Jet-setting road warriors at The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. subsidiary Russell Investment Group often found themselves moving from taxi to airplane to taxi—wasting time that could have been spent taking care of business.
Like many enterprises, Russells IT team struggled at first to justify the costs of arming its mobile workers with wireless access to corporate data. Now the company is finding that mobile access is quickly paying off.
Russell, of Tacoma, Wash., provides investment products and services in more than 35 countries and has approximately 1,700 employees distributed among its offices in major financial capitals across the globe. The company manages more than $130 billion in assets in a variety of multi-manager funds and advises clients representing more than $1.8 trillion in revenues.
With so many workers in so many locations, it wasnt surprising to Russells IT group when interest in wireless access to e-mail and PIM (personal information manager) data originated with Russells highly mobile work force.
“About [two years] back, the requests started increasing for wireless capabilities for e-mail,” said Greg Nelson, senior technology consultant for Russell.
“As sales folks are moving from client to client, even though they have notebooks, its tough finding a place to hook [them] up,” Nelson said. “These folks typically go from the taxi to the plane to the client and back to the taxi. They often dont get to check e-mail until 11:00 at night. Getting pieces of information during the day they can respond to is huge.”
At that time, Russell had recently migrated to a Citrix Systems Inc. environment, so, Nelson said, the IT team had to find a single, mobile data platform that would work with the new infrastructure. After looking at various options, Russells IT team narrowed the field to three.
“We looked at [Research In Motion Ltd.s] BlackBerry, but our main concern was trying to keep from exponential growth in infrastructure, and we already had sync solutions for PDAs. We had a Web mail solution. We didnt want to build infrastructure for another piece of pie,” Nelson said.
“We looked at Good Technology [Inc.], which, at that point, was just mimicking RIM for a few handsets,” said Nelson. “We wanted flexibility on handhelds because we have employees globally, with folks in Sydney, Australia, and Europe that had different requirements for how they use handsets.”
Another key requirement for Russell was the ability to eventually support more than just mobile e-mail. “CRM [customer relationship management] is going through the second phase of maturation in our company, and there is a strong desire to get CRM out to folks on the road without them having to take out the laptop every time,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he initially had a hard time selling senior management on the need for a mobile data management system. “From the senior management perspective, it sounded like a nice to have, not a got to have,” he said.
But, after pilot testing Extended Systems Inc.s OneBridge Mobile Groupware solution, testers feedback revealed the value that wireless access to corporate information could bring to the company, said Nelson.
“One of our senior sales folks on the pilot was in [a] situation where you fly down in the morning for a meeting that day and then you fly back that night. Well, as he was about to fly back after the meeting, the client, who was an important client, put out an e-mail, and he was able to get ahold of the message and respond right before he got on plane.
Without the device, he would have got on plane, got home at 11:00 at night and not got to e-mail until 8:00 the next morning. He said to us, Getting that e-mail on the way into the plane was the difference between being anybodys sales rep and being a sales rep that was attentive to a clients needs,” said Nelson.
Russell is now using the Boise, Idaho, companys OneBridge Mobile Groupware to give 250 employees access to wireless e-mail, PIM data and, eventually, back-end corporate applications on handheld devices. Approximately 90 percent of those employees are using Palm Inc.s Treo 600 smart phones, and the other 10 percent are using miscellaneous cradle-fixed devices.
The move has not only increased productivity for Russells employees but it has also saved money on support and hardware in the process. “We wanted to integrate into our existing infrastructure wherever possible,” said Nelson. That infrastructure included Microsoft Corp. Exchange servers; multiple points of access; Citrix; notebooks, through VPN; Web mail through Microsoft Outlook; and OWA (Outlook Web Access). “A lot of our infrastructure is outsourced, so every server has a cost tied to it, on a monthly basis.”
The new system also requires less storage. “By going to OneBridge, rather than go from four servers to a minimum of six, we were able to consolidate it all down to two servers,” Nelson said.
The next step for Russell is to extend Sage Software Inc.s SalesLogix CRM application from the back end out to its mobile workers. Russell did an analysis with Extended Systems but decided to wait a year before making the move.
“We did an early assessment of what it might look like, and it hit a strong resonant chord in the business unit. But we werent ready internally to [take] the next step,” said Nelson. “There was a lot of work that had to happen on [the] back end and a lot of work that had to happen on the management side. This year, were actively looking at how to get it done.”
What the company has historically done “is to rush out with a technical solution, only to find out theres a human being behind that,” Nelson said. “Salespeople are focused on sales—their first goal is not to learn the greatest technology,” he added.
For now, however, the increased communication is paying off, said Nelson. “Our business is largely comprised of knowledge workers … so we have a huge quantity of corridor warriors running around from meeting to meeting,” he said. “As such, they historically read and respond to e-mail at the end of the day. So, youre weeding through a hundred e-mails at the end of the day, trying to figure out whats important.” With the new mobile system, employees can access e-mail virtually anywhere and deal with it the minute it is received. “This gives us a lot more response to e-mails throughout the day,” Nelson said.