Optimising your Mobile Workforce

Making the right decisions when mobilising your workforce is not always straightforward thanks to a variety of preferences and constraints; here's what you need to consider!

From 'mobilisation' to 'optimisation'

The increased availability of mobile technology such as tablets and smartphones, plus improvements to connectivity through both Wi-Fi and 4G, has paved the way for vast increases in remote interactions across all of life, and although some sectors lag behind more than others, the world of business is no exception. However, whilst modern transport links enable us to travel longer distances in shorter times (in theory, at least!), in many senses, the mobile nature of employees in core roles hasn’t changed much over a great many years.  Sales reps still travel to visit customers, technicians still service on-site equipment, delivery drivers still transport goods, warehouse staff still tread the depot aisles…  So, whilst a lot is said about ‘workforce mobilisation’, predominantly the opportunity is for optimisation of the already-mobile workforce. 

There are two fundamental advantages for companies sporting a tech-mobile workforce. Firstly, moving to best-of-breed mobile solutions brings a high level of error-reduction, through process control and data validation. Secondly, mobile tech increases process efficiency by speeding the transfer of information from source to destination at the same time as removing duplication of data entry.

The knock-on effects of these two underlying gains are plentiful.  In some areas of healthcare, for example, the increased efficiencies can be the difference between life and death. Even in the traditional supply chain, benefits span everything from enhanced employee morale, through improved customer experience, to reduced staff costs, and accelerated cash collection, with plenty more besides. 

In line with Microsoft’s ‘mobile first, cloud first’ strategy, introduced by CEO Satya Nadella in 2014, Microsoft Dynamics NAV has shipped with a native tablet client since 2015 and a phone client since 2016. The Dynamics NAV web client, introduced way back in 2013, now facilitates access to Dynamics NAV from all manner of devices via the browser, and became the primary target for new ‘rich’ client functionality around 2017, with Microsoft adding new features to the web client that were not always introduced to the desktop client application.

For businesses looking to put Dynamics NAV / Dynamics 365 Business Central into the hands of employees who can benefit from accessing business data from any place/device, these are no-brainer options, and since the arrival of Dynamics 365 Business Central, the web client has certainly become the default.  Furthermore, utilising User Profiles and Personalisation, the full Dynamics NAV / Business Central experience can be scaled down to a more appropriate user experience for mobile workers. 

When it comes to our classic mobile workforces, however, generic options are not nearly so powerful as targeted mobile solutions, designed for specific purposes.  Crucially, too, in the UK, with intermittent loss of adequate phone coverage in the absence of Wi-Fi, Dynamics NAV / Business Central does not work offline, where best-of-breed mobile solutions can.

Outside the Dynamics NAV / Dynaics 365 Business Central world, software vendors offer mobile solutions that can be interfaced to your Microsoft Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, but since interface projects are typically complex, and since there are high calibre partner solutions that can be deployed directly to Dynamics NAV / Business Central it is usually these purpose-built partner solutions that we see providing the most rapid route to optimisation. 

A notable exception to typical interface projects is Microsoft Power Apps, which is described as, 'a service for building and using custom business apps that connect to your data and work across the web and mobile'. It’s still in its infancy in terms of connectivity with Dynamics NAV / Business Central, so currently requires a lot of technical time and know-how to accomplish much by way of an interfaced solution. Look out for our nHanced PowerApps, however, where we will be making the process of connecting Power Apps to Dynamics NAV / Business Central a much less technical exercise.

Where typical interfaced solutions tend to be relatively demanding in terms of both first implementation and on-going modifications, solutions from the likes of Anveo, MobileNAV, and Tasklet Factory are comparatively straightforward, since they are designed to work seamlessly with the Microsoft ERP. In terms of which of these three ISVs provide solutions for which mobile application areas, the Venn diagram below shows what’s what:

Venn Diagram for Optimising your Mobile Workforce

Whatever options you determine to be the worthy of investigation, making the right decision is down to a variety of preferences and constraints, and is not always straightforward… How many mobile worker roles (or ‘application areas’) need to be optimised? Is there a greater appetite for getting the ideal solution for each application area, or controlling costs by selecting one solution that can meet all needs? What is the intended target device or operating system, or are there multiple, and is this a preference or a requirement? What additional tech is needed – SIM cards, printers, card readers? How much customisation is required, and by whom, both for the initial project and for subsequent maintenance and further optimisation?  

We recommend outlining your core requirements, being clear about what is considered a must-have, what is highly-desirable, and what is nice-to-have, and then taking a look at the available options to determine the best fit.

Where Tasklet is the more mature Warehouse solution, MobileNAV has the advantage of ease of customisation as well as additional application areas. Both Anveo and MobileNAV are designed to enable customisation of functionality by trained users working, for the most part, with configuration screens within your system rather than needing to carry out programming (though some functionality still requires changes to the software itself). The solutions that these two products deliver out of the box are built on their own application frameworks. Hence, the exact same toolset is used, whether extending the functionality of pre-configured application areas or creating entirely new custom solutions from scratch.

Custom applications can be made for anything that has its data in your Dynamics NAV / Business Central system, with real world examples including things as diverse as proof of delivery apps with signature capture, CRM apps pushing periodic targets and capturing weekly activity reports, and contractor apps capturing expenses and managing fertiliser-spreading activities!...

So, whilst optimising the most common areas of warehouse, service, and sales, can get a clear head-start with packages available off-the-shelf, there are no limits to the transactional business processes that can gain an efficiency boost by optimising your mobile workforce.