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Preparing Your Enterprise Today for Tomorrow's Wireless Internet

Preparing Your Enterprise Today for Tomorrow's Wireless Internet

While there have been signs of corporate IT backlash resulting from the shortcomings of early implementations of the wireless Internet, there are also signs that it is becoming a useful tool for communicating with "mobile workforces," and will be a competitive necessity for businesses in the near future.

Enterprises and organizations as diverse as McKesson Corporation and the U.S. House of Representatives are beginning to rely on this technology to connect their mobile workers into real-time business systems and processes, such as order management, inventory, and e-mail.

McKesson, a Fortune 35 health care company, uses wireless Internet technologies in their warehouses and distribution centers to dramatically increase the effectiveness of their product delivery infrastructure and boost customer satisfaction. Each order is monitored wirelessly from start to finish, significantly reducing errors in shipping products from the warehouses to customers who need them.

Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives equipped all members of Congress with RIM BlackBerry devices to ensure that if wireline and cellular communication infrastructures are disrupted, each member of Congress will still be able to conduct business to keep the United States running. The robustness of RIM's domestic data transport infrastructure for data services makes this possible.

As more business professionals enter the mobile workforce, companies must take steps to make the wireless Internet a more effective enterprise tool. However, success in deploying this powerful tool requires that an organization understand the obstacles presented by this rapidly changing environment and devise ways to overcome them.

Overcoming Obstacles
Currently, a number of barriers prevent companies from utilizing the full potential of the wireless Internet to conduct business. While some of these obstacles are not in the immediate control of enterprises - such as connectivity and bandwidth issues - many are hurdles companies can overcome or mitigate on their own.

First, most wireless infrastructures implemented across enterprises today are immature. While they can present simple application access and rudimentary user interfaces for hardcore wireless users, most systems do not support the automatic delivery of business content, such as e-mail attachments and documents in corporate technology systems, to wireless devices. Access to this critical business information is arguably the most beneficial use of a wireless device for mobile workers.

In addition, the majority of enterprise applications, such as manufacturing resource planning (MRP), sales force automation (SFA), and customer relationship management (CRM), are not mobile-enabled. These applications have not yet been designed to provide wireless access to the processes and data represented within these systems. For instance, it's expensive to provide wireless access to information contained in MRP systems, which don't automatically provide this functionality. Often companies must purchase additional software modules and write custom code that provides wireless access.

Second, mobile workers in many organizations use a variety of wireless devices to access documents in diverse file formats, presenting a significant and rapidly changing barrier for companies trying to give mobile employees access to business content anytime, anywhere. For example, different employees in one company may use a Compaq iPAQ 3650, HP Jornada 540, or RIM BlackBerry 950 to access PDF, spreadsheet, and word processing files. Smartphones from manufacturers such as Kyocera, Handspring, and Nokia will expand the field of devices used to access enterprise content (see Figure 1).

Third, companies are faced with the challenge of creating an acceptable user experience for mobile workers in a wireless environment that is not as familiar or user-friendly as a desktop. Documents viewed on wireless devices will always look different than those on a desktop because devices have a much smaller screen. Yet user expectations are currently set by the performance and fidelity of desktop systems.

Finally, as with any data access technology, security must be of utmost concern to an organization implementing wireless solutions. Despite the well-publicized "WAP gap," many of the perceived wireless security risks are greater than the actual ones. However, organizations and their employees have real concerns that need to be addressed by a wireless deployment plan in order to get company-wide buy-in on a wireless strategy.

Conquering the Wireless Internet
There is no doubt that the obstacles to making the wireless Internet an effective business tool can seem overwhelming. However, if you break down these barriers piece by piece, it's easy to see ways to overcome them (see sidebar "Preparing for Wireless Internet Success").

Develop A Company-Wide Wireless Strategy
It's important for companies to develop a wireless strategy for their organizations to fully capitalize on the business benefits of the wireless Internet. Many organizations are finding themselves spending money on wireless devices for employees without having a company-wide wireless strategy in place. This is easy to understand when you consider that the price points of data-enabled phones and PDAs do not put those devices in well-regulated IT budgets, but rather in departmental expense budgets.

Before organizations embark on a new spending program for wireless technology, they need to first determine whether or not they have a business problem wireless technology can help solve, by asking important questions (see sidebar "Wireless ROI: What to Ask Yourself"), such as: Will wireless technology give us the competitive advantage we've been lacking? What mobile-enabled applications will increase the productivity of employees, save money, or generate revenue? What devices best fit the work styles of employees and allow access to all types of content? Will implementing a wireless infrastructure reap worthwhile return on investment?

Implement a Mature Wireless Infrastructure with Content Management Systems
While early wireless content- delivery applications, such as wireless gateways and wireless application servers, laid the foundation for wireless business communication, an enterprise content management system with a wireless architecture brings a new level of sophistication to this process.

Deploying an end-to-end content management system enables organizations to save business content in one repository, which serves as the storehouse for all company data. Organizations can provide mobile workers with a personalized point of access to this information by integrating a wireless portal interface with their content management solution.

Advanced content management systems also give companies a high degree of control over how content is contributed and stored in their networks. This capability ensures that documents have the best fidelity when they are published to wireless devices through the system.

Companies should also be aware that advanced content management systems are on track to include important device sensitivity and user profiling features. These functions, which are typically included in today's wireless development platforms, deliver a consistently rewarding user experience regardless of the device or access method of the user.

Access Content on Wireless Devices with Viewing and Conversion Technology
Content viewing and conversion technology ensures that mobile workers can access documents delivered to their wireless devices. This technology resides on a server or the device itself and enables users to seamlessly view files created in standard business applications without having to access the native application (see Figure 2).

For example, there are products on the market that automatically convert e-mail attachments in a variety of formats, such as word processing, spreadsheets and PDF files, to popular wireless formats, including WML, cHTML, and XHTML (see Figure 3). Attachments are then delivered in the particular formats a device natively supports, eliminating the need for an attachment's native application to reside on the device. This technology enables authors of critical business documents to create e-mail attachments using the applications they prefer, and their mobile co-workers to easily receive this information on a variety of wireless devices.

Create an Acceptable User Experience
When designing a wireless infrastructure, companies must make user satisfaction a priority. Many different kinds of wireless devices are available, and organizations must match the work styles of employees with the appropriate devices. In addition, companies must choose a wireless application suite and network configuration that best suits their needs. Pilot tests should be conducted to ensure that an acceptable user experience has been created and feedback from such field trials is rapidly incorporated back into the project.

Decrease Security Risks
The first thing companies must recognize when considering how to reduce security risks is that wireless devices are another access point for enterprise data and, consequently, must be supported by an IT department. Wireless networks have security holes IT departments must work to fill as much as possible. One step that companies can take is to segment their wireless networks, so only data and applications that need to be accessed remotely are available to wireless devices. Companies should not make themselves vulnerable by giving wireless users access to information they don't need.

Communication Medium of the Future
Even though many devices today are able to support a number of content management functions such as search and retrieval, workflow and access control of corporate repositories, few organizations are utilizing these capabilities due to obstacles they have yet to overcome.

Companies must take steps now to ensure they take advantage of the full business potential the wireless Internet represents. By deploying an enterprise content management system with a wireless architecture and utilizing wireless content access and viewing technology, many of those barriers can be conquered.

While an enterprise wireless deployment may be seen as a competitive advantage today, in 3-5 years, wireless Internet applications will be a competitive necessity. Don't be left behind.

More Stories By Scott Norder

Scott Norder is president of Stellent’s Software Components Division

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