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Geolocation and mobile BPM: A natural extension

Are you using geolocation as an extension of your mobile BPM strategy? Steve Weissman explores the value of geolocation for the business process.

For all that has been written about the impact of mobile devices on business process management (BPM), relatively little attention has been lavished on what, to me, is one of the more exciting aspects of the technology: geolocation.

This isn't to say that there's nothing to be found on the subject -- a quick Google search on the two terms going back just one month returns eight pages of (varying quality) stuff -- but it's worth taking a moment to specifically call out some of its more intriguing aspects.

Value, like politics, is local

Mobile BPM's business value cannot be overstated; giving people the ability to participate in processes from wherever they are can truly work efficiency magic. I've found this to be especially true in customer-facing applications, which makes it possible for customers to interact directly with your back-end systems. This has the dual effect of leaving them feeling empowered and freeing your people to make better use of their time and energy, rather than, say, having to figure out what mortgage interest rate somebody qualifies for.

But, as they say on TV, "just wait; there's more." Because mobile devices must constantly figure out which cell phone towers or Wi-Fi hotspots to connect through, they always have to know where they are. And this geolocation capability enables smartphones and tablets to plot your position on a map.

One pixel Mobile BPM: Business process should not
depend on devices

From a process perspective, this means that not only can you engage people regardless of where they are, but you can engage them on a truly local level in terms of the information and instructions you exchange with them. Among the value propositions this unlocks are the abilities to:

  • Push a retail coupon to a customer drawing near to a brick-and-mortar store -- e.g., by using a "beacon" that has already been tested by Macy's, GameStop and mall developer Simon Property Group, among others;
  • Direct someone researching auto loans to the closest bank branch -- e.g., "apply online; come in to sign;"
  • Report a crime-in-progress to the nearest law enforcement officers without having to know who or where they are;
  • Track the location or arrival time of a taxi, a package or even the raw materials needed for just-in-time manufacturing;
  • Verify the presence of key people or equipment on-site -- as at a construction site; and
  • Autoformat/convert forms-based information -- e.g., local currency, Celsius vs. Fahrenheit.

Become an intelligence agency

As you can see, the customer service angle is quite powerful. However, it represents just the tip of the iceberg, as the ability to match geodata and process metrics can directly facilitate a flavor of big data-driven business intelligence. Imagine, for instance, being able to:

  • Support antifraud investigations by analyzing credit card processing patterns, which compare reported POS locations to the whereabouts of a customer's registered cell phone at a given time;
  • Localize personalized marketing by sending a text or alert that says, "We see you're leaving the gym; how about an iced coffee?" and providing directions to the store; and
  • Optimize route planning for shipping and delivery to minimize transit time and fuel consumption caused by backtracking, traffic or construction.

Achieving these benefits is not simply a matter of opting people into your geotracking program, however. There are many attendant issues, and these run the gamut from ensuring folks trust you to protect and use their information appropriately, to building an application that is easy to use and perhaps even functional when not connected to the Internet. Consider these as a soup-starter:

  • Balance privacy vs. compliance vs. productivity. Alleviate concerns about "Big Brother"-style behavior, or people won't climb aboard your process in the first place. And guard against fines incurred due to accidental international data-handling violations, which can quickly outweigh any gains you make in improving the efficiency of processes that involve world travelers.
  • Create a user interface that makes information entry and display intuitive and simple, while still treading softly on battery power, screen size and resolution. If these criteria sound like they may work at cross-purposes, well, you're right -- they do.
  • Anticipate and accommodate your most likely use cases in terms of the degree and quality of your expected user connectivity. For instance, oil, gas and electric power plant builders often find themselves in the most remote of remote locations, so putting geodata at the center of an app for them -- even a native app that may otherwise still function offline -- may not make sense unless online access is established.
  • Ensure your back-end systems -- and analysts -- are geographic information system-enabled. Otherwise, you won't be able to do anything meaningful with all of that juicy geodata coming in. It's obvious, perhaps, but you'd be surprised by how late in the planning this often arises.

Remember, all that glitters is not gold

For all the "goodness" that is represented by leveraging geolocation in BPM applications, it's important to remember that it isn't necessary to go this route just because the function exists. The tendency among many organizations -- just as with people -- is to rush to adopt the latest and greatest technology, but the risk here is that doing so can end up being something of a forced fit.

My favorite example these days is the notion of using a smartwatch or other wearable device as a client in a process involving customer relationship management or sales force automation. In an announcement last summer, Salesforce wrote, "Checking a mobile phone or opening a laptop during a meeting can be a distraction. A quick update right from the wrist can provide the necessary information without losing focus." This may be true, but I'm not sure I want my sales reps to be sneaking peeks at anything during an important meeting.

Instead, I'd concentrate on some of the other applications I've mentioned -- and Salesforce also wrote about. The point is -- as is always the case -- that technology must add business value to both the process and the user if it is to be worth the investment. Extending your mobile BPM capability to take advantage of geolocation can do precisely this, and I expect there'll be an added avalanche of Google results on the subject before a whole lot longer.

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