Mobile Solutions: Don't Tie Yourself Down
I went to see my brother last week and he was showing me his nice new iPad mini. My brother's a youth worker employed by the local authority. He has a caseload and is field-based; carrying out one to one visits and writing reports on his various cases.
Since he is a mobile worker, the local authority (like many others) are flirting with mobile solutions. Taking a tentative dip into the fabled new way of working.
I was chatting to him a bit about what he could do on his iPad that was work-related and it basically boiled down to mobile email.
I've been working for IT companies for the last few years, so I’ve probably become a little blasé about the whole BYOD thing and using cutting edge technology on a daily basis, but mobile email seems neither revolutionary nor ambitious.
Just... well fine, nice, ok.
It’s certainly not even close to the joined up dream (ask me about convergence the next time you’ve got half an hour to spare) that our industry has been guilty of hyping in the past, but is now actually within reach for most forward-thinking organisations.
The problem is, the public sector is cash-strapped, risk-averse and bogged down by committee style decision making. It's the nature of the beast. I know, I worked for Social Services for 4 years and was also a teacher (very briefly).
I've also worked on many local authority projects in the last 6 years, it's very hard to get a commitment to a project that will genuinely change things. The public sector need to be accountable and need to control the pace of what they commit to with full diligence.
This tends to lead to piece by piece projects. Roll a little thing out first, assess it and decide what is next.
The thing is, bigger projects make a bigger difference so the ROI is better.
Schools have done it pretty well. They had a good deal of money ring-fenced for their management systems and that led to some good solutions being put in place. My mum is a teacher and, like my brother, she also has an iPad for work.
The difference is that there’s an ecosystem of mobile ready apps designed for schools that teachers can already access; albeit that many of these out-of-the-box solutions are no longer affordable as budgets are squeezed.
I was interested to read this article recently, all about how the Metropolitan police using iPad minis, updating their systems on the go:
My immediate thought was "Wow! Great!" Finally the public sector are starting to roll out full solutions. It's also a great piece of PR for a modern police force.
However, two words kept ringing in my ears: "Custom App". Sounds pricy!
However, that’s not the biggest problem I have with custom development. The issue for any organisation here is that you are tied to the developer and that means that the app has a shelf-life. It’s not future-proof.
Eventually one of the following will happen:
1. Someone decides that the cost for maintenance or ongoing development of the solution is too high and regardless of it being fit for purpose, cost-cutting takes priority and the solution is displaced.
2. The solution becomes unusable because of platform evolution.
3. The people that developed it stop being able to do so.
Whichever scenario, you end up back to square one, with frustrated users and the time-consuming process of specifying and sourcing a new solution.
Thankfully, there is an alternative.
I recently created a demo solution for a client in the private sector.
It's allows members of their team to carry out and record on-site surveys on an iPad. It’s built using a Nintex form that links and syncs back to a Microsoft SharePoint list when there’s an internet connection.
The data captured in SharePoint automatically updates a Word template to create an official document of each survey that’s completed.
It’s important to understand that I can’t write code, but with SharePoint and third party add-on solutions like Nintex I don’t need to.
Admittedly, there’s a degree of experience and expertise required to put together cost-effective solutions that fulfil specific business needs but there’s a huge advantage to be gained from using standard building blocks. Not to mention the reduced risk from having no bespoke coding and not being tied into development.
I showed my brother the solution last week and it was really easy for him to see how, with a few tweaks, he could use it during his assessment meetings.
In fact, it could easily be adapted for all sorts of different situations.
There are lots of scenarios where someone needs to go somewhere and report back a certain amount of information.
How about in a school to take down formal observation notes and automatically produce staff development plans. Or perhaps town planning could conduct surveys and create automatic reports.
Or collecting electronic witness statements and digital signatures at a crime scene to allow officers to spend more time out on the beat, not stuck in the station filling out paperwork or sat at a computer!
If the Met aren’t using SharePoint then they’re missing a trick. Anyone fancy telling them?
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