The following post was previously published on John Ragsdale’s blog, Ragsdale’s Eye on Service, and is re-posted here with permission.

I had a great inquiry from a TSIA member today who is working on a mobile device strategy for their field service operation. They asked me what the key elements were to include in a mobile device strategy, and I came up with these six key decision points:

1. Do you own your field service staff, or are they outsourced?

If you own all your resources, then I would encourage getting creative with devices and applications that offer high usability and enable the best user experience. If a big portion of field agents are contracted, however, then you must have a mobile strategy that focuses more on web applications running on a smartphone browser. With outsourced workers, you can’t control what device they have, so you have to plan for the lowest common denominator — a browser-based thin client that can run on a mobile device (i.e., no Flash, few graphics, fast loading pages).

2. What should we mobilize first?

The biggest ROI improvements from field service mobility come from increased productivity due to more accurate schedule/dispatch, and improved first-visit fix due to better access to corporate knowledge, training videos, collaboration, etc. With this in mind, think through what corporate systems (knowledge bases, content management systems, online libraries of product and repair manuals, how-to videos, etc.) should be available via mobile device at a customer site, and prioritize developing mobile clients for these systems. On the scheduling/dispatch side, be sure you have the GPS aspect of your mobile strategy figured out up front, so you can make location-specific scheduling and routing decisions from Day 1.

3. What device should we use?

I’m seeing a move away from laptops for field service techs and toward more sophisticated mobile devices that can do everything a laptop can. The two best examples are the iPad and Intermec rugged devices. If your field service software provider has embraced the iPad, that can influence your choice. (Check out a demo of the sexiest iPad field service app available today, from ServiceMax.) I’ve talked to multiple companies buying 500 iPads for their field service techs, and if your field service vendor offers a specialized iPad app, it is definitely tempting to go in that direction. My alternate recommendation is to look at the Intermec CS40, a mobile device specifically designed for rugged environments. It is a very sophisticated handheld computer, running Windows, and it even has a built-in scanner. You can’t kill it — you can drop it, slam it, or kick it across the parking lot, it just keeps going. Intermec says their customers love the devices so much that when the company upgrades to newer devices after three years, the field techs refuse to part with their old Intermec.

4. Do we need online/offline capability?

In some field service environments, connectivity cannot be assumed. In the medical device industry, field techs make a lot of visits to medical centers, and connectivity is forbidden in many hospitals and medical equipment areas.  Other heavy machinery environments may be inside steel walls, or deep underground, making any connectivity impossible. If  this is a frequent issue for your field teams, I would also include a requirement in your mobile device strategy that your devices and mobile applications offer offline/online synching, so the techs can record what they need to record in offline mode as necessary, then synch the records when they step outside and reconnect. This feature is not yet available in all mobile field service applications or devices, so this requirement can help prune a long list to a short list pretty fast.

5. How do we ensure security?

Another key decision is about security. If a field tech loses a mobile device, you don’t want someone using the device to access corporate information, customer data, etc. Be sure whatever device you select has the option to do remote “wipes” of data, or you can buy software to enable this. Purpose-built devices like the Intermec CS40 have very strong security options. For consumer devices, you should work with your IT Security team to identify the right applications and procedures.

6. How do we support our mobile field techs?

As mobile devices and applications grow more sophisticated and complex, we have to figure out creative ways to support employees when they have problems with the devices. The remote control vendors, who allow support techs to remotely access a customer’s computer to check settings and fix problems, are now moving toward supporting mobile devices. In particular, Bomgar allows full remote control of BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices, and limited remote access for  iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, Android smartphone, and Android tablet devices. Your IT help desk should be involved in the mobile device strategy, so they can have a plan in place to keep your field employees online and productive.

The other thing I usually recommend including in any strategy for new technology is employee adoption, i.e., getting employees involved in the selection process as early as possible so they will be more likely to embrace the new technology and processes when they go live. But so far, I haven’t heard of a single company rolling out mobile devices for field service that faced any adoption problems — the field techs fight to get into the pilot group.

Related: Tablets and the Enterprise: The Windows/Android Debate.

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ABOUT John Ragsdale

Avatar photoJohn Ragsdale is vice president of technology and social research for the Technology Services Industry Association. He writes a regular blog, Eye on Service, for the TSIA.