Level 3 Communications just gave iPads to its 1,300 North American salespeople and sales engineers. IT didn't take away their laptops, but it did load the iPads with software to do all the most important things in a salesperson's life: offer price quotes, build and make presentations, send email, look up customer records, check products.
Level 3's sense of urgency is a reminder of just how fast tablets are moving into mobile workers' lives. 2011 was the year of pilot tests. 2012 is the year companies will roll out iPads by the thousands to entire sales and service teams, packing them with purpose-built business applications, not just generic email, browsers, and off-the-shelf productivity apps.
Level 3's service-oriented architecture lets its iPad app call on a number of back-end systems--from Salesforce .com's cloud-based CRM app to Level 3's legacy software for tasks like generating price quotes. Nick Taylor, senior VP of infrastructure and strategy, likens putting legacy apps onto an iPad to putting a Model T on a trailer so it can go 70 miles an hour down today's highways. The SOA approach provides the trailer.
Level 3, which sells telecom and network services, provides iPads with cellular connections so salespeople are always connected, but much of the app also works offline. People can create presentations using standard product content that resides on the device, but price quotes require a connection. Level 3's IT organization did have to include a VPN connection for a sliver of functionality that doesn't work in the SOA model. (It's working to get rid of that.) For security, IT can do remote wipe and disable using AirWatch mobile device management software.
The app's Google Maps capability works with the GPS on the device and customer data to let a salesperson stand by a building and check if Level 3 has customers there.
Level 3 also is trying out Salesforce's Chatter collaboration app on the tablets. Chatter is modeled on Facebook to try to get employees to share information and ask one another questions the way they do on social networks. In Salesforce's vision, salespeople might share customer reactions to a new offering, ask for tips on selling a certain product, or track activity like completed sales with automated alerts from the Salesforce CRM system.
Taylor thinks collaboration via Chatter fits with how people will use a tablet. Using the iPad's instant-on capability, salespeople can do quick checks between meetings, at an airport, or in a taxi. "They find themselves with these seven-minute chunks of time that you really can't do much with, and they're online and they're collaborating," he says.
Might some Level 3 salespeople find watching Netflix and playing Air Penguin more appealing on this new device than using the sales app? For starters, they're allowed to do those things on it. But the carrier's IT team will use Apptio management software to record what's being used on the device and what it costs to supply and connect it. Each salesperson and his or her manager will get a dashboard-like report of that activity, so with such transparency, everyone will "act like adults," Taylor insists.
Level 3 will also track data from its mobile carriers on usage and performance. But spotting any misuse of the iPads is far from the only, or best, reason to collect such data. Taylor expects to "ruthlessly measure" device usage. Is a group of salespeople avoiding a particular app or extensively using a third-party app that no one else is? That's a clue that something isn't working right, or that the group has discovered a tool everyone else needs. "It may help us shape the future of this application," Taylor says.
Level 3 built its iPad app in about a year, starting right after executives stood up at a sales meeting and committed to giving everyone tablets. The company didn't have the skills in-house a year ago to build a mobile app like this one, so it did a mix of hiring and training to build that capability, Taylor says. Many companies still reluctant to hire are hinging their mobile strategy on partners, but if a company's going to have its sales staff depend on iPads and wants to constantly update its app with new features, IT must have those chops in-house.
What's next for Level 3's iPad app? Taylor doesn't pretend to know. "Enterprise IT is dead," he likes to say--meaning IT needs to take the consumer tools people like to use, watch and learn how people work best, and then provide systems that fit. He's convinced there's something important and different in how efficiently people interact with the tablets' interface, and that "we've only scratched the surface of using that."
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