What can CRM teach us about the future of mobile enterprise applications?

Mobile applications have evolved beyond email and CRM has often been next in line. What can mobilizing CRM teach us about mobilizing other enterprise applications?

If the history of mobile enterprise applications started with email, the next step in its evolution was CRM -- and mobile CRM's history is checkered at best.

Problems with end-user adoption, device management and attempts to mobilize too much of the application haunted early CRM deployments.

Yet as mobile smartphones and tablet computers become ubiquitous and end users clamor for business information delivered to them on the go, enterprises are left to piece together how they will answer those requests.

So, what can CRM's history with mobile teach us about mobilizing other enterprise applications?

"The first thing we've learned is that you can't take what was on the desktop and put it on a small screen," said Maribel Lopez, founder and CEO of Lopez Research, a San Francisco-based mobile computing consultancy. "While it sounds incredibly obvious, it's still a big piece of learning."

Early mobile CRM applications were simply miniaturized versions of the desktop application, which didn't work because people work differently on mobile devices.

Furthermore, early mobile CRM efforts often took an application-centric approach versus a business process-focused approach.

"The biggest change that we're getting in moving out of email and through CRM is, when you think of the application, it's about what do we need to know," Lopez said. "Sometimes all the data you need isn't in one application, it's a composite application. You may need to pull something out of, say, SAP or an Oracle system and present that."

For example, one frequent CRM scenario was one in which a salesman was on the road about to visit a client. While he could prepare contact and pipeline information via the mobile CRM application, oftentimes the customer also wanted to know the status of an existing order that was in the ERP system, something the salesman couldn't access.

What's more, mobile CRM suddenly had organizations staring at a stripped-down version of their processes.

"What you find is that while mobile seems to make sense, what you then realize is that a lot of your business processes are broken to begin with," Lopez said. "Mobile is an opportunity to look at that."

Mobile CRM isn't necessarily the ideal prototype for how to best deploy mobile applications, either. It may be one of the more mature types of mobile enterprise applications, but people are still confronting difficulties.

According to the SearchCRM.com 2010 Reader Challenges and Priorities Survey, mobile CRM remains a challenge for organizations. Half of respondents said that having the needed features/functions available on mobile devices was their top challenge with mobile CRM. That was also the No. 1 challenge listed by respondents on this survey last year. The second-biggest challenge listed was user training. Training appears to be an even bigger issue this year, according to survey respondents, surpassing security and device management concerns, which outranked it last year.

What do you think will be your greatest challenge with mobile CRM this year?

Some of these difficulties with mobile CRM should become easier now that the major application vendors are investing heavily in mobile platforms and development themselves, according to Paul Hamerman, vice president and research analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

"As the development tools are becoming more standardized, people can write an application that will run on multiple devices," he said. "Packaged apps are going to be much more capable."

For now, it is still email and calendaring that rule mobile enterprise applications. According to a survey from Forrester Research earlier this year, 89% of application users surveyed responded that they have implemented wireless email, expanded current implementations or are planning to implement it in the next 12 months. Calendaring and contacts showed similar levels of adoption at 74%. There's far less uptake in areas like emergency response (24%), sales force automation (21%), customer-facing mobile applications (19%) and field service applications (18%).

And, organizations are still handling most of their mobile needs themselves, according to the Forrester survey. Some business apps are purchased from app stores (27%) and as extensions to enterprise packages like CRM (24%), most development is done in-house (38%) or contracted to external developers (25%).

"Most CRM vendors have some sort of packaged mobile application," Hamerman said. "A lot of organizations have developed their own, particularly for field service, and a lot of stuff has been customized. The technology has evolved so quickly that a lot of applications that were developed were developed for specific platforms."

Therein lies another lesson from mobile CRM.

"Device OS is the biggest problem," Lopez said. "It's not just that it’s a pain to get all these apps on a different OS because you have to write for them, there's a notion of 'what does an iPhone app look like?' It's different from what a RIM application looks like. This notion of ‘how do I get the app on the device and how does it take advantage of specific device characteristics?’ pervades."

On the plus side, with employees buying their own mobile devices and learning how to use them, training should get easier. Therefore mobile applications need to present similar functionality as they move across mobile device platforms, Lopez warns.

If anything, mobile CRM has taught organizations to think of mobile applications differently.

"This year, people are really moving beyond just thinking about mobile," Lopez said. "They realize it’s not an add-on. They're thinking not just how to be mobile but beginning a dialogue of how to be mobile and how integrated that is with the business."

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