Using Mobile Apps to Prevent Failed Audits – Incorporating Mobile Apps into ITAM Processes

By Nasrin Azari

ITAM Audits

If you’d like to raise the blood pressure of your IT Asset Managers and how well they handle stress, schedule an audit! There is only one thing worse than not being able to identify and locate all of your assets. That is being asked to do it and then having to try to explain and justify all of the exceptions. Audits are no fun when you know you’re not going to pass with flying colors, but they do serve a very important purpose. Audits shine a light on the areas of your ITAM processes that need improvement and allow you to assess the effectiveness of your overall ITAM program.

The goal, after any audit, should be to understand what is causing failures and put a plan in place to fix the processes that are responsible for those failures. Of course, your long-term goal is to embrace the upcoming audit because you have complete confidence in your processes and the quality of your CMDB!

The best way to combat the fear of failing an upcoming audit is to ensure that your CMDB is effective, completely up-to-date and as accurate as possible. How great would it be to be able to confidently respond to an audit in a matter of minutes by pulling a few reports?

CMDB Effectiveness

What does it mean for a CMDB to be “effective?” The effectiveness of a CMDB is all about how well it represents your environment, monitors your processes, tracks important transactions and relates whatever information is relevant to your business. An informational database, no matter how accurate, is only helpful if the information being captured is relevant and complete. So, in order to implement an effective IT Asset Management program, your CMDB needs to be, first and foremost, carefully designed to map your IT environment. It should accurately and completely describe all of the important IT assets that exist and the relationships between those assets and between the assets and other entities (such as people, buildings, contracts, etc.).

Once you have chosen an appropriate CMDB for your environment, you’ll want to create and/or properly configure all the Configuration Items (CIs) that make sense for your environment. As a test, identify the information/reports that are important for your business and analyze your CMDB to ensure that the information you’ll need is stored in a useful and meaningful way.

CMDB Accuracy

When you have chosen and/or designed an effective CMDB, the focus turns to populating it accurately, and keeping it up-to-date. If an audit is all about assessing the effectiveness of your ITAM program and the processes that make it up, the integrity of your CMDB is the yardstick that you measure by.

The biggest factor that affects your CMDB’s accuracy is the set of processes guiding the recording of information about your assets. Many organizations attempt to avoid manual tracking as much as possible by relying on discovery tools to capture daily changes and perhaps an annual physical Inventory to ensure a physical touch of each asset once a year. The problem with this approach is that a lot of relevant information is missed. Discovery tools are limited in the data they can capture; capturing information about certain types of assets only and only if those assets are network-connected. So, while discovery is a great complement to your data capture processes, it is not enough to keep your CMDB accurate.

All of your processes that are linked to the manipulation of your assets will likely affect information stored in your CMDB. Therefore, it is crucial to make sure that there is a required touch to the CMDB during every one of those processes. Data within your CMDB can quickly become out of date if transactions or changes occur that are not immediately and properly tracked.

Initial Data Capture

Initial data capture represents the creation of specific items (IT assets, locations, people, etc.) in the CMDB. This is a time when a lot of data is populated at once, and if not done correctly or completely, could cause headaches or more serious problems down the road. For example, when an IT asset record is created in the CMDB, you will populate its serial number, its asset ID, its make and model, information about its warranty, a link to the PO that it was purchased under, and other descriptive data about the asset. If you accidentally input the serial number incorrectly during initial data capture, you may be able to successfully find that asset record via its asset ID and make various updates over the course of many months or years.

Imagine that somehow the asset tag falls off the asset or becomes unreadable. In the course of a physical inventory or some other operation, you come across the asset, and, because it doesn’t have a readable asset tag, you enter its serial number in order to find the record. The asset record cannot be located, and you will be forced through a cumbersome process to try to find it. Or, worse, you may assume that the asset record was never created in the first place and create a second one. Now you have a phantom asset record, an incorrect asset count, and a loss of the historical information that was initially captured. Creating assets within the CMDB is one of the most crucial points of data capture.

Lifecycle Updates

Fortunately, when IT asset records are created in the CMDB, there are only a few times and places where this happens: at a loading dock or other receiving area or during a physical inventory when assets are missing from the CMDB. The difficulty with tracking updates to asset records is that there are so many different situations and conditions where asset updates occur. There are installs, swaps, moves, transfers, upgrades, repairs, etc. Ensuring that the CMDB gets updated during all of these different update situations can be very challenging. So, whereas the receive and create processes are focused on ensuring the correct and consistent data capture in a limited number of locations and situations, update processes need to be able to support a variety of different workflows occurring in different situations.

Mobile Apps for ITAM

The purpose of deploying mobile applications to IT asset managers is to help alleviate some of the challenges in keeping your CMDB as accurate as possible. Mobile apps for ITAM are implemented specifically to assist IT asset managers in easily capturing information right at the point of action, both for new assets and updates to existing assets. Because most asset management happens in the field, mobile ITAM processes are critical to the success of an ITAM program. Mobile apps simply map those mobile processes to a well-designed user interface that guides the end-user through the tasks that need to be performed, with a goal of ensuring accurate and complete data capture.

Because of impressive advances in mobile technologies over the last several years, there are a variety of cost-effective device options that can be used to implement mobile apps for ITAM. It is important to incorporate an integrated or attached barcode scanner for your implementation, as barcode scanning is critical for ensuring the accurate capture of any barcoded field, including serial numbers, asset tags, and PO numbers. Some mobile devices, notably Windows Mobile barcode scanners, contain very nice laser scanners integrated into the package. However, there are now a variety of scanning options for both smartphones (iPhones, Android phones, BlackBerry devices) and tablets (iPads, Android tablets, etc.) that are very effective even for significant scanning. These scanners are attached to your mobile device via a USB or Bluetooth connection, and provide high-quality laser scanning capability.

Advantages and Benefits

Using mobile apps to implement mobile ITAM processes enables tighter control from a business perspective, and an easier process from an end-user perspective. The possible benefits achieved are numerous:

  • Rapid, accurate reading of barcoded data through the use of a barcode scanner attached to the user’s mobile device
  • Timely data capture as users are immediately tracking their actions as they perform their tasks
  • Consistent data capture through the use of a guided and controlled user interface, using drop-list selections, smart-scanning barcode fields, etc.
  • Complete data capture for all mobile tasks by using one or more task-oriented mobile apps that force the end-user to follow a required process

The goal of this undertaking is to increase the integrity of your CMDB. Enhance the quality of your data capture to ensure greater accuracy. The end result and most important benefit is increased accuracy of your CMDB so that you can make better business decisions, reduce waste and lower risk, and, of course, easily and quickly respond to an audit.

Mobile ITAM Processes and Example Apps

Mobile ITAM processes provide guidelines around the tasks that IT asset managers perform in the field. Every task from receiving assets into your environment to disposing them upon end-of-life must be tracked and most of this activity happens away from a desk.

Examples of task-specific mobile processes that can be effectively supported by a mobile ITAM app include:

  • Receiving from PO
  • Creation of asset (without PO)
  • Transfer
  • Re-assign
  • Swap
  • Install
  • Move
  • Decommission

There are many other possibilities. When you have very specific processes for certain tasks, it is best to implement a task-specific mobile app that exactly matches the process.

In addition to task-specific mobile ITAM apps, it is also important to incorporate generic applications to support various non-specific daily tasks that your field techs perform on a regular basis. Two “general” applications that we highly recommend for an ITAM environment are:

  • Lifecycle
  • Batch update

Lifecycle is meant to allow a variety of updates to a single asset, and batch update is meant to allow a variety of updates to a group of assets.

The following sections describe two examples of different mobile ITAM apps and the processes they support:

App 1: Receive from PO

Many organizations order IT assets using a purchase order (PO) and retain information about that purchase order in a PO module within the CMDB. Sometimes, the organization will pre-create asset records in the CMDB; these ordered asset records will be created with dummy asset tags and dummy or blank serial numbers. Other information (such as make, model, purchase price, warranty terms, etc.) will be filled in from the PO itself. In other cases, asset records are not created until they are actually received.

Regardless of which way your organization handles the creation of asset records, when an asset is actually received, it needs to be immediately reconciled with the PO. Is the asset what was ordered? Is it a valid receipt? Does it match all of the criteria specified in the PO? Is this asset a duplicate (i.e. is there an overage)?

At the moment the asset is received, you want your receiver to know whether it needs to be returned or kept. If it should be kept, then your receiver needs to immediately update the CMDB to reflect the actual receipt of the new asset. If the asset was pre-created, it should be found and updated with actual serial number, asset ID, receive timestamp, and location, and then its status should be updated from ordered to received.

If the asset record was not pre-created, then an asset record needs to be created and populated with data from the PO (make, model, warranty, purchase price, etc.) from the asset itself (serial number, asset ID, etc.), and from the situation (receipt time, location, etc.). The asset status should then be updated to received.

These steps are not complicated, but in a busy and noisy environment like a receiving dock, it is very easy for the receiver to make a mistake during the process, or skip the recording process altogether to save time.

An effective mobile receive app can help. The amount of information that has to be manipulated by the user should be limited as much as possible. That is, much of the information about the item received should be pulled from the PO record or automatically captured and placed into the asset record.

In the receive app example below, the first step for the receiver is to identify the PO that assets are being received for. This is done by scanning the PO number into the PO field. Upon completing the scan, the system automatically searches the open PO records and pulls up the matching PO for review by the user:

When the PO number is scanned, the details are immediately displayed, read-only and protected. Since the user needs to scan in the asset tag and serial number for the asset being received, those fields are editable. The user can also see that 10 items have been ordered and that none have been received yet.

So, the receiver then just needs to associate the actual asset(s) being received to the item that was ordered. To do this, all s/he needs to do is scan in the asset tag and serial number for each received asset:

Once this is finished, all items are sent up to the backend system, where the appropriate asset records will be created and/or updated with information scanned in, pulled from the PO, or captured automatically. All the user had to do was select the PO, and scan asset tag and serial number for each asset. All of the smarts are handled behind the scenes to correlate relevant data.

App 2: Lifecycle

Asset changes (status updates, location moves, new assignments, etc.) that happen throughout the day must be captured by your field techs. It is good to provide a generic application that is flexible for your IT asset managers to handle a variety of miscellaneous changes. Here is an example of a lifecycle application that techs carry into the field for use when they are installing / updating equipment, moving an asset from one location to another, replacing / repairing equipment, re-assigning assets, etc.

In this specific app, the tech simply scans in the asset tag of the asset that is being affected:

The system searches for the barcode, finds the correct asset record, and displays details about that asset on the screen. The tech can update any writeable field. Certain fields may be shown as read-only, preventing an update and protecting the field. In this case, the OS field is an example of that. As you can see, a variety of fields, including assigned to, status and location are available for update:

The tech may have to locate an asset that is some distance from his current location. He may find the asset record, show the location of the asset using a map (as shown), and then get driving directions to the location of the asset in order to perform a specific task.

Mapping is one example of interesting features on highly functional smartphones and tablets that can be incorporated into your mobile ITAM apps. Taking advantage of these features encourages best practice process development and ease of use for your mobile techs, a crucial ingredient for a successful ITAM program.

The Importance of Usability

Ease of use is one of the key features of effective mobile enterprise apps. Field techs need a simple user interface that is clear, consistent, and resilient to user errors. Usable mobile apps make the job easier and/or faster so that end-users enjoy using them to replace their old, manual process. In addition, usable mobile apps encourage the consistent, accurate and complete data entry that is so important from a business perspective.

Effective and usable mobile apps meet the following criteria:

  • Labels, messages, instructions, and expected usage are clear and consistent from screen to screen and app to app
  • Data on the screen is limited to what is relevant to the end-user’s task
  • Usage of barcode scanning, RFID, signature capture, maps, etc. are effectively incorporated to make the app easier to use
  • Data that can be automatically captured (such as the timestamp of a transaction) is not necessarily shown on the screen unless necessary
  • Any reference data that is displayed for clarity but shouldn’t be modified is clearly protected so that the user cannot accidentally update
  • All errors presented to the mobile user are errors that they can actually fix. If not, the errors should be captured in an exception list and handled later by someone with the ability to do so.

The bottom line for mobile ITAM apps is that these apps should be easy to use, effective to meet business requirements, and directly reflective of the processes that you have in place.

Devices and Tools

A variety of devices can be used to implement mobile apps for ITAM. In today’s world of smartphones and tablets, there are many options to support your needs, with effective barcode scanners and a variety of other features (such as GPS, maps, and signature capture) that are all very helpful in building an effective mobile app for your field techs.

What Does it Take?

Implemented correctly, a mobile ITAM solution allows you to close the loop on your ITAM processes, build out a simple infrastructure that allows you to rapidly iterate changes to your mobile apps as needed, ensure accurate and complete data capture, and reduce the amount of time and effort it takes to complete ITAM tasks in the field. What does it take to make this happen?

  1. Well-defined mobile ITAM processes
  2. Infrastructure
  3. Wireless or other connectivity method to connect mobile devices to ITAM environment
  4. Security requirements
  5. Software
  6. Mobile software to support your mobile applications
  7. Middleware to integrate your mobile apps with your ITAM environment
  8. Toolset or maintenance program to support ongoing upkeep
  9. Hardware
  10. Mobile devices
  11. Scanning accessories

Implementing a mobile solution into your ITAM environment can be a relatively complex undertaking, but the benefits for your ITAM program are undeniable. Mobile support for your field techs is crucial to an effective ITAM program and should be a priority for those who are suffering from audit failures, CMDB inaccuracy and an inability to make effective business decisions based on the data you are able to track today.

Summary

Mobile apps for ITAM complement and, in fact, complete your existing ITAM processes, making them more effective and driving accuracy to your CMDB. Accuracy is absolutely critical for your business. Most asset activity happens in the field and just about every asset management process involves some sort of field activity. Closing the loop on these processes with a controlled mobile app greatly increases the effectiveness of your entire ITAM program. From receiving to decommission, every action and transaction, every update needs to be reflected in your CMDB. Driving accuracy into your CMDB is the goal of much of your ITAM activity, and your mobile processes are central to this goal. And, of course, an accurate CMDB makes passing audits a piece of cake!

Take-away Guidelines
  1. If your audits are failing, you have a problem with accuracy in your CMDB
  2. If your ITAM processes are not effectively driving accurate and complete information into your CMDB, you need to take a look at your mobile processes and investigate a mobile solution
  3. 90% of asset activity happens in the field
  4. What happens in the field needs to be tracked… immediately, and accurately
  5. Mobile apps for ITAM drive process improvement, accurate data capture, better business decisions, and higher productivity and efficiency
  6. Invest in a good, solid mobile solution to complement and support your ITAM processes and you will be rewarded with much higher accuracy in data capture, better data integrity in your CMDB, and the ability to sail through future audits!!

About the Author

Nasrin Azari

Nasrin Azari is the President of Mobile Reach.