With the proliferation of smartphones, tablet computers, and other mobile computing devices—and the associated increase in applications designed for them—the obvious question is when users of enterprise solutions including enterprise resource planning (ERP) will be able to access company-wide solutions from their mobile devices in meaningful ways.
In mid-2011, as IFS prepared for the release of IFS Touch Apps, its mobile ERP initiative, IFS North America conducted a study among executives at middle-market-to-large manufacturers to better understand their interest in and the nature of demand for mobile device access to enterprise applications. The study encompassed more than 200 executives, all of whom reported involvement in enterprise software selection at manufacturing companies with greater than $100 million (USD) in revenue. The results are indicative of the current state of mobile ERP in middle-market industrial companies.
The study delved into a number of topics related to mobile ERP, including the degree to which respondents could currently access enterprise technology from a mobile device, the types of mobile applications and interfaces they were most interested in and the degree to which mobile ERP will change the way we work.
Among the key findings:
- Manufacturing professionals view the mobile interface as an important consideration in enterprise software selection.
- Few respondents currently rate access to enterprise software from their mobile device highly, and many have no access today.
- As expected, the mobile interface is more important to respondents who regularly work during personal time or away from an office location than to those who work primarily during business hours in an office setting.
- A sizable majority of respondents said that the mobile interface is either as important as other considerations or the most important consideration in ERP selection.
Mobile ERP: The Current Situation
A number of the findings that address the current state of affairs for mobile ERP should come as no surprise to those close to the industry. Historically, mobile devices used for business purposes primarily supported e-mail and other forms of messaging, with the BlackBerry enjoying significant market share among business users. Increasingly, smartphones are becoming more important to ERP vendors as market share is absorbed by the iPhone and Android platforms (see figure 1). More than half of respondents said that the BlackBerry was the mobile device currently used, including younger professionals who likely have an iPhone or other mobile device for personal use but rely on a BlackBerry for business (see figure 2), but enough indicated that they expected to replace their Blackberry with an iPhone to give iPhone the projected lead in a year or two.
This would indicate that the iPhone and Android platforms must receive top priority among enterprise software vendors like IFS. It also means that companies involved in software selections ought to reconcile their planned mobile device purchases with the mobile interfaces of their ERP vendors.
Figure 1. The iPhone is poised to take the lead from BlackBerry as the mobile device from which enterprise software is accessed. (Courtesy of IFS North America)
Figure 2. Even among younger professionals, BlackBerry currently dominates the mobile market for business use. (Courtesy of IFS North America)
Regardless of the mobile platform people are using, very few have more than minimal access to their enterprise software environment from a mobile phone (see figure 3). The chief reason for this is that mobile interfaces are only now making inroads as a supported client device for enterprise computing, in part because enterprise software vendors have only recently begun offering them in earnest and in part because these interfaces often require the most current version of an enterprise suite, and many users may be using software that is one or more version out of date.
Importance of Mobile Access to ERP in Future Selections
While current ability to access enterprise software from mobile devices like smartphones is limited, this ability will be a top priority in software selections in the coming years, and a focus area of development for software vendors.
The vast majority of respondents—68%—indicated that during software selection, the mobile interface for an enterprise application was as important as other features. A surprising 13% said it was the most important consideration in a selection process.
Meanwhile, when asked what mobile functionality was important to them, a small handful of tasks were rated more highly than others. One thing that these tasks have in common is that they all deliver real-time data, facilitate time-sensitive processes, and allow the user to actively participate in business processes using the mobile device. Top-rated functions include
- approvals and authorizations,
- notifications and alerts,
- contact management,
- business intelligence, and
- the ability to take photos and attach them to records.
Figure 3. The horizontal axis indicates the average rating for each software type on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 = “Poor, little to no support for mobile devices” and 5 = “Excellent, can do anything I need to do from a mobile device.” Among users who can access their ERP system through a mobile device, very few rate this access as excellent. Meanwhile, significant portions of users reported no mobile access to a variety of types of enterprise software solutions.
The ability to complete these time-sensitive functions are particularly important to the 80% of respondents who say they need access “on the move”—that is, in locations where they cannot connect with or effectively use a laptop. For these people, the ability to be productive on mass transit, in airports, during quick breaks between meetings, and in other challenging settings may be significant (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. The vast majority of respondents require access to ERP while "on the move" or in situations where a laptop is impractical. (Courtesy of IFS North America)
While mobile ERP may allow for some productive work in these situations (e.g., waiting to board an airplane, or waiting for lunch in a deli or in a cab between appointments), it also has the potential to expand the hours of work into time normally spent on personal tasks. Respondents were asked to what extent they would be more prone to working on personal time once they could access their enterprise systems using their mobile device. More than 60% indicated they would in fact work more on personal time—but among those, the majority said that mobile access would make work less invasive than if they needed to be on a laptop (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. The availability of ERP functionality on a device that can be carried in a pocket may in fact lead to more work on personal time if these survey results are any indication. (Courtesy of IFS North America)
Mobile access is going to be of increasing importance in the market for enterprise software of all types. Study data suggest that the optimal mobile strategy will address a handful of key functional priorities, as the vast majority of different options for mobile ERP functionality proved to be of very little interest in this study. Furthermore, an interface that is usable with a variety of versions of an enterprise software product or suite will make faster inroads because the most recent version will not be required in order to gain mobile access.
As more users gain access to their enterprise software environment through their mobile devices, the way we work, where we work, and when we work may change. Some tasks and roles within a company will still work on a more traditional device. While the compact screens of smartphones and tablets are improving, work performed on large quantities of data will still require a full-size screens or even augmented, expanded screens, as fewer people make decisions on larger and larger quantities of data. But for executive-level functions, this study suggests that the mobile has tremendous potential.
About the Author
Rick Veague is Chief Technology Officer with IFS North America, and is based in the Itasca, Illinois (US). headquarters. In this role, Veague provides direction for IFS’ use of service-oriented architecture (SOA) and works with IFS’ leading customers to leverage SOA for state-of-the-art ERP.