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May - 2009 - issue > Technology
Enterprise Digital Assistants The 7th Sense
Ramesh Sundararaman
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
All characters in this article including Mr. Kam Dham, Mr. Vig Gyani, Ms. AajTech Consulting, and Ms. Past Group are fictional and any resemblance to anyone or anything is purely coincidental.

As I was quickly browsing through my notes from the last couple of meetings with the senior management team at Past Group of Hotels, I could not resist thinking about the comment made by their Chief Discount Officer, Mr. Kam Dham during our last meeting.

Just to introduce myself, my name is Vig Gyani and I am the CEO of AajTech Consulting – A leader in IT consulting business. Past Group of Hotels is a leading budget hotel chain with many branches across the country and it has recently hired my firm to recommend technology based solutions that would enhance their business performance and operations efficiency. During last week’s meeting, Mr. Dham commented about the tough economic conditions, the wafer-thin margin in hospitality business and the problems faced by him. However, he skirted my request for specific issues at Past Group – possibly because he did not want to share details that might offend his colleagues.
As engagement manager for this consulting assignment, I need to follow up with him, learn more about his problems, and determine how these could be addressed using cutting-edge technology and solutions.

The next day, I reached Mr. Dham’s office for the half an hour appointment I had secured with him. As I sat in the visitor’s lounge waiting for Mr. Dham, I could see hotel staff pensively looking at their desktops or talking animatedly over the house phones. I could also see a few of the staff, holding in their hands scribbling pads and papers, almost always in a hurry, walking from one end of the hotel to the other end. I understand from Mr. Dham’s secretary that he is a young, energetic individual who has recently joined Past Group with a vision of taking it to great heights in near future.
As I entered Mr. Dham’s office, even before I could introduce myself, he commented “I see dead people – People who are lifeless, stuck to their desks clinging on to their old desktops and wired phones, relying on stale information, unaware of happenings in real time, and unable to perform their duties effectively.” That remark of his was striking and reflected his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs. I decided to dig deeper and asked him, “Dead people, where do you see them”? He shot back, “Everywhere, here in my office as well as in very many firms that I know of, including our suppliers and customers.”

As we discussed more, I could understand that his vision is to have seamless and real time business-critical information exchange between the hotel’s various operational groups. To achieve this vision, he is looking for a cost efficient, robust, secure, and effective solution. Specifically, he wanted to know whether deployment of devices like the Enterprise Digital Assistants (EDAs), about which he had read in enterprise focused magazines, would be able to provide the compelling mix of functionality of a mobile phone, a desk-top phone, and the data processing capability of a computer.

EDAs! In my earlier consulting engagements, I have come across senior management looking out for PDAs without realizing that deployments made using such consumer grade devices would invariably fail over the long term. Typically, EDAs have:

An end-of-life (EOL) that is at least 7 years from the date of launch (as against consumer-grade PDAs that typically go EOL in 2 to 3 years with the PDA manufacturers requiring customers to either recycle or reinvest in new devices)

A comprehensive after-sales service and support for up to 5 years (as against a simple one year warranty for consumer devices)

Service and support for an additional 5 years after EOL, during which time there is full availability of all spares - down to a small nut or bolt (as against non-existent after-sales service for consumer devices that have gone end-of-life)

An useful shelf life of at least twelve years, enabled through the release of periodic software upgrades or updates (as against 3-5 years of useful shelf life for consumer devices)
Having realized this, Mr. Dham is convinced that PDAs would never match up to the EDAs and consequently, would be unable to fulfill his vision. I was impressed with his understanding of technology and his intention to deploy the most appropriate solution.

Over the next few days, I made several visits to the hotel to understand deeply the nature of working there and the activities that the staff undertakes. These visits and discussions helped me list down the various features that the EDA should support for it to offer seamless information exchange for his staff. These features include:

* World-class cell phones, with excellent voice quality
* Auto-focus, mega-pixel camera with user-controllable flash for excellent image capture
* Video recording capability
* Capable of holding lot of information, both in its internal memory and on a SD card (possibly up to 8GB)
* Full graphics (VGA) display, offering excellent resolution of captured images (e.g. capture and read-back a full A4 page such as check-in documents and visa papers with ease)
* Read one dimensional and two dimensional barcodes (e.g. identity cards and driver’s license)
* ‘Fast’ wireless transmission of captured data in real time

a. From inside the hotel – over WLAN (a/b/g), Bluetooth, IRDA, USB, RS232, PTT

b. From outside the hotel premises – not just over existing 2G EDGE/GPRS networks, but also for upcoming 3G UMTS/HSDPA networks

* Inbuilt GPS receiver with support for A-GPS, thereby enabling usage and offer of location based services
* Rugged devices (stress-tested for drops, tumbles, key presses, display taps, and swipes) that can be used under harsh, outdoor environment conditions (with ingress protection rating of at least IP54)

These discussions also helped me understand that there is one set of hotel staff who work on addressing issues within the hotel premises like the guest relations, hotel security, inventory tracking, and asset management and another set of staff that focus on activities outside the hotel premises like the sales force, outdoor catering, transportation, and event management. Consequently, it is imperative that there are multiple EDA SKUs and their variants that would allow the hotel staff to use the most appropriate device for their activities.

There should therefore be SKUs that have:

* Different form factors, allowing easy usage both inside and outside the four walls of the hotel
* Support for 1D or/and 2D barcode scanner
* Support for camera
* Support for Numeric or QWERTY keypad
* Support for WLAN or/and WWAN

Having consulted on multiple IT deployments across different enterprises, I also understand the various challenges an enterprise faces in terms of operating and on-going maintenance costs. The EDAs should not only be capable of offering the various features that Mr. Dham’s staff is looking for, but also have a lower ‘Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)’. By this, I mean:

* The devices should feature a common, consistent architecture, thereby ensuring ‘stability’, ‘on-time availability’ of products - thus avoiding any delay to customers in starting their operations

*The devices should feature a software development kit which enables ‘software application portability’, thereby enabling migration of existing applications to new, upcoming devices as well - thus avoiding unnecessary software porting expenses

* The devices should also have a remote management interface that enables locking of the device and erasing its contents – thus assuring ‘security’ of valuable, confidential data
* The vendor should offer comprehensive after-sales service – the kind of ‘reliability’ that avoids any disruption to customers’ business, ensures smooth continuation of their operations, and ultimately guarantees peace of mind.

As I started compiling my findings into an engagement report, I was confident that the enormous benefits that EDAs bring to the day-to-day operations of Past Group and its business would be apparent to Mr. Dham. The pain points and the expectations of Past Group are not only representative of the hospitality vertical, but also of other verticals like healthcare, retail, transportation, and logistics. The EDA could be the technology solution of choice across enterprises in various verticals – provided it could support vertical specific intelligence in the form of software applications. The EDA therefore needs to have an open, flexible, and robust software platform that would enable loading and unloading of vertical specific applications at customer site as and when required.

Having done my investigations and armed with a detailed plan, I met with Mr. Dham and his colleagues to put forth my recommendations. They were quite excited and decided to immediately start a pilot rollout at their facility. I came out of the meeting both satisfied with the outcome and heavy-hearted as to why other firms did not see the value that such technology solutions offer.

On my way back to my office, I decided that ‘I will bite the cookie’ and called The Enterprise Mobility Company to help facilitate adoption of mobility in my organization as well. I also decided to partner with their mobility experts and roll out mobility assessments and consulting engagements for the benefit of both our enterprises and the society at large.

Just then it dawned on me, “We can never see past the choices we don’t understand,” reminding me of Oracle from The Matrix. While we, humans, are gifted with the sixth sense that helps us in evaluating choices and taking appropriate decisions, our decisions tend to go wrong because of dated information, information asymmetry, and so on and this is where I believe EDAs help. In that sense, EDAs empower us and become our ‘seventh sense’.

The author is Director, Mobile Computing, Motorola Enterprise Mobility. He can be reached at Ram.Sun@motorola.com
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