Mobile working: what you need to know
Written by: Vaughan O’Grady | Published:

Workforces can now fill in forms and share them using mobile devices, which can eliminate the potential for error and improve effectiveness in the field. But, as Vaughan O’Grady finds out, the transition to cloud-supported mobile form apps requires careful planning

Here’s a problem that may sound familiar to readers of a certain age. “Agents working in the field were manually collecting data from inspections, audits or even while filling out work reports; but the entire process was slow, not to mention error-prone. Paperwork often arrived very late (frequently due to international travel from the field to the office), was lost, was discovered to have been filled out incorrectly upon reaching the office or was simply never filled out.”

This, says Nancy Vodicka, VP marketing at Device Magic, a company that offers a mobile forms solution to improve mobile productivity and data capture for workers in the field, is why its co-founders came up with a product that, as she puts it, “enables quick and easy data collection, even without an internet connection, and introduces efficient data transfer. It also provides for quality and compliance checks, the ability to verify a work product immediately and a reliable record.”

Mobile form apps aren’t entirely new – but they have evolved. As Jason Wong, research VP at research and advisory company Gartner, points out: “Mobile forms or apps (because forms are basically simple apps) have been used for field service use-cases going back to specialised wireless devices [such as] Windows Mobile/CE, Palm [and] BlackBerry. Apple iOS and Android brought mobile to the masses and made the apps even more powerful – to do things like real-time notifications, location services, augmented reality, advanced offline data access, etc. Mobile apps for field service now come standard with all field service management (FSM) platforms used for scheduling and routing. Enterprises are also building more mobile apps for their field workforce as development tools make it easier to create more custom workflow and processes.”

Another familiar name in the mobile form field is WorkMobile. Andrew Huntly, the company’s CEO, points out that this method of working is not just about business efficiency. “Not only do we save our customers time and money, but we also support them in remaining compliant and meeting their environmental targets.”

You have 10 seconds to comply
Compliance is certainly important. Companies are becoming more driven by performance metrics. They want information in real time. But data use is often affected by legal requirements, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). And there may be audits: a company may need to prove what it did and when. Data-based forms make this easier. Paper-based forms can get lost – or be hard to read.

In some cases, the mobile forms concept is often not too complex: parcel delivery, for instance. However, to get an idea of how demanding forms can be in the field, look no further than Coeus Software, which aims to mobilise workforces with its cloud-based digital solutions. Its portfolio includes PoliceBox, a platform that digitises and mobilises police processes, allowing a police force to quickly build and deploy processes to mobile devices and share them with colleagues, other forces and agency partners.

Simon Hall, CEO of Coeus, explains: “We provide a mobile working platform used mainly for people like police or compliance-based regulated industries that have large deployed workforces who need to collect information and research and send it all back while they’re out in the field.”

While PoliceBox offers a great deal more than just help with sharing forms, paperwork was, and can still be, a major drain on police time. If a police officer stopped somebody for speeding, he or she could spend 25 minutes filling in a form, and then more forms if the vehicle had no insurance or wasn’t roadworthy. Much of this would be repetitive information. It then had to get back to an office’s internal mail system and be manually entered (assuming it was readable). Now, Hall points out, instead of filling in five or six manual paper forms, much of them with repetitive information, “once you have multiple processes, filling in the information for the second, third or fourth process can be done in a fraction of the time”.

The police in particular demand digital evidence and full audit capability. They must also be able to work offline as crimes don’t stop just because the mobile signal is weak. Hall adds: “The further complexity is that in this country laws are changing all the time and the information they need to collect also needs to change, which means the products they have to use also have to change.”

Bespoke or off-the-shelf?
Huntly of WorkMobile says: “The market for form-based apps is becoming increasingly competitive, with many more new entrants now than a couple of years ago. Each solution, however, tends to be different, and many are sector or task-specific, meaning customers need to have a number of different apps to cover all of their process needs.”

His answer? “We would recommend that, where possible, businesses look for a single app that will meet all of their business form requirements. They should also find a provider that can help them to establish what they can then do with the data collected, and the competitive advantage that access to quick, accurate business intelligence brings. Businesses use Excel every day to build solutions. Our goal was therefore to build a toolkit that was just as simple to use and would allow businesses to build their own data-capture apps.”

You could do it all yourself but, he suggests: “Building bespoke apps for mobile data capture is surprisingly expensive and requires a degree of expertise beyond most companies’ budgets and capabilities. Pre-existing apps are already built, tried and tested and can be flexible and adaptable enough to cover off most businesses’ requirements.”

Wong’s view is slightly different, but he does agree there is a lot of work involved in bespoke apps. He says: “Some packaged mobile apps may be fine for generic business processes and workflow, but for more custom and differentiated processes (which is typical for field service) there are opportunities to create more value with custom apps. However, this requires more dedicated product development focus to keep the mobile apps updated and relevant as new devices and operating systems keep coming out.”

Hall says: “The Coeus Software platform allows people to build business processing apps by using drag-and-drop design tools so people can design their own processes around what their business needs are – and they can be updated very rapidly.”

Choosing a cloud

Having chosen a form-based app (or platform to enable it), many customers choose to deploy or share processes, or store data, using the cloud. Hall explains: “Ours is called a hybrid solution. Our service runs in the cloud, in Azure. We use Azure as a processing engine, so we’ve got people out in the field collecting information and disseminating information and they are connected to our service, which is in the cloud. It can be elastic – scaling up and scaling down according to how much is going on. But all that data that it’s processing is sent – or disseminated – to the customers’ own site. That site might also be in the cloud or might be on-premise.”

Storage is less of an issue for this approach. He continues: “Obviously with policing, we can’t see any of the data; it’s encrypted until it’s over to their system – and we delete it off our system. We only use the cloud as a transitory-type platform where we deal with information. Once we’ve dealt with it, it’s gone. It’s not massively growing in terms of the storage side; we push that over to the customer.”

Of course, many mobile form app providers will have their own cloud service. As Vodicka of Device Magic says: “Our customers’ data is encrypted and securely stored in the cloud – making it available and migratory, regardless of location. We offer 26 integrations, including many popular cloud destinations such as Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive and ShareFile. As a result, we have found that our product seamlessly fits a wide variety of businesses and their needs.”

Security matters
A major advantage of cloud for mobile applications is accessibility from anywhere. But one reason to go with established cloud partners, such as Azure or Amazon Web Services (AWS), would be security. If you are not using the cloud, most of the responsibility for dealing with these problems is yours, but an Azure or AWS data centre is likely to be state-of-the-art, constantly updated, and able to guard against potentially sophisticated hacks from denial-of-service users.

Nevertheless it is still worth checking your provider’s security guarantees. The UK government report Implementing the Cloud Security Principles offers 14 such principles (https://bit.ly/2o5XFaZ) and is a useful reference.

Another big selling point for cloud support is scalability. Does your mobile fieldwork face peaks and troughs? Using the cloud may solve that problem. One of the world’s largest street festivals, the Notting Hill Carnival in London, requires a high level of policing and a lot of data input in the field. But in three days it is over. The cloud allows you to design a system for your average load and buy in more capacity to meet peak demand. You can’t do that with an on-premise solution; it has to be built for peak demand from the start.

And, assuming a number of data centres are involved, you have geo-redundancy. Hall says: “For UK policing there are UK data centres, so we can hold data in one data centre and have a hot back-up.”

Ask the right questions
If you wish to choose a cloud provider to manage your processes or store your data, your first question should be whether you really need cloud for your mobile operations. For a very small company, some advantages – scalability, security and time savings, for example – may not outweigh the cost of the service. Your in-office systems and back-up might be all you need for storage.

Other questions you might want to ask include: how much data entry is involved? Does a system need to operate offline? Depending on where the data centres are, are latency and local data laws relevant concerns? Are you and your cloud provider GDPR-ready? What about disaster recovery and hot back-up at the cloud provider end? What about performance and price? And are you locked into a contract? For how long?

Hall notes: “Every company should have an onboarding and offboarding process. When it comes to the end, how do you get your data back?... The other part of vendor lock-in is when people try and make sure they won’t let other systems talk to your system – which is about the API (application programming interface). We are believers in open systems.”

You should also find a service whose options are relevant to what you need to create – and people who have some understanding of the business you are in, not to mention its potential compliance requirements. Consultants or specialists might be useful for information or as go-betweens if you are not sure what you need.

One such is Amido, an independent, vendor-agnostic technical consultancy specialising in solving business problems with cloud-native technology. Richard Slater, its principal consultant and DevOps/SRE leader, says cloud migration must always start with understanding the business. “Our goal is to be able to integrate with the business to identify the areas that would benefit from cloud migration and [those] which should probably not be migrated until their natural retirement date. Once we understand the business domain, we can start working to identify a plan to design, develop and deliver a solution that adequately delivers against the business goals while balancing the various quality attributes of the overall system.”

He adds: “Even once everyone is using the cloud, there will still be a need to review existing cloud-based systems as the constant cycle of commoditisation is getting successively tighter, enabling innovation in the cloud services market to offer services such as big data and AI/ML [artificial intelligence/machine learning] to find better ways for businesses to connect with and serve their customers.”

As for the near future, Amido suggests that cloud-native applications are another potential consideration as services evolve. “Cloud architectures are constantly evolving, enabling businesses to operate faster, more flexibly and more responsively than ever before. Competitive pressures and the need for highly available and responsive processes are driving cloud early adopters towards cloud-native applications, a trend set to grow in 2019 and beyond. Cloud-native applications are specifically designed to run on cloud infrastructure – hence the term ‘native’ .”

Security, savings, scalability and continuing improvement in the cloud itself are considerations that are driving mobile working – and even applications – into the cloud for many companies. But does the cloud provider understand your business? Can you avoid vendor lock-in? And do you actually need the cloud?


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