EXECUTIVE FORUM, BOARD OF TRADE
TORONTO. APRIL 22. 1993
This talk might better be called “AFTER THE HONEYMOON”. In fact, that is exactly the title I gave to a recent paper in the University of Western Ontario – Business Quarterly. Canada has had a love affair with mobile telephones.
We all know the fantastic growth rate to over a million such units in the country in only about 7 years.
The forecasts are even more dazzling with the expectation of 3 or even 4 million units by the year 2000 when about 20% of our adult population will have some form of wireless connection.
Another startling fact is that this growth rate has continued right through the recent recession. Although people are somewhat more cautious about how much they use their phones, the net acquisition rate has actually been increasing. Cantel’s net new sales set an all time record last year.
Yet, as managers we have to ask if the use of wireless technology is really improving the effectiveness of our businesses, or just our personal efficiency.
This reminds me of the question often raised during my days in the computer industry where senior company executives began to ask if computerization was merely doing the same old job faster, or were people really rethinking new opportunities opened up by new technology.
We all use the catch phrases about being free from having to be where there is a wire coming from out of the wall in order to be in touch, or the oft repeated phrase “we can now call people, not places”. But are we willing to re-engineer our businesses to make the best use of this new freedom?
First to understand the possibilities, we have to understand what the new mobile technology really is. It is clearly not just cellular. It is any form of over-the-air transmission of voice, data, graphic or even video information that truly provides the freedom from the office that we hear so much about.
Sometimes even simple devices provide an amazing degree of freedom. For many applications a pager is still the answer. Cantel started into this business about 2V2 years ago and is already the second largest supplier of pagers in Canada with about 100,000 units in service. Obviously, people often need to know someone is trying to reach them, but may not be able to or be willing to take an actual phone call, e.g. they are in a meeting, or if they are in the roofing business – hanging from an eavestrough. Often these units are used in conjunction with a cellular phone.
For many applications, pure data is the answer. An example would be the Rogers Cable trucks that are all equipped with mobile data units enabling them to call up the current information on a service location, report the repairs or modifications made, and the pick up the information for the next call.
With the advent of mobile fax machines, we can now have all the convenience of the ubiquitous fax anywhere we happen to be.
Modems have given the same flexibility to our PC’s. This is becoming a boon for news reporters who can key a story directly at a remote site and have it transmitted to the photo composition machine causing almost instant news to the reader.
We have all heard of the new PDA’s, or Personal Digital Assistant’s, many of which allow handwritten data or images to be transmitted over-the-air.
With digital compression techniques being developed for full-motion video, this too will be available for mobile use in the near future.
Tying all of the above together is the move to digitize all forms of over-the-air or wired communication. There is now no essential difference to any of the above transmissions. Only the quantity of data, i.e. the number of bits and the speed of transmission, differentiate the information.
In a word, one can now access what ever one needs either over a hard wire, or, through the air and can reply to it almost anywhere that people want to travel.
With recently announced developments in satellite transmission, worldwide two-way paging and ultimately voice-transmission from hand-held units will be quite possible.
This is the Wireless Future, but much of the capability is available now.
Are we as managers of businesses ready to take advantage of this?
I maintain that like almost any early Information Technology, we are still using mobile communications in very traditional ways. We are doing what we could do on an office phone, but simply doing it more often. Obviously, this is more efficient. We can now drive and talk. But we may not really be making our business more effective. Even though I am in the business, I sometimes wonder about the utility of many calls that are made.
Mobility should become part of our new business strategy. In the current highly competitive and global business climate, it is reasonable to assume that at any time many of an organization’s best people will be in the air, on a highway, or in a foreign country. Without comprehensive mobile communications, we are often losing the best input we could get on very immediate problems.
Bill Etherington, of IBM, reminded me the other day that we used to think of business strategy as a chess game in which you carefully planned out all future moves. Now businesses operate more like a video game, where you either zap or are zapped in real time.
This means that the traditional approach of holding a face-to-face meeting or sometimes even a video conference call to get input on a problem that needs an immediate solution may not be feasible. However, a mobile conference call on the newly secure encrypted digital cellular telephone technology could likely answer the need very rapidly.
Gone are the days when we use to ask, “where is she?”. Now we only need to now, “where can she be reached?”.
In these days of the emphasis on customer service and “walking the talk”, we all say we need to spend more time with our customers, or our staff, or out in the plants. Yet, this is often at odds with the need to have our most valuable people able to be in touch, while they are in the field where they belong.
All this does not mean that an individual in the field needs to be interrupted at any moment. Cellular phones now often have pagers built into them. Further, voicemail is revolutionizing business almost as much as the fax. Often all one needs to do is leave a voicemail for someone who can pick it up as soon as they are out of their meeting and give their input without necessarily talking directly to a calling party.
It is not unusual for me to have perhaps a dozen voicemail messages, but I can clear these off quickly from an airport lounge, or even from the taxi going out to the airport. I have to admit that I now get almost irate when I get a live voice on the other end of the line, as often I just want to leave a voice message. When a live voice answers, I almost wait for the tone!
So how can we design business processes to take advantage of this new capability. Many businesses have, for example:
• At IBM in Toronto almost 1,000 of the 6,000 employees had no offices. They are sales or service personnel who work out of their cars. When office space is required, there are only a limited number of desks, which people can use on a temporary basis. With real estate being a major component of operating costs, even at today’s reduced rates, savings are very real.
• One stock broker used to have a 7:30 a.m. update on the market requiring everyone to be in the office. Now, a conference call is placed to mobile phones on GO trains or in cars on the Gardiner providing the same information so that people are updated by the time they arrive.
• Pitney Bowes has reoriented its entire service organization to operate with mobile data, so they rarely have to come back to the office.
• Federal Express has used mobile data to keep track of each parcel or letter
no matter where it may be. The courier simply scans the data on the label
and then with a simple key entry, indicates that the parcel has been
delivered to the airport, has been picked up at the other destination,
delivered to the office or where ever. This is an example of a whole
business being built around mobility.
But think of what can happen with credit card readers in taxis or repair trucks, or what could happen to improve the capability of a nurse in rural Ontario, who using a laptop could call up a patient’s medical history, provide treatment and update that history from where ever the location is.
Think of the convenience of having your own electronic schedular, updated by your secretary (if you still have a secretary) over-the-air whenever a new appointment is made.
But all this fades into the background when one looks at the possibilities opened by combining mobile communications with the new ability to build intelligence into virtually anything. We are all aware of the incredible micro-miniaturization that puts the intelligence of what used to be huge computers into automobiles or other common devices. But we have not really exploited this in terms of building new industries around these possibilities.
It is now possible to add as much intelligence as you want to any inanimate object. For example, you could have an intelligent lawn watering system that would measure the needs of the soil and only turn on the sprinkler system when required. Of course, it would be handy not to have this happen while you were walking across the lawn. Therefore, a simple personal transmitter would advise the system to shut-off or not turn-on when you are within range.
One could just as easily build an intelligent chair that would adjust to your particular needs in terms of height or angle of the back, or it might even roll back when you stand up. Again, a personal transmission would instruct the chair what to do.
Or like Star Trek, one could build automatic doors that would open when you approach, but not when the postman or a neighbour’s dog approaches.
Think of what this could mean to a failing door manufacturer in western Ontario. This could open up a whole new range of products, produce new jobs and create new wealth.
In summary, the new digital mobile transmission capability combined with micro miniaturized intelligence gives us an opportunity to rethink the types of businesses that we are in and the management structure we have for our current or new business opportunities.
As noted in the April 5th, Business Week. AT&T market researchers about a decade ago predicted that by the end of the century there would be about 900 thousand mobile phones in use in the U.S. With the millennium still 7 years away, that number has been exceeded 12 times over. Given the possibilities and the imagination that I know that you as managers will apply to this new capability, I will bet that my projection of several million mobile communications devices in Canada by the year 2000 could easily be just as far short of the mark.