Small-Screen Wonders

HR applications for mobile devices can help improve productivity. But what do you give up for the small screen?

Thursday, September 16, 2010
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One would think that a company like Ecolab, a global $6 billion provider of cleaning, sanitizing and food-safety products, would have completely automated its workforce-management processes some time ago. However, most of its employees spend their days on the road -- and that's played havoc with attempts at automation.

Most of the company's 26,000 employees -- spread throughout every U.S. state and more than 100 foreign locations -- work out of their vehicles. Many only see PCs in their offices a few times a week, at best. Even managers may not be able to access their PCs every day.  

As such, the St. Paul, Minn.-based company's systems for mobile workers were "pretty much manual," says Director of HR and Payroll Services Marla Haley.

Workers would call in or hand-deliver written time-and-attendance information to their managers, who would -- sometimes hours or even a day later -- enter the data into a spreadsheet. That data would eventually find its way to the corporate database.

The process was a millstone around the company's neck. "It was slow, error-prone, ripe for abuse and used up too much of managers' time," says Haley.

Ecolab's solution was to use Vortex's Mobile Employee Connect and Mobile Manager Connect to provide workers with direct access to the company's time-and-attendance database through an application on their BlackBerry smartphones, which have been the standard communications device for the company's mobile associates for a number of years. Managers can now get real-time access to that data either via their PCs or BlackBerrys.

In addition, workers requesting time off can now do so via their BlackBerry apps. The information is transmitted directly to the corporate database, which automatically determines the worker's eligibility for the leave time and, if the worker has accumulated the sufficient time, forwards the request to the manager.

This reduces what had been a five-to-six-step manual process -- which could take days -- to a one-step, fully automated process that's ready for the manager's OK within minutes.

Organizations are rapidly extending some of their business applications -- particularly HR applications -- to mobile devices in order to attack the last holdout of manual processes: the remote worker, says Ash Patel, global chief information officer at Aon Consulting in Chicago.  

"Many HR processes require multiple people acting on an event. Mobile applications can usually reach people much faster than PC applications," he says.

Dozens of HCM vendors, including Taleo, Kenexa, SuccessFactors and CyberShift, have released or are planning to release mobile versions of their flagship software products (see sidebar). A big driver of the mobile trend, say analysts, is the increasing functionality, safety and ubiquity of mobile devices such as the iPhone and BlackBerry.

"The things that people worried about in the past -- privacy and security -- can be easily solved using features available in virtually all mobile devices," says Mollie Lombardi, senior research analyst for human capital management products at the Aberdeen Group in Boston.

The need to make workforce management more efficient is a prime driver of the interest in mobile HR applications, says Bob Clements, a senior principal at Toronto-based Axsium who specializes in the HCM industry. "When you're on the shop floor, in a warehouse or on the road, and you need to know where your staff are and want the ability to shift people around, it's really inefficient to be forced to retreat to your office to do so," he says.

Another initial worry about mobile applications -- technophobic older workers would eschew them -- failed to materialize. Even analysts were pleasantly surprised. Says Clements, "When we started studying this market, we had expected younger workers would take to the technology immediately but that older ones would be resistant and need more encouragement and training. But, as it turned out, we found no generational divide."

Younger workers are much more likely than older ones to use smartphones and texting in their personal lives. But at work, there tend not to be differences in training and acceptance based on age.

"If workers can learn to use a point-of-sale system or an RFID reader, they can learn to use a well-designed mobile application," says Clements.

Scaling Down -- Intelligently

However, if the issue is not generational, it is functional: Mobile applications must be easy to use and optimized for the small-form factor. Vendors that develop mobile versions of their HR applications should limit text input, and rely as much as possible on radio buttons (a graphical user interface that lets users select one choice from a group of options) and check boxes instead, says Patel.

To accomplish this level of simplicity, mobile applications should only contain small subsets of the functionality of the full-blown PC client-based or Web-based programs. In other words, intelligent scaling down is always an essential part of any mobilization project.

"Don't try to replicate all, or even most, of the functions in the full-blown application," says Patel. "Mobile workers should get a very small piece of it, the minimum they need in order to do what they have to do when mobile." 

Yet, as long as organizations use simple input methods, the actual length of the process doesn't really matter. For example, Aon offers its clients a Global Assessment and Talent Engine that lets them deploy mobile pre-employment talent assessments. Although the test is long, each question appears on a separate screen and is answered using check boxes.

"The users' experience is no different than taking the test on a PC or at a kiosk, but they can do it sitting in the park on their lunch break," Patel says.

Other parts of the recruitment process may also be ripe for mobile applications that require minimal input. For example, some organizations -- including Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexo -- are creating mobile versions of their recruitment websites. The small-screen versions may list openings and allow potential candidates to express initial interest in a position and answer a few questions, such as whether they're willing to relocate.

"You can push the early steps in the recruitment process out to mobile devices," says Terry Terhark, CEO of The RightThing in Findlay, Ohio. The company, which provides recruitment-process outsourcing services, has recently partnered with mobile technology company mResource to optimize the career sites of its existing clients for mobile applications.

Which to Mobilize?

Adrian Schauer, president and CEO at Toronto-based Vortex, says companies deciding which functions to mobilize should use two criteria: processes that can benefit from timely data and those that are more effective when delivered to a manager who is not at an office.

For example, a good mobile application may provide real-time data on the number of people in each department. On the other hand, creating a schedule for the following week may more easily be accomplished on a PC.

"Most people find working at a PC more comfortable," he says. "Mobile apps are best for those who can't get to a PC," Schauer says.

Another HR process -- training -- may also be ripe for mobilization, so long as the primary functions are delivery of information rather than input. Anyone who's read a newspaper article or viewed a video on an iPhone knows doing so can be just as comfortable as on a PC -- for short periods of time, at least.

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"When you put a course on an iPhone, you make virtually no compromises compared to a PC," says David Koehn, senior manager of product strategy at Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Saba, which delivers training programs for the iPhone. (An Android version is in the works, Koehn says.)

And, while actually providing training via text-based smartphones such as the BlackBerry may be a bit more problematic, the devices can be used for some training management functions, such as the ability to view course listings and register for them. Saba is planning to release these features on text-based smartphones later this year.

Another way to determine which functions to push out to mobile devices is to look at the anticipated audience.

James Harvey, vice president of research and development at Dublin, Calif.-based Taleo, which is creating mobile versions of its recruiting applications, says organizations should do "persona analysis" to determine the exact functionality that each user needs.

"Recruiters, department managers and candidates all have different functions that have to be performed," he says. "If you identify those functions, you can create a lightweight application that provides what they need without adding extraneous baggage."

It's important to note that some mobile applications are more than stripped-down versions of the PC original.

"When people talk of putting applications on an iPhone or BlackBerry, they always think about how they can eliminate functions," says Carlin Wiegner, CEO of CubeTree, which was recently acquired by SuccessFactors. "But an equally important question is, 'What aspects of the mobile device can be even more effective for parts of the process than the desktop?' "

For example, he hopes that mobile applications will make increasing and creative use of location (GPS) capabilities. In addition, the cameras included with most smartphones may be used in a number of applications, including talent management. And of course, the alert feature can be a part of virtually any application in which users need to respond in short periods of time.

However, Wiegner urges companies to create, publish and enforce mobile-device privacy, security and fairness policies, which may contain rules governing personal use of the devices. And for fairness, if companies depend on users' own devices instead of providing them, managers who broadcast text messages to offer extra shifts, for example, should have alternative means -- such as IVR -- for workers who don't own mobile devices, he adds.

Mobile Everywhere

One nice thing about mobilization is that the cost can often be offset quickly by the increased efficiencies. The cost of projects varies greatly, depending on whether the company has to provide the mobile devices for its employees (usually the most expensive aspect of the project). Companies that already provide mobile devices or depend on employee-owned devices typically find projects relatively inexpensive to implement.

Still, the cost savings derived from mobilizing HR applications can be difficult to calculate. Ecolab's Haley expects ROI to be fairly rapid, because all associates at her company already have company-issued BlackBerrys. While she declines to give exact estimates so early in the game, she says, "Just the time managers save by not having to enter so much data will lower our costs."

Aberdeen's Lombardi says that eventually, mobile applications will have less to do with how remote the employees are and more to do with their interface of choice at any given time. People are already developing a taste for performing certain functions on their smartphones or iPads that they'd once done on their PCs, she adds.

"I've seen many people sitting at their desk computers but checking their e-mail or reading articles on their iPhones. As mobile applications become more common, I expect to see much more of this."

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