Modernizing enterprise apps for the mobile world

IT shops are looking mostly to their existing software providers for an assist when extending enterprise apps to mobile -- and finding compelling ROI along the way

Mobile network apps and data.
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At SaskPower, an electric utility serving the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, the IT philosophy is leverage, buy or build -- in that order. So when SaskPower wanted to make its SAP applications available on mobile platforms, officials first looked inward to see if those systems could be extended out.

With baby boomers retiring and younger employees coming in, SaskPower finds that staffers' technology expectations are changing, says Sheldon Smith, director of technology innovation. Younger people, accustomed to getting an iPad and a charger and jumping right into the job, "don't like the idea of coming in and taking two weeks to learn a system," he says. "It made us realize the bar had been raised."

Hoping to create a consistent mobile experience across different devices for users of several SAP applications, SaskPower turned to SAP Fiori, an interface designed for several mainstay SAP applications, including Hana and the Business Suite. One of the great features of Fiori, says Smith, is that it detects which type of device a person is using and automatically adjusts itself, a concept known as responsive Web design. For instance, certain fields that can be seen on a PC aren't displayed on a mobile device because the device's screen is too small.

Now, if someone in a business unit asked for an SAP mobile app, IT wouldn't have to deploy a whole new system, because it's possible to add mobile components to existing back-end software, Smith says.

For example, he says, SaskPower's leadership team had complained about the complexity of using SAP to do everyday tasks like looking up vacation days. With Fiori, Smith's group was able to build an app called My Quotas, which was deployed about a year ago. Now, mobile device users can easily tap in to the back-end HR system to see what they have available for sick days, vacation days and earned time off.

"A very simple app pops up. It knows who you are, and shows you in real time how many days you have," Smith explains. "That app alone has probably been our most popular."

In an age where bring-your-own-device policies are becoming the rule rather than the exception, people expect to be able to do their jobs using mobile devices. As a result, more and more companies are becoming mobile-centric and making enterprise applications available on mobile devices, says Bill Rom, managing partner at 151 Advisors, a New York-based consulting firm.

"As there becomes a need for employees to gain access to different types of data, companies are looking at extending those applications or data sets from multiple apps and delivering those to the mobile devices first," he says. Mobile-centric apps often increase the productivity of employees, experts say.

Many mobile apps have dashboard-like interfaces so users can easily access data from multiple enterprise applications, like order-entry, HR and CRM systems. With such a system, a sales rep, for instance, could look at a customer profile before going into a call, Rom says.

Companies use internal development teams or third parties to add mobile components to enterprise apps, often with prebuilt mobile frameworks. Rom says there's strong demand for mobile app development, and the growth trend is expected to continue "as more and more companies recognize that there are benefits to extending just about everything out to the mobile device, because the mobile device is with the employee 24 hours a day."

Screen size a challenge

Yet tools like Fiori, Oracle's JD Edwards EnterpriseOne Mobile Framework and others used to build mobile extensions of enterprise software will often yield interfaces that look different from those on the desktop, Rom says. That's because the original versions of the systems were designed for larger screens than the ones on tablets or smartphones. Nonetheless, the modified version of an application "will display on a mobile device in a way that is very pleasing and functional, given there's less real estate," he says.

Van Baker, an analyst at Gartner, goes a step further. He says while codeless mobile app development platforms are frequently being used to easily build out a mobile front end for existing back-end systems, "we think that's a terrible idea. A lot of enterprise app vendors simply see mobile as another front end to their existing applications or another access point to their existing apps."

Instead, he says, "what you're going to want is the ability to pick three or four fields from multiple back ends and deliver that to a person on one screen so they have all the relevant information." This might include information on which open orders a customer has and their shipping status, or whether there are issues in the supply chain.

"To think there's a one-to-one relationship from the mobile app and the application on the back end is just the wrong way to think about it," Baker says. For a mobile app to be really good, it needs to be easy to interact with and must take content into consideration. "It needs to be economical with a small number of steps needed to complete a transaction," he says. Using contextually relevant information is the right way to build a mobile app -- not simply offering a front end to a CRM, supply chain or order system. "Unfortunately," Baker says, "that's the way a lot of enterprise platform vendors are thinking of mobile."

Baker says he has talked to many enterprise IT development teams that are being asked to extend applications such as expense management systems to smartphones. He says tools like that may offer convenience, but he points out that merely extending an app doesn't make an employee more efficient. "It just makes the apps more convenient or easier to access -- but you won't get the big bang for the buck," he explains. "You'll get good productivity gain if you design the app correctly to begin with."

Right now, Gartner estimates that just under 25% of enterprises are doing exclusive internal development of mobile apps while about 17% or 18% are outsourcing the work, and the rest are doing a mix of the two, according to Baker.

Not a lot of mobile apps are being built from scratch, and mobile app development is still in the very early stages, he says. The vast majority of enterprises are building 10 or fewer mobile apps, while between 25% and 30% have not built any, he says. "I think we'll see activity this year," he predicts. "The pressure on IT organizations to deliver mobile apps is huge. They're getting overwhelmed with requests and they're not responding quickly enough . . . so business units are going around them and contracting with third parties."

Extending ERP systems

Like SaskPower, many organizations that have added mobile components to existing apps are typically doing so to give users a front end to SAP systems.

Last year, when Allied Specialty Vehicles (ASV) wanted to give stockroom workers real-time inventory data, IT selected a mobile app development platform from Catavolt. Now, when workers are pulling items from a "pick list" -- a list of the parts needed for manufacturing a vehicle -- they scan item bar codes that originally came from Mapics, the company's mainframe-based ERP system.

The scanner is paired with an iPad that has Bluetooth, and the inventory transaction "occurs in real time in the system, so there's perpetual inventory," says Joshua Bradbury, IT project manager and systems administrator at Orlando-based ASV, which manufactures firetrucks, school buses, RVs and other vehicles. This lets workers see current inventory levels whenever they look in the system.

With the Catavolt app, workers can also make notes about missing parts and key in all inventory transactions to the Mapics system right on the iPad. Bradbury says ASV opted to extend the ERP system rather than build a new mobile app from scratch because of the ease of using Catavolt to enter the data into Mapics. Catavolt follows the same methodology for editing and validating transactions that the PC version of Mapics uses, he says, adding: "It's about simplicity."

Building a mobile app in this way is pretty straightforward and doesn't require a lot of testing, he says. Bradbury creates a data object in Catavolt, which brings up a list of data objects from the Mapics system, and he picks the one he wants -- purchase orders, for example -- and then sets up a view for how to display it on a mobile device. "It probably takes a full day or two to set it all up because once you extend it to Catavolt there's a little bit of coding in XML [required]," he says.

ASV employees have been pleased with the apps. "Users say it's a lot faster, more user-friendly," says Bradbury. "When they want to look up information, they don't have to walk across the warehouse to find a PC." With another feature of the app, an item inquiry option, when a user selects a part number he sees the item's stock status, purchase orders and manufacturing orders, plus the locations where it can be found, he says. Previously, when users performed inquiries on PCs, they had to open four windows to get the same information.

Bradbury has also used Catavolt for tools that enable workers to request time off and receive manager approvals via phones and tablets.

The mobile tools have proved invaluable because they save time, Bradbury says. In 2014, inventory transactions for 317,000 parts were being issued for pick lists at one plant. Entering one part into the system the traditional way took 20 seconds; with the Catavolt app, it takes two seconds. That saved a total of almost 73 24-hour days of data entry work, or 176 10-hour workdays, he says.

Bradbury has used Catavolt to build mobile extensions of some 20 applications, including a quality assurance tool, a defect entry system and a system for notifying workers when chassis arrive in parking lots.

Testing, testing

The popularity of mobile apps in everyday life spurred Houston-based Stewart & Stevenson to look at extending functionality from its Oracle JD Edwards ERP system to mobile devices.

Business analysts, managers and "casual users" are now testing apps that extend 23 JD Edwards modules for sales, supply chain, service and credit functions, says Paul Krueger, CIO at Stewart & Stevenson, a designer, manufacturer and provider of specialized equipment, parts and services for the oil and gas industry and other markets. The modules were built with the EnterpriseOne Mobile Framework, which makes it possible to take JD Edwards ERP tools and give them a responsive design to accommodate tablet or smartphone screens.

"The last thing you want is people having to do the pinch-and-expand movement to read information," Krueger says. JD Edwards has developed more than 70 out-of-the-box mobile apps that can be downloaded from Apple's App Store to extend existing ERP functionality and provide critical ERP information on demand, he says.

Once the test groups determine how well the mobile apps are working, IT will look at creating mobile-ready versions of existing apps for Stewart & Stevenson's service technicians. Krueger says the team will use EnterpriseOne or a third-party tool to help reduce development time.

Cost and time considerations led the company to decide to add mobile components to existing apps. "There is always a cost with developing and maintaining interfaces and interoperability," he explains. "We would rather the mobile development comes with the software supplier, so when we do an ERP upgrade, we automatically get an upgrade to the mobile apps without a lot of additional work. Wherever we can use what our key strategic partners have developed, we will opt for that."

That's not to say that mobile tools will be created for all job functions, Krueger notes, because certain types of heavy transactional work, such as accounts payable or accounts receivable, don't lend themselves to a mobile environment.

Krueger says he expects that a new field service orders app will yield a 25% to 30% reduction in the time between when a service call is received and when the customer is invoiced. With the mobile app, service technicians will be able to transmit information while they're still in the field, rather than having to wait until they return to the office.

SaskPower's Smith says the biggest return on investment will be a reduction in the number of clicks it takes employees to do what they have to do. "There are a lot of fields in SAP," he explains. SaskPower has so far launched three apps, which allow employees to enter the hours they work, get time sheets approved and view their pay stubs. The hours-worked app has reduced the number of clicks from 11 to four. Smith says about five more HR-oriented functions have been tapped as likely candidates for being ported to mobile.

Employees want information on demand, wherever they are; they "don't want to be tethered to a laptop or desktop," says Krueger. And citing another benefit of the mobile migration, he adds, "We're trying to work with people on a work/life balance."

This story, "Modernizing enterprise apps for the mobile world" was originally published by Computerworld.

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