Special report: tech trends moving the mobile workforce

For this annual report, we conducted a survey of our audience to see what technologies are currently in use, what are on the roadmap for the near future, which features/functionality you feel are most important in some of the main field mobility categories, and what your take is on the current field mobility trends. This year, we had more than 700 of you take our survey (Big thanks to those who participated!) and here we share the results. We've also incorporated some realworld anecdotes and advice from your peers from companies that are currently using these various technologies and reaping the benefits. (Look for their insight in the boxes at the bottom of each page — many of these companies have been featured in Field Technologies, so if you want to read their full story you can search them by company name at www.FieldTechnologiesOnline.com.) Before we dive into all of this great information, though, let me give you my take on the landscape for field mobility in 2014 based on the conversations I’m having with folks like you.

Mobile Mania Ensues
Believe it or not, not all companies are leveraging the tools we're talking about in this report — particularly mobility. Some have a level of automation (such as optimized scheduling) but just haven’t added a mobile component yet. Others are still straight-up pen and paper. Here’s the good news for those of you not yet using mobile — it's more sophisticated and affordable than ever before. And 2014 is the year many of you are planning to make that leap. Great timing — here's why. From the hardware side, you have a wide variety of options — no matter your price point. From a software perspective, there is a multitude of applications on the market. Whether you need a simple, checkbox based application for real-time visibility and updates or an advanced work order management system, it exists. And if IT resources are slim, or you just don’t want to take on the management of such a solution, cloud-based options are available and more popular than ever before.

Automation Goes A Step Further
Turning a paper-based process electronic is one thing, and it can be a great step if you haven’t taken it already. But many companies have — and for those companies, the opportunity is ripe to further automate and optimize field workers, assets, and service. A company can, for instance, look to tie GPS data into its mobile solution so that instead of a field technician needing to check a box that says “I’ve arrived on-site," the updates will be done automatically. Or, what about incorporating a techto-tech social collaboration component? Instead of a tech leaving a job without completing the work because he was stuck with an issue he wasn’t sure how to fix, he can quickly and easily communicate with a network of expertise to get help in real-time. Those are just a couple of examples, but the point is, if you’ve already automated, today's technologies provide the ability to automate much more.

The Benefits Of Field Technologies Expand
Leading companies are using the field technologies they've deployed, perhaps originally to gain efficiency, to gain far more advantages. For example, how can you tie your service processes in with sales to capitalize on — and even create — revenue opportunities? Or, how can you shift your organization from a reactive service model to a predictive one? In 2014, companies will continue to look for ways to wring more value from the technologies they're using, and you can do the same. Need some ideas? Take a look at the stories and data shared in this report — hopefully they spark some fruitful initiatives.

Field Mobility: The Mobile Workforce Productivity, Customer Service Multiplierfully they spark some fruitful initiatives

With today's mobile workforce exceeding one billion, the need for mobile solutions that enable real-time decision making and access to critical enterprise applications and databases is as acute as ever. Forward-looking organizations are turning this into a competitive advantage by leveraging advances in mobile technologies to drive operational efficiencies and achieve more intimate and engaging customer interactions. From field service and sales to delivery and distribution, these business-critical processes are often tied to the ability to access and act on real-time data using mobile solutions by remote mobile workers. Selecting the most appropriate mobile solution is challenging amid the rapid pace of change and innovation. And with the performance of these line-of-business workflows closely tied to the reliability and robustness of the mobile solutions supporting them, ensuring stability and sustainability is of utmost importance.

Today's customer is demanding. When it comes to service, their expectations are uncompromising with heightened levels of responsiveness and customer intimacy required. Beyond equipping field workers with more sophisticated mobile solutions, manufacturers from GE to GM are embedding an array of remote-sensing solutions within their products to enable even greater understanding of asset performance, while providing remote monitoring and support capabilities that do not require on-site visits from technicians. One trend among field service operations is clear: Field service organizations are putting a greater emphasis on improving customer satisfaction. The increases in workforce utilization and first-time fix that mobility provides are helping companies achieve these goals.

Field Mobile Device Requirements: Know Your Field Workers’ Environment

For field workers especially, the need for stable and reliable solutions that are designed with their needs in mind is critical. Assuming their requirements are equal to those of other mobile workers and can be satisfied with a “standardized” solution is a critical misconception that leads to the misapplication of technology. Therefore, one of the most important aspects when considering field mobility is the environment in which the mobile devices will be used. At the same time, mobile application design and performance are increasingly being driven by experiences with personal consumer mobile devices.

According to a recent survey we conducted among organizations supporting field line-of-business solutions, the environmental considerations you must evaluate span extreme temperature exposure, use of device with gloved hands or in wet conditions, and use of device in direct sunlight. Consider the following:

Temperature exposure.
Most consumer mobile devices have an operating temperature range of 32º to 95ºF (and a nonoperating range of -4ºF to 113ºF). Exceeding these temperature ranges will cause a device to shut down or cause substantial damage. For workers in hot climates, the temperature in a parked vehicle can quickly exceed those ranges, effectively making these devices inoperable and creating significant disruption to workflows.

Direct sunlight exposure.
This is one of the most common issues for field workers. Many field workers need to use their mobile devices in direct sunlight or ambient light conditions. Most consumer devices are ill-equipped to support this, as their capacitive touch displays are easily washed out. Although consumer devices are operable in these conditions, the user experience is substantially compromised.

Use of device in wet conditions and with gloved hands.
Using touch display with gloved hands or in wet or humid conditions is uneven at best with many consumer devices. According to our research, these factors impact approximately one in three organizations supporting field mobile applications.

The success of many field workers is closely tied to operational metrics such as "number of jobs completed" and "workforce utilitization" and, increasingly, more customer-centric metrics such as "SLA compliance" or "customer satisfaction and retention." Disruption of field processes can and does have significant consequences, with poorly performing field workers frequently described as an organization’s weakest link.

With growing expectations and demands for field workers' performance to achieve their "full potential," mobile technologies are increasingly integrated into workflows.

VDC's research shows workforce productivity benefits in excess of 40 percent and customer satisfaction improvements averaging 30 percent as a result of the adoption of well-designed mobile solutions.

However, failure of mobile devices in the field can have the opposite effect. According to VDC, the consequence of a mobile device's failure can result in an average loss of productivity of 128 minutes. This translates into not only significant increase of solution cost of ownership but can also erode customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Mobile Device Requirements: Balancing Consumer Look/Feel, Enterprise Support

The recent mobile technology advances we have witnessed are staggering, and many were innovations first made on consumer devices. As a result, the desire to leverage sophisticated consumer devices in the enterprise is very real. Moreover, trends like BYOD have radically changed how mobile devices enter the enterprise and how they are supported. However, there is a distinct difference between BYOD-driven mobility initiatives and those aligned with business-critical workflows, such as field service. Our research confirms that BYOD policies are increasingly pervasive — 35 percent of organizations currently support a formal BYOD program; another 35 percent are planning to introduce a BYOD program over the next two years. However, BYOD is typically viewed as a means to enhance employee collaboration and communication, with most organizations not looking to deploy sophisticated lineof-business or operational applications on employeeowned mobile devices.

Rather, in scenarios where the mobile device is central to supporting the enterprise workflow and the applications are tightly integrated with backend systems — such as among field service workers in manufacturing or delivery personnel in wholesale distribution and logistics — there's a critical need for a more centralized approach to mobile technology deployment that addresses both the needs of the ultimate end user and the IT support organization. While line-of-business decision makers lead many of these initiatives, IT organizations must approve and manage the mobile solutions.

Nevertheless, consumer mobile devices are leading the discussion when it comes to performance and user experience expectations. Conversely, for field workers, the de facto mobile device standard has long been a ruggedized device (handheld, tablet, notebook) running some flavor of Windows. The options available today have changed substantially with Android- and iOS-powered smartphones and tablets. Fundamentally, organizations want the best of both worlds: the ease of use and look and feel of a consumer device, coupled with the robustness and stability of an enterprise solution.

Here are some critical considerations for mobile device selection:

Protective cases help but do not address the full spectrum of device durability issues.
While protective cases do decrease failure caused by dropping, the device remains vulnerable to other issues such as exposure to extreme temperatures, dust, and vibration. In addition, the display is still vulnerable when dropped directly onto the corner of a hard surface.

Application ease-of-use is essential.
Too many enterprise mobility solutions have failed as a result of poorly designed applications. Application scope creep is a challenge, especially with smaller devices that have limited displays. Application design requires input from actual end users to be most effective.

Battery performance and management is a concern.
Greater than full-shift battery performance is a critical requirement for enterprise use cases. According to VDC’s research, more than seven in ten smartphone users frequently or occasionally experience batteries not lasting an entire shift. For devices that do not provide access to the battery, this often translates into the need to purchase additional backup devices.

Lifecycle management and sustainable application development are key enterprise needs.
While enterprises want to take advantage of the rapid pace of mobile and wireless innovation and do not want to get “locked” into a mobile platform, the rapid upgrade cycle of consumer technology cannot be realistically supported for more sophisticated enterprise mobility solutions. A regular cadence to upgrades and the assurance of longer support scenarios are a critical enterprise requirement and a key limitation of consumer devices.

Evaluate your need for enterprise-grade data capture.
For many field mobile applications and workflows, the ability to capture data efficiently and seamlessly is important. This often translates into the need for a solution with an enterprise-grade image capture/bar code reader. While third-party accessories that support industrial data capture and can be coupled with consumer devices exist, enterprises prefer an integrated solution. Avoiding the accessory cost and management complexities is considered a key benefit.

Consider the mobile OS mix, and remember the potential for fragmentation is more acute with consumer devices.
Windows OS has been the dominant platform for ruggedized devices. Conversely, on consumer devices, OSs with modern and intuitive interfaces are pervasive. The clear trend in the market is towards a multiOS environment. However, enterprises are risk averse and are looking to mitigate OS platform risk wherever possible. This means sustainability and lifecycle support when it comes to application development and design, seamless back-office integration capabilities, and the use of nonproprietary open tools in a highly scalable and reliable framework.

Support of unique enterprise functionality for specialized workflows.

From DEX requirements in DSD applications to serial port interfaces in asset management applications, I/O configurations for many enterprise applications can be far from common. One of the strong benefits of specialized enterprise mobile devices is their design flexibility to support unique interface requirements.

Mobile Development: Creating Sustainable Applications For Field Workers

In addition to the challenges of selecting the appropriate device for field applications, mobile application development challenges are equally extensive. From development economics and platform fragmentation to access to capable mobile software developers, enterprises are keen for solutions that enable efficient and agile development.

Among the most prominent challenges are:

Fragmentation of mobile development strategy and technology.
This spans both mobile application development and mobile OS platform fragmentation. Enterprises are building multiple mobile apps with partial strategies at best. Furthermore, constant mobile platform change adds further friction. There is no silver bullet when it comes to mobile application development. The options available — native, hybrid, or HTML5 — are all viable in given scenarios. Mobile developers want flexibility and openness in choices and see value in approaches that optimize time to value.

Management of large datasets and integration with multiple backend datasets.
Almost nine in ten developers said that their mobile enterprise applications occasionally or frequently support large datasets, making this a critical capability. Another requirement and potential development challenge lies in the integration with multiple backend datasets or applications. Complexities and challenges scale rapidly with the number of backend databases with which the application interfaces. According to our research, almost eight in ten developers indicated that their applications are tied to two or more backend datasets.

Offline support.
According to our research, 89 percent of developers identified offline support as a critical requirement. A synchronization strategy that incorporates incremental synchronization absolutely needs to be part of any enterprise mobile development initiative, especially for line-ofbusiness mobile applications. Developers identified “supporting offline capabilities" as the third most critical backend development challenge. You must plan for robustness against limited connectivity and low bandwidth scenarios.

Mobilizing existing business systems and processes.
Many mobile enterprise applications being developed lack any real connection to existing business processes and, thus, have limited value. Most enterprise applications are not mobile-enabled, and very few provide reliable APIs (application program interfaces) or services to build new mobile user interfaces.

Code reuse.
To address time to market and cost of development pressures, developers are looking to reuse existing code whenever possible. However, enterprise mobile applications tend to have stricter demands than consumer apps. Opportunities exist to reuse code for common tasks; however, customization is still required to meet specific application needs. Another challenge preventing code reuse is the accelerating pace of change among mobile platforms.

Field Mobility Investment Considerations
Although the value of well-designed field mobility solutions is well-documented, it represents a substantial investment. Especially in today's budget-constrained environment, the focus on cost containment is heightened. Clearly understanding and evaluating all factors that influence the success of a deployment, from environmental and technical factors to ease of use, intuitiveness, and sustainability of application design, will lead to a more successful investment and contribute to a higher ROI.


According to our survey respondents, the #1 benefit of the handheld/smartphone form factor is its portability. The form factor is truly mobile — it can be carried by field workers wherever they go. We've seen companies with basic needs have success mobilizing their field force with smartphones, while companies with more involved line-of-business applications in the field often require the characteristics of a handheld. You'll see examples below of each scenario.

The overarching message our survey delivered on this category is that handhelds and smartphones remain a very popular device choice. Forty-nine percent of the respondents are currently using the form factor, and at their next refresh 75 percent of survey participants said they will consider sticking with a handheld or smartphone. Forty percent plan to consider the tablet form factor, while only 12 percent will look into laptops (companies can select multiple device types).

Tablets continue to be a popular topic — and device to deploy. While only 15 percent of respondents are currently using tablets, 83 percent plan to stick with tablets at their next refresh. Companies currently using another form factor show a strong interest in tablets at their next refresh, too — 40 percent of companies currently using handhelds or smartphones plan to consider tablets at their next refresh, as will 55 percent of the companies currently using laptops.

In fact, 53 percent of our survey respondents say they think that eventually the tablet form factor will replace laptops in field mobility use cases. While that's a bit drastic, the popularity of tablets doesn't seem to be diminishing. Companies using tablets said they picked them based on the portability and versatility of the form factor, as well as their popularity among field technicians.


While the number of laptop deployments has certainly taken a dip as tablet popularity has skyrocketed (Just with this annual survey, 4 percent fewer respondents are using laptops this year.), laptops are still the form factor of choice for many mobile deployments. In fact, 33 percent of our survey respondents are currently using laptops in the field, with the top two factors in laptop selection being that it's a familiar form factor, and that they're being deployed for applications where a high volume of data entry is required (therefore a keyboard deemed necessary). While laptops certainly have their place in field mobility, it seems that the companies currently using them are unsure of their future device path. Seventyeight percent will consider laptops again at their next refresh, but 55 percent will also consider tablets and 31 percent handhelds.

Mobile Printing

While the use of mobile printers isn’t necessary in each and every field operation, those that leave any kind of paper behind, such as proof of delivery or service, invoice, ticket, etc., can experience great efficiency gains from replacing manually created items. Companies can even leverage the technology to speed billing cycles or increase revenue. For instance, the Sand Springs Police Department in Oklahoma — quoted below — increased revenue from citations by 65 percent with the adoption of an e-ticketing system enabled by handheld computers and mobile printers.

While only 18 percent of our survey respondents are currently using mobile printers in the field to experience such benefits, another 21 percent of the 82 percent not currently using them plan to deploy a mobile printing solution in the coming year.

Service Management Software

Forty-five percent of our survey respondents are currently using some sort of field service software — up 5 percent from our survey last year — and another 20 percent of those not currently using an automation software in the field plan to in 2014. The applications available are vast and varied — point being, there's undoubtedly a tool that could be helping you improve your business. According to Berg Insight, one category of service software that’s growing rapidly is the use of smartphonebased mobile workforce management. The firm expects the number of users in Europe and North America to reach nearly 2.5 million by 2018 (up from .8 million in 2012).

Fleet Management

The adoption of fleet management solutions is happening at a rapid pace. Thirty percent of our audience is currently using fleet management — up 4 percent from last year’s survey — and another 14 percent plan to deploy a solution in 2014. A recent report from Berg Insight illustrates the growth of fleet management usage, too — the firm states that the number of fleet management systems deployed in commercial vehicle fleets in North America is expected to reach 6.8 million by 2017 (up from 3.3 million in Q4 2012). Survey respondents leveraging fleet management say they deployed the solution to 1) improve driver safety/reduce liability, 2) increase driver productivity, and 3) reduce overall operating expenses. Their #1 feature sought in a solution? Ease of use, followed closely by the ability to customize and the ability to integrate with other applications.

Wireless Connectivity

To experience the full benefits of field mobility, it’s crucial to have your field workers communicating in real time. Seventy-two percent of our survey respondents are doing just that — but 72 percent of those communicating in realtime are experiencing issues with cellular connectivity. This is particularly problematic for the 29 percent of survey respondents who say their field crews' ability to communicate in real-time is crucial to their getting the job done. Another 66 percent say that the communication isn't crucial but very important — connectivity issues really slow down the field workers and impact productivity. Luckily, wireless networks continue to improve, and there are solutions available to help with issues in the meantime.

About Brother Mobile Solutions
Brother Mobile Solutions is a leading provider of mobile printing solutions for Public Safety applications. Brother’s full-size PocketJet and ultra-portable MPrint mobile printers have been used successfully by law enforcement officers, EMS personnel, and fire and rescue squads to print electronic citations, AMBER Alerts, accident and arrest reports, patient care reports, inspection certificates, and more. Brother Mobile Solutions, Inc., located in Broomfield, CO, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Brother International Corporation.

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