A panel at yesterday’s CIO 100 Symposium and Awards event highlighted three companies that have made great strides with mobility technology: Amtrak, CUNA Mutual Group and Deloitte LLP.

Amtrak’s $40 million project involved implementing an e-ticketing system to replace paper tickets, said Dee Waddell, Group Information Officer, Marketing, Sales and Customer Service for Amtrak. The project started in 2007 with the original idea being to use some sort of kiosk, like those airlines use for check-in. That plan changed dramatically in 2009 after focus groups showed users balked at the idea.

“Customers said the value of the train was the ability to go right on the train,” he said. They wanted to be able to use their phones for the ticketing process end-to-end, from buying the ticket to showing it to the conductor on the train.

While that may sound fairly straightforward, it was a huge cultural shift for Amtrak, given that conductors have been punching paper tickets for at least 120 years.

Among the biggest challenges: training the company’s 17,000 conductors on how to use the technology. The original plan was to use professional trainers and have each conductor take an 8-hour course. But the company soon identified some conductors who were fascinated with the technology and worked with them to develop training for others. “They became the trainers,” Waddell said. When budget got tight, the training process was trimmed from 18 months to 6 months and the company decided to use its own conductors to train others.

The project was completed this year. “So far it’s working well,” he said. “And there’s more to come, absolutely.”

CUNA Mutual, which provides financial services to credit unions, also embarked on a smart phone app project, said Rick Roy, CIO for the firm. Its idea was to create an app that would allow customers to apply for loans from their phones.

“If you’re on a car lot and you want to buy a car, you can use the phone to secure a commitment for a loan in 30 seconds or less,” he said.

Focus groups were also crucial for CUNA, but it looked in-house for help. Every summer the company hires about 60 interns, mostly college juniors. “They are native mobility users. They’ve grown up with the Web,” he said.

So the company gave the interns prototypes to try. “The feedback we received from that group was phenomenal,” he said. “They were very vocal in what they liked, what they didn’t and why.” The group offered ideas on how to make the app better, ideas that quickly helped make it viable.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a byproduct of the project is the app is attracting younger buyers. The average age of a credit union member in the U.S. is 47, Roy said, but the average age of the smart phone app user is 32. That fits well with the company’s strategic initiative to attract younger members.

What’s more, others have taken notice, as the project comes up frequently at internal meetings with executives and others offering ideas on how to leverage the technology. “The internal executive team all started to become project managers,” Roy said. Location awareness might be the next big thing, targeting offerings to customers depending on where they’re located – although only if the member opts in for such offers.

Deloitte’s project was far more amorphous from the start, said Keith Strier, US & Global Managing Director of Technology Innovation for the $30 billion professional services firm. Crucial to the company’s ability to be trusted advisors to its clients is how well they equip employees with information. Two to three years ago, that meant emailing them headlines and implementing an information portal on the desktop.

That all changed in the summer of 2010 when the iPad arrived. Once Strier saw it, he knew there had to be a way to use it to more easily arm Deloitte consultants with valuable information.

He went to some senior execs and managed to get a relatively modest budget for the project, about $200,000. The original idea was to create a single app through which consultants could get access to information. But the plan kept evolving. The one app changed to a suite of five. About halfway through the underlying architecture had to be changed to accommodate the heavier load.  As a result, the project went way over budget, but Strier kept his executive sponsors apprised of what he was up to and they saw the value, so OK’d the funding.

“It takes courage on behalf of leaders and designers to say, if we want world class, we’re going to have to break outside the budget,” he said. “If design is going to be part of your new strategy, you’re going to have to accept that you can’t predict what the best experience will be from day one.”

A design that took advantage of the iPad was very much a part of his strategy, which was a new concept but one that took quickly. Now the company’s global CIO is bragging about the platform and showing it to others. “That’s cool to me,” Strier says.

Asked what they might do different if they had the chance, Waddell and Roy had the same answer: they’d have done it faster. Strier, who did implement quickly, noted that’s good advice for a mobile project because it doesn’t have to be 100% from day one. “You can go live with a mobile app and update it 3 weeks later,” he said. Good point.

Tags: , , , , ,