I can't help thinking that I'm missing out somehow; nowadays it seemssupport staff. that every time I make an appointment with a colleague or business associate, I'm tapping the details into my laptop while they're strutting around, their tongue in the corner of their mouth, "pen" in hand, forming the strangely-shaped handwriting demanded by their latest "executive toy": the handheld computer.
Call me cynical but I've always been suspicious of technology that I believe may be for technology's sake - as a marketeer I appreciate the important role that early adopters play, it's just that I don't want to be one.
Yes, I know that this is a potentially huge market: Gartner Group's Dataquest estimated that 2.4 million handheld units shipped in 1997 - a 65% growth on 1996 - with 3Com PalmPilot and Hewlett-Packard taking the top two slots.
Yes, I can see the benefits of handhelds: they're smaller, cheaper, more portable and carry more street cred than your average laptop, but these are not my "hot buttons" and they won't improve my productivity. The end result is that I've regarded handheld computers as a solution looking for a real problem to tackle - until now that is.
So what's made me change my mind? Simply put - a common problem within a specific market that vendors can set their collective sights on and solve using handheld technology - supporting mobile users of the helpdesk.
Good news for the vendors and good news for the users.
The adoption of commercial helpdesk solutions is now widespread within most organisations and investment within the three key areas of people, process and technology is often extensive. With the correct balance, the support organisation can realistically achieve a "best practice" helpdesk with information flowing smoothly throughout not only the IT department, but also to other parts of the organisation. Great if you have a permanent network connection but what of the support engineers that are on the move?
How do they tap into information that is essential to their job?
In many organisations, the mobile support engineers starts the day by logging on to the helpdesk from a networked client and printing off a list of work orders that have been assigned to them. Once out in the field, they must log the new status of the problem, how (or if) it was resolved, any other relevant information, and the time taken to fix it.
They may even have to re-assign the problem to another engineer or department if necessary. Depending on the process, this may be a local paper record that the engineer maintains before re-entering it into the helpdesk system or they may phone the information through to the helpdesk directly.
Now if the field engineer could download and upload work orders or trouble tickets wherever they are, several benefits become apparent immediately:
- Reduction in the amount of paper used (this could be a considerable saving in many organisations),
- Elimination of trips to a helpdesk station or update calls to helpdesk staff thus improving productivity
- Ensure data integrity by synchronising the helpdesk with up to the minute data from the field.
- Provide the engineer in the field with access to key supplementary information, such as asset and change, to support fast problem identification and resolution.
For this application, the power and cost of a laptop cannot be justified (nor would most support engineers be happy to lug one around). Add to this a relatively poor battery life combined with its less than sturdy nature and it doesn't look like a strong candidate. However, a true mobile computing device such as a handheld could be ideal.
High profile companies such as American Express and Eli Lilly are evaluating the use of helpdesk client applications running on 3Com PalmComputing devices for their mobile support staff. Estimates in timesavings range from 30 minutes to two hours per engineer per day.
The picture is not entirely rosy as there are distinct barriers to the widespread deployment of handhelds within any organisation: lack of corporate standards on product choice, and the overloaded, overworked IT department means that supporting them is a challenge in its own right.
Gartner Group estimates that a laptop costs about 40% more than a standard PC to support but this can be offset by the longer hours that such users work by comparison to their non-mobile peers. It's unlikely this estimate is valid for handhelds as the majority of business users limit themselves to tracking contact names, phone numbers and schedules.
While my opinion is unchanged and I may still not be an advocate of the handheld for my personal use, the definable benefits and growing interest in its deployment for mobile support staff has convinced me that it has a place in the armoury of support tools.
This article was written by Andrew Dawson, head of EMEA corporate communications, Remedy Corporation.
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