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Professional service organisations (PSO) have come to play an increasingly important role in the global economy. As these companies continue to broaden their footprint, a majority of their resources are being devoted to remote activity. Data suggests that nearly half of all employees spend at least a portion of their workweek outside the office—at home, on the road or at a customer location. However, maintaining a remote workforce can pose enormous challenges for an organisation. According to a recent survey conducted by the UK-based National Computing Centre (NCC), an independent advisory group, improved visibility and awareness of projects across the entire organisation was named the top priority by more than three-quarters of responding firms. Saving money and time through the automation of routine tasks also ranked high on the list.

At the same time, projects are fast becoming core tools for implementing business strategy in many organisations, notes NCC. As small to medium-sized businesses become more project-oriented—and their employees even more mobile—they will place a premium on the kind of applications that can allow employees to obtain data and access a central database in real-time from any location, whether it be on a sales call or doing a quick inventory check. Providing the travelling workforce with accurate and dependable offline/mobile access can help service organisations accomplish this goal.

PSA Hits the Road

In the space of a few short years, tremendous advances in mobile-based technology have helped professional services organisations vastly improve efficiency using tools that facilitate both online and offline connectivity from anywhere in the world on a round-the-clock basis. Service organisations have increasingly turned to professional services automation (PSA) solutions in order to streamline process flow and boost operational efficiency. From project management and resource planning, to project accounting and client billing, PSA software has given companies the ability to automate management systems while reducing operational errors and improving delivery time, allowing companies to stay competitive while increasing productivity.

Additionally, service organisations have become aware of the benefits of using applications that can be synchronised with existing solutions, including CRM and ERP systems. Such integration is crucial to maintaining order in the face of a perpetually growing remote workforce and providing real-time data for services metrics.

Numerous software-as-a-service solutions (SaaS) designed to streamline the flow of information for the remote workforce have been made available in recent years. But as the mobile culture continues to flourish, much of the attention has been centred on offline mobile applications. With road warriors in mind, in 2004 OpenAir, a provider of software solutions for project-based businesses, brought to market its OpenAir Mobile for Blackberry, a "disconnected" application offered through the company's Professional Edition PSA package. This application enabled Blackberry users to track time and expenses and submit data directly from their handheld device. Once online, users could immediately update data by synchronising with their OpenAir web account.

Building on the success of the OpenAir for Blackberry—and recognising the rapidly expanding market for Apple's iPhone—OpenAir came forth with its OpenAir Mobile for iPhone, which, like the Blackberry app, provides service professionals with easy access to all necessary time and expense tracking tools while on the road. Taking advantage of the iPhone's easy-on-the-eyes web browsing capability, OpenAir Mobile for iPhone allows remote workers to enter customer, project and task data, while an intuitive calendar interface facilitates the filing of timesheets and expense reports.

The benefits of this kind of offline/mobile access are far-reaching. Applications like OpenAir Mobile for iPhone offer the potential to improve accuracy, expedite billing and reimbursement cycles, and, above all, save employees time. As one might expect, the increased productivity and visibility that results from executing tasks any time, anywhere, and without delay can have a profound impact on the bottom line.

According to a recent report by research and consulting firm Service Performance Insight, companies with real-time visibility reported revenue growth of 17 percent, compared to 11 percent for those without real-time visibility. Project gross margins ranked 35 percent versus 26 percent, while the rate of projects delivered on time reached an impressive 79 percent, compared to 60 percent for companies operating without real-time visibility.

Naturally, there are other benefits as well. In an era of heightened energy consciousness, enabling employees to work off-site while maintaining full visibility reduces fuel consumption, while electronic document storage and data transfer cuts down on paper usage as well.

Room for Growth

By all accounts, the market for offline/mobile access is still in its nascent phase. At present, only 22 percent of businesses currently have a mobile-access plan in place, according to the NCC study. As services executives wake up to the value proposition of offline access, SaaS vendors like OpenAir are poised to give small to mid-sized companies the ability to stay in sync with their employees and clients, in the process improving operational transparency.

Even in this challenging global economy, NCC reports that client organisations "are open to real change to improve their market position." Though some firms express satisfaction with their current project-management software applications, research indicates that others are poorly equipped, or are using toolsets that lack the capabilities to effectively manage projects. As we've seen, the advantages of achieving real-time visibility are quantifiable, and this presents a unique opportunity for well-positioned vendors that can offer the tools and services to improve utilisation, data collection, and, above all, keep the cycle of information flowing—both online and off. Why use a mobile-based PSA application? By streamlining remote processes, companies are able to optimise time and expense (T&E) capture, accelerate billing cycles as well as improve project management. Increased transparency helps boost productivity and efficiency, which in turn has a direct impact on company revenue.