IBM i Apps on iPads Energize BakerCorp
June 12, 2012 Dan Burger
Go mobile or go home. It’s almost come to that. If the face of your company, the folks who interact with customers and prospects, can’t access real-time information on a smartphone or a tablet, they aren’t dressed for success and your company loses a competitive edge. BakerCorp saw this situation unfolding and, to its credit, did something about it. BakerCop’s ERP system is green-screen based and the person in charge of mobilizing some key applications knew almost nothing about the software or the system that ran it.
Sounds like trouble, but it’s not. Early in the process of figuring out what needed to be done, Denise Brunner, telecom and wireless solutions manager at BakerCorp, sought input from individuals and teams with a variety of Baker business backgrounds. The lead programmer on the IBM iSeries team (the machine in use is an iSeries, not a Power Systems, i5, or AS/400) invited Brunner to attend a meeting that had been arranged with looksoftware, an application tool vendor with deep knowledge of the IBM midrange systems. The project began to take shape from there.
The project priority was to provide field personnel secure access to the ERP system via tablet devices, which would replace the laptops that were formerly used. A survey of the team in the field identified a top 10 list of needed information, which included data such as equipment inventory, availability, equipment history, customer information, and bill payment history. Phase one was a roll out to 40 users, an adequately sized group of test pilots from which efficiencies and deficiencies could be determined.
BakerCorp’s business is renting industrial equipment such as tanks, pumps, filtration, and structural shoring equipment. Its corporate offices are located in Seal Beach, California, with 50 branch offices in the U.S. and seven European branches. Corporate IT consists of telecom, networking, programming, security, and change management. The ERP software is RentalMan by Wynne Systems. It provides rental and sales operation and analysis, along with accounts receivable, accounts payable, general ledger, purchasing, and equipment maintenance.
The decision on which tablet to use came down to the Apple iPad and the Motorola Xoom. Because all field users connect to the iSeries through a virtual private network (VPN), performance in that environment was important. Testing included the pilot group of field workers and a group of office personnel. It was decided early on that only one brand of tablets would be deployed, because that would simplify administration and training. Research uncovered no substantial difference in device cost, so that was a non-factor. Durability, however, was an important feature. The BakerCorp employees in the field are truck-driving, hard-hat-wearing folks. So three-layer, military-grade, outer box protection was part of the requirements. After testing and survey results were tabulated, the iPad got the nod.
Although the version of RentalMan used by BakerCorp has a green-screen interface, and that’s how the information was delivered to the field team when they used laptops, the discussions with looksoftware assured Brunner and management at BakerCorp that a modern and professional graphical user interface was quick and easy to implement.
“We wanted this to feel like an app,” Brunner said. “We did not want it to feel like the Internet. We played around a lot with the iPad. The team researched a lot of existing apps. Our belief is that the more it feels like an app, the more the employees are going to use it.”
Brunner’s collaboration with the iSeries team was critical to the project.
“The programmers were important because I didn’t know the iSeries system,” she said. “I sat down with them and learned a lot about the green-screen navigation and the data that was to be delivered to the end users.”
Although no coding alterations were necessary to accomplish the end result, the programmers played an important role in the testing phase to prove the data being reproduced in a graphical format was true and accurate.
A partnership with the marketing department at BakerCorp was another important aspect in delivering a professional product because corporate identity and consistency with other Baker imagery factors into screens that will be in front of customer eyes.
Responsibility for combining the graphic design and the necessary functionality was handed to the looksoftware professional services team. This decision was based on bringing Web and mobile development experience that would save time and the trial and error processes that come with inexperience. Also the blend of graphic skills and understanding application development is not a common combo. Baker enlisted the help of looksoftware’s services team to assist with the implementation.
“The end result should be an application that is as intuitive and self-evident as possible. Training to use the development tools is important, but it doesn’t require a great amount of time to get users to a basic skill level,” Eamon Musallam, looksoftware’s product marketing manager, added. “But when the tool is combined with the right experience and skill-set, we are able to get something good very quickly.
“The approach we really like is getting something into production quickly,” Musallam said. “We build the first piece and show the customer how it was done so those who will be using the product understand it and can move forward on their own. It’s also important to get feedback from the users early on so that information can be used to improve the user experience going forward.”
“We are moving through phase one,” Brunner noted. “We know we have phases two, three, four, and five coming up. So recently I purchased some more consulting time from looksoftware to help us out in the short term. We are hoping to do more work with our staff in the future.”
Fifty tablets were put into play in November 2011, with the expectation that after one year an assessment would be made about moving forward. But the user count is already up to 140, an indication of how successful the project has proved to be and how popular and effective the idea was in the first place. Additional concurrent licenses were also purchased to keep users productive and happy.
At this point, plans for phase two include the incorporation of signature capture for contracts and quotes, and adding the capability to enter information in the field. The phase one capability was read only.
Eight months after getting the project under way, Brunner credits it with improving business efficiency, but that may not even be the biggest payoff in the long run. “This has caused our company to plan more for the future than it ever has in the past,” she said.
Also worth noting is that BakerCorp received the Innovation of the Year award given each year by looksoftware at its annual user conference. Brunner said news of the award “has kind of gone viral” among Baker’s 700-plus employees. “The response has been great. Other employees are knocking down my door to get something like this now,” he said.
A webinar hosted by looksoftware and featuring the BakerCorp iPad project will be presented June 27 at 2 p.m. EDT.