Field Workforce Automation on Tablets: Enabling the Other Mobile Workforce


Ms. Neagu is a noted expert on data applications and XML technologies. Adriana was co-inventor of Microsoft Office InfoPath, and co-holds 4 InfoPath patents.

Clipboard forms on work desk

Think about the features your people in the field really need to replace clipboards and paper with tablets and apps.

The two meanings of ‘mobile workforce’

One way the term ‘mobile workforce’ is used is to refer to the broader workforce becoming increasingly mobile and untethered from traditional office facilities. This mobile workforce includes managers and knowledge workers who are so connected to their work through tablets and smartphones that their physical location becomes unimportant. The issues raised by this mobile workforce have to do with the difficulty of taking activities traditionally done in the office on a networked PC and making those same processes possible on mobile devices connected to the cloud.

In our experience with field service and inspections, over half of all companies report that they currently use paper forms

But let’s focus here on the other kind of mobile workforce, the people in the field whose work requires them to move around from one location to another. This workforce has always been mobile — not in the sense of carrying mobile devices but in the sense of driving around to work sites. We’re talking here about a wide range of activities, from construction jobs and safety inspections to sales and service calls. Historically the difficult road to field workforce automation involved expensive ruggedized devices and custom software, but now tablets and apps are changing the landscape. The issues facing these companies now revolve largely around trying to replace paper forms with automated solutions using tablets.

Paper forms still dominate in the field

Many if not most small and midsize companies still provision their field workforce with paper forms and clipboards. In our own experience, still in 2013, well over half of companies with inspection and field service scenarios reported that they are currently using paper forms in the field (n>1000). Most of the rest are using laptop applications or browser-based forms.

It’s not that companies don’t realize the inefficiency of paper forms, but the cost and complexity of mobile app development is simply too high a barrier for most. This is a problem Formotus addresses directly.

Some requirements for moving field work to tablets

Based on our interaction with companies pursuing tablet solutions for their mobile workforces in the field, here are the top requirements for a successful solution:

Must work offline

A tablet solution without robust offline capabilities is a non-starter for most organizations.  Some companies’ workers do their work in places where data connections are known to be unavailable or prohibited. Others opt not to invest in continuous connectivity and choose to connect occasionally with Wi-Fi instead. But even for companies who expect their field workers to have connectivity most of the time, it’s important to have a solution that continues to work when that connection fails. This is the top requirement for worker productivity and the primary limitation of browser-based solutions.

Formotus mobile forms are optimized for offline work. Multiple drafts of multiple forms can be stored locally on the device. This means an inspector, for example, can open three inspection forms and a weekly timecard today, and keep working on them tomorrow. The calculations and business rules in Formotus mobile forms work offline. Completed forms are submitted immediately if online or to an outbox queue to be sent later if offline. And if field service workers need access to a database of information, such as part numbers, that data can be built into the form so it is always available, even offline.

Must connect online

Any tablet solution that cannot connect directly to company data is only doing half the job. Some companies are willing to settle at first for a simpler solution, such as emailing information that will then need to be re-keyed back at the office. But eventually, most everyone will want their data to travel directly from the tablet to some central data repository. When that time arrives, an important question becomes whether the tablet connects to your own choice of data repository, such as SharePoint, or whether the mobile solution provider requires hosting the data themselves. Some organizations are hesitant or prohibited to store sensitive data on a server outside their control.

Formotus forms have the most flexible data connections available. They can submit by email for the simplest starter solution. They can submit to (and query from) any flavor of SharePoint, on-premises or in the cloud. And they can connect to any backend data system using standard web services (SOAP/REST).

Must collect rich data

New Workforce Forms

Text, numbers and tabular data are not enough. Companies want to consolidate their mobile workforce’s toolset into a tablet solution that not just replaces paper forms but also takes the place of signature pads, cameras, calculators, GPS devices, industrial barcode readers, etc.

Formotus forms support all kinds of high-value data collection scenarios, including:

  • Photo capture using the built-in camera
  • Signature capture on the tablet’s touchscreen
  • Ink diagramming
  • Location capture
  • Barcode capture

Other Requirements

Rich data collection offline and flexible data connections online are the core requirements most companies are looking for to effectively automate their mobile workforce. After that come the cost, time and effort questions.

Companies don’t want to spend tons of time and money up front to see if a solution will work for them, they want a quick proof of concept at little or no cost. Then they want to improve the solution gradually, through trial and error and iterative updates. They don’t want to rely on an army of IT professionals and software developers  – in-house or outsourced — in order to create new or updated forms.

Formotus forms are no-code custom solutions that can be created, deployed and updated by knowledge workers without any programming skills. The forms are created using the form design application in Microsoft Office called InfoPath. The same form, once created, will run on iPads, iPhones, and Android tablets and smartphones — plus in the future it will also ‘just work’ on Windows RT.