A mobile business world beckons
"There must be an app for that" is a phrase often used in jest when confronted by a hurdle. It's also possibly one of the most hated phrases of the new millennium for IT executives. This is less because of the expectation that a mobile app can solve a business challenge than the assumption that developing one is quick and easy.
The business benefits of digitising previously cumbersome, probably manual, processes are enormous and even the big system and ERP vendors have been quick to react to the move to mobile.
This is a double-edged sword, however. An improperly crafted strategy can cause as much of a headache as it's supposed to be solving, say industry experts.
"Organisations have to be very careful when developing apps," says Daniel Hall, VP of sales and marketing for Magic Software in South Africa.
The danger lies less in the technical details of creating the app than in how this ties in with a company's back-end systems and functions. It requires a clearly thought-out mobile strategy, but one that's not divorced from the organisation's business operations.
"The risk is that you isolate the mobile environment from the rest of the business processes that have already been well-established. The development of a mobile app should be part of the existing business process," he says.
This sentiment is echoed by developers and providers serving the corporate market, many of which ? like Magic Software ? have had to adapt to the reality of a mobile-centric world.
"We try to enable businesses to enforce business processes using a mobile app, which is a very powerful way for them to control what they get out of the app," says Yaron Assabi, CEO of Digital Solutions Group (DSG). "A lot of our apps talk to the principles of improving cash-flow, eliminating paper, and empowering people in the field to make business decisions."
"The pathway to mobile apps was paved by the need for business intelligence." Daniel Hall, VP of sales and marketing, Magic Software
He says this has proven invaluable in sectors such as the retail space, where sales force automation has been revolutionised by using carefully devised data collection forms to provide merchandisers with historical and live data. "It takes sales force automation to a new level, because it's not automating the sales process, it's automating the advice and ability to consult with the customer," says Assabi.
This level of functionality is where corporate apps come into their own, transcending the desire for a pretty interface and cool functions.
The next wave
Hall says the pathway to mobile apps was undoubtedly paved by the need for access to business intelligence by C-level executives. The relative ease with which this has been accomplished led to access to mobile data and apps filtering down to employees, although this has not yet translated into widespread collaboration and interaction on these platforms.
The next wave will definitely head in this direction, he suggests, with local companies in the supply chain industry probably being the first adopters.
Nick Bell, CEO of Business Intelligent, has witnessed this shift and is providing an increasing number of mobile solutions to large local corporations with extensive logistics and supply chain operations.
"Organisations have a real appetite to be better and can now get data in any form and at any time," he notes.
Taking data to the decision-making point has shifted the game, he adds, and "BI apps and mobile devices enable you to do that".
The ability to capture data from multiple sources like the Web and social media platforms, together with real-time data from staff interactions with customers, also holds tremendous power for organisations that can analyse and use this information. And the liberalisation of data is opening new opportunities for businesses to answer questions they weren't previously able to ask, says Bell.
While these solutions are slowly emerging in the local enterprise, they're doing so with a degree of measured optimism that's always going to be weighed against the return on investment.
Vendors on the ball
Apart from the big vendors starting to introduce mobile-focused interfaces, others provide template-based solutions or add-ons that simplify the process of producing a fully-functional mobile app.
"A lot of organisations are creating integration between the apps and provide it as a template through a hosted model," says Hall, which overcomes the need to integrate different back-end systems. This relatively easy access to a traditionally complex environment has also driven greater consideration for Web- and cloud-based services, he says.
Assabi promotes the merits of a native app, rather than templated or rapid application development environments, for processes that are a little more complex than simply accessing static information. Real-time sales force, CRM and BI services, specifically, require a robust environment that can handle the complexity and data flow, he suggests.
This comes at an initial development cost, which could be significant if a company needs to develop across the full range of mobile operating systems and versions, which Assabi says requires knowledge of up to 18 different coding languages.
It's clear that local vendors and developers are in a position to say to customers: "We've got an app for that," and it certainly seems there's a desire from business to tap into such services. The trick is going to be avoiding the mobile app graveyard that's already evident in the many consumer app stores.