putting workers online anywhere. It has removed the barriers that have separated the desktop computing environment – that is, the employees’ personal working space – and that of the enterprise. Desktop systems such as e-mail, calendaring, voice messaging, faxing, and document sharing have, until now, been entities separated from the back-end financial, human resource and enterprise resource management systems. Let’s take a step back, and look at how enterprise and desktop information systems have been deployed in the past. Company A opens an office in Lagos, and installs a server and software to run its accounts payable, accounts receivable, general ledger and payroll. The distribution warehouse next door runs a software package that assists with inventory control and order entry, which is housed on a separate server. Then company A decides to open an office in Abuja, and another server is installed which runs the necessary software and doubles up as an e-mail server. Company A has a number of databases – a customer database at head office, a database housing product information and delivery addresses in the warehouse. The e-mail server is not connected to any database, yet vital information in the form of messages and document attachments are circulated throughout the company and among suppliers. At the desktop, although more functionality was being constantly added, these systems were essentially separate from the enterprise. When the Internet blew into the commercial world in the mid-1990’s it brought with it a proliferation of information and functionality which up until now, has never been placed under a management structure that vaguely approached the order achieved in enterprise systems. Yet the information generated on the desktop is as critical to the organisation as any ERP or financial system. Alarmingly, vast amounts of vital information residing on hard drives of laptop computers – or kept as attachments in an inbox – have remained unstructured and unmanaged, and never integrated with the organisation. Why did business allow this to happen? There wasn’t any other option, really. Data had to be stored somewhere, applications had to run off computer hardware which was located somewhere, and these had physical constraints. At the desktop level, e-mail simply wasn’t sophisticated enough to be integrated into the tried and tested security of an enterprise application. Mobile has played a pivotal role in bringing order to the chaos that existed when the desktop and the enterprise tried to do business. For some years now, software developers have been bringing to market business applications that are not only mobile-friendly, but are mobile-enabled. One such example is field services, where a technician in the field can log job sheets directly into the billing system via his cellphone. Enterprise software has seen the potential for mobile technology for many years, and its enablement has been held back only by bandwidth constraints, technology adoption and handset functionality. These constraints have largely been overcome, or are expected to fairly quickly. Mobile technology in the enterprise space brought computing to the point of the transaction. In other words, where the business was conducted, so the transaction was recorded. This meant that mobile computing gave companies the ability to “map” their business processes directly against their information systems. In so doing, duplication was eliminated, inefficiencies were eradicated, and best business practices could be introduced with minimal disruption to the information systems. The desktop, on the other hand, remained in its state of shoddy chaos until recently. Going back to Company A, a scenario can be painted where Harold in Lagos says to Debo in Abuja: “I’ll send you this contract, you check it out, make changes and send it back to me. When we’re happy with it we’ll send it over to the warehouse for them to pick the order and dispatch it to the customer.” Then the whole business workflow process stops while the document, sent as an e-mail attachment, is being checked over by Debo. At this moment there are three versions of the document around – the version generated by Harold, the version flying across the Internet as an attachment to Debo, and the version that Debo is changing to send back to Harold. They reside in three different areas – the original contract may or may not be on a corporate server, and Harold and Debo each have a version in their e-mail attachments that are housed in the e-mail’s temporary folder. The opportunity for error is massive, and the workflow process has slowed, if not ground to a halt. Software vendors are now producing collaboration software that will place e-mails firmly in the enterprise space, and will ensure that documents and other business informations are housed in a single database. Virtual meetings, which can be attended by staff via the Internet, phone or cellular phone, are a reality. Calendaring has been available for some time now. E-mail can be accessed via a cellphone if the mailbox owner is nowhere near a computer. The desktop, now, is becoming part of the enterprise space. But what makes the integration between the desktop and the enterprise a logical, trouble-free exercise is mobile technology. Mobile technology eliminates, completely, any justification for bringing the workflow process to a halt. Computers run businesses, and access to those computers is always available. The same handset that can read e-mail can also check a contract, activate a job card, set up a meeting, change and approve a document, and action the next phase in a workflow chain. If Harold and Debo had mobile access to their collaborative desktop environment, they could view the document that resides in a shared file on the single server like Company A now runs, then make their changes and SMS [send a short message to] the warehouse that the document is ready. The warehouse logs onto the server where the document is housed, and flags it as having been acted upon. Nobody physically sends anything to anyone, and at any one time only one version of the document exists. The benefit of having access to corporate information any time any place, is the ability to collaborate in a structured, controlled manner. This means that, at all times, employees in the organisation are able to work on tasks as a team, without time delays, without duplication, and without having to jump from one system to another. Mobile technology knits everything together and makes the business doable – right now. This ability has a massive impact on existing company IT systems that have been evolving since the business began, and that have grown on an as-needed basis over the years. Mobile computing blows all the justifications for having disparate systems out of the water. In the first place mobile users can connect anytime from anywhere – so the geographical constraint is broken. Following on, business itself can be conducted from anywhere using any connected device in “real time”. This means that several data versions are entirely unnecessary. So whether the customer is paying his bill, ordering stock, or making an appointment to see an account representative, the instance of his dealing with the company is recorded on one place, once, and is available to everyone within the organisation. Significantly, organisations will find that this new “single instance” of doing business is not only going to save them money on their technology investment, but will also compel them to take a good look at their business processes. How many times have you heard the phrase “we would change the way we do things here, but our computer systems won’t support it”? Today the shoe is on the other foot – the pervasiveness of mobile technology will compel companies to change their business processes. Duplication will become anathema, business workflows and business processes will run in real time, decisions will be made faster, accountability and answerability will become more immediate. Those companies that are able to match their information technology exactly with their business processes, and run at maximum efficiency at optimum cost will come closest to deriving the best from their investment in IT. This is what it means to achieve true convergence.