All sorts of organisations are borrowing ideas from consumer technology
WHEN SHE STARTS her day at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Florida, Danielle Reed picks up a smartphone. It is part of a system provided by Voalté, a start-up created to modify smartphones for doctors and nurses. The phone allows Ms Reed to communicate quickly and easily with her fellow nurses either by calling them or by sending text messages, a number of which are preprogrammed. She can also open specialised apps: one allows her to look up different medicines and their side-effects; another helps her identify pills brought in by patients.
Ms Reed says that the smartphone has other benefits too. She no longer has to carry different devices for making phone calls and receiving alerts, and she can send group text messages, which makes it easier to communicate with all of her colleagues on a ward. The 300 or so phones provided by Voalté (whose name comprises the first two letters of “voice”, “alarm” and “text”) have also helped to make Sarasota Memorial a quieter place for both patients and workers. Before introducing them the hospital often relied on a noisy public paging system to send messages to nurses and other staff. This is now used much less.
Keep taking tablets
Rob Campbell, Voalté’s chief executive, says the company expected to encounter plenty of scepticism when pitching its service to hospitals because the medical profession is used to getting purpose-built gadgets for so many things. But it has been pleasantly surprised by the reception to the consumer technology. “There’s so much momentum behind these smartphones that doctors and board members get it,” he says. They get tablets too: Manhattan Research, a health-care research company, published a survey in May that estimated that 30% of American doctors were already using iPads and almost as many again were planning to get one within six months.
In spite of this momentum, Voalté has succeeded only because it has worked hard to adapt the technology that consumers enjoy to a hospital environment. Among other things, it has modified iPhones and BlackBerrys so they can handle calls over hospitals’ Wi-Fi networks, because cellular coverage can be poor inside some wards. It has also installed robust security software on the devices and ensured that they can gain access only to a hospital’s network. And it has developed a gadget that recharges up to 40 phones at once while connecting them to Voalté’s servers, which update their software. Ms Reed says a single charge is perfectly adequate to keep the phone running for her shift, which can last up to 12 hours.
Like Voalté, plenty of other organisations (including the armed forces of several countries: see article) are keen to take advantage of the billions of dollars that the consumer-electronics industry spends on R&D each year. Apple and other companies that focus on the global consumer market typically show little interest in other areas because that market is so big. By adapting their innovations for different uses, entrepreneurial companies are carving out new niches of their own. Many of their products and services promise to make the organisations that adopt them more efficient and agile.
Social networks are a case in point. Facebook, in particular, has proved wildly popular for sharing everything from videos of Lady Gaga to photos of a drunken night out. But these networks’ public nature makes them unsuitable for exchanging sensitive corporate material—and probably those photos too. This has opened the door to firms such as Salesforce.com, Socialtext, Yammer and others that have created tailor-made networks for businesses, behind corporate firewalls. Like the big public networks, these custom-made ones typically allow employees to see who else is active, set up project groups and exchange stuff among themselves. Firms that use them say they have made it easier for staff to find important information and to collaborate with their fellow workers.
Your colleague is your friend
Bajaj Finance, an Indian consumer-lending firm that has been using Chatter, Salesforce.com’s social-networking system, for over a year, says it has led to much smoother communication between its sales staff and underwriters. In the past, explains Rakesh Bhatt, the company’s chief information officer, the assessment of which potential customers to take on involved lots of bilateral e-mails and instant messaging. Loan documents were exchanged on a separate electronic network, adding a layer of complexity. Now all of this happens on its social network. Mr Bhatt says the network has helped the firm make speedier and better decisions about which risks to underwrite.
Apps are another consumer innovation being imported by businesses. Many organisations, including The Economist, have developed their own apps to deliver or promote their products via public stores run by Apple and others. Now some companies, including PepsiCo, Standard Chartered, a big bank, and Pfizer, are setting up their own internal app stores too. Many of the apps in them are designed to help mobile workers save time. Pfizer, for example, has created an app that makes it easy for employees to locate and contact co-workers travelling on business—a boon in a global firm with peripatetic executives.
Another popular set of corporate apps supplies data to people on the road. Aflac, a big American insurer, has developed several apps that allow members of its sales team access to customer data and claims records without having to log in from a desktop computer. Some companies are even holding competitions among their employees to see who can come up with the best apps—a practice copied from the consumer world, where contests among app developers are common. Researchers at Gartner predict that by 2014 around a quarter of business apps will be created by workers who are not part of IT departments.
Other apps will be built by companies. Deloitte, a firm of consultants, has created one called Bamboo to help it with disaster-recovery planning. The app allows the firm to update employees’ emergency plans automatically by pushing new information to their phones, which are among the few things that people tend to take with them in a sudden evacuation. Deloitte is planning to roll out the app across all of its offices and has also developed a service based on it that it is selling to its customers.
Firms are also developing apps that let employees unlock some of the data that are held in head-office enterprise systems more easily. MeLLmo, a start-up, has created an app called Roambi that takes data from big financial systems and presents them in graphical format on smartphones and tablets. Santiago Becerra, the firm’s boss, says Roambi is popular with finance types and other road warriors who need information on the move, but can be used in other settings too. One big manufacturer has even issued iPads with the app to staff monitoring its production lines. Now they no longer have to return to fixed PC workstations to consult production data—a trip that could take eight to ten minutes each time in the firm’s huge factories. Germany’s SAP, America’s Oracle and other companies that create big IT systems are rolling out software to make it easier for firms that work with them to develop their own mobile apps.
Several of Roambi’s developers come from the computer-games industry, where expertise in producing great graphics on small screens is plentiful. Avaya, which creates communications tools for businesses, has also borrowed know-how developed for games for a product called web.alive, which allows people to hold meetings and conferences in a virtual environment, using avatars. And numerous firms, not to mention the armed forces, are using videogame-like technology for training.
Savings in the virtual sky
Cloud computing, which began with consumer-focused e-mail services such as Hotmail, has also caught on in the business world. The companies leading the charge here are Amazon and Google, which have already developed popular cloud services aimed at consumers, such as Kindle e-books and Gmail. Amazon has built a huge business renting cloud-computing capacity and services to companies and Google boasts over 4m customers that use Google Apps, a range of cloud-based software including e-mail and document-sharing. Used to Google’s free consumer products, many workers take to its corporate ones easily.
This and the prospect of cost savings have encouraged more organisations to embrace cloud-based offerings. Last year the city of Los Angeles, which faces a big budget deficit, adopted a series of apps designed by Google for governments. Kevin Crawford, an IT manager for the city, thinks it will save more than $1m a year over the next few years simply by not having to run and support its own in-house systems for things such as e-mail. Firms that have ended up with a hotch-potch of different IT systems as a result of mergers have also taken to the cloud. MWV, an acquisitive global-packaging company, switched to Google’s e-mail app rather than try to integrate ten different e-mail systems that it inherited from various deals.
Drawing on consumer-inspired technology can produce intangible benefits too. Employee app developers are more likely than external ones to have a good idea of what they need to do their jobs well and will relish the opportunity to create their own software. And internal social networks are an aid to co-operation in what management types like to call the “white space” between a company’s various divisions, by making it easier to find and collaborate with knowledgeable colleagues in far-flung parts of a company.
Some of those who have been promoting the use of consumer-inspired technologies inside companies say that executives used to a command-and-control world are still reluctant to embrace them, just as they are resistant to allowing employees to bring their own gadgets to work. “This is not how managers were taught in business school to operate,” says Marc Benioff, the boss of Salesforce.com. But as consumer technology becomes ubiquitous, these benefits will be even harder to ignore.