Data On The Go
If our word is our bond, why do we scrawl it on so many different pieces of paper, leave it piled atop so many different desks and cram it in so many different filing cabinets? More often than not, our "word" is missing in action, incomplete, inaccessible, inaccurate and illegible.
Start considering the paperless advantages of the emerging wireless world to help you do what you say.
We take for granted we can send our voices just as easily over wireless networks as over wired lines. But written information is preferable over voice because it can be stored for future reference in a database. Also, data can be typed in at the convenience of the author and retrieved at a later time, at the convenience of the receiver.
Let's say your tech needs the last three invoices to know what been done before on the job at hand. A portable laptop would help, but portable data? For the most part, the best our tech could hope for is a land line to connect his portable computer to. But does he even have a laptop? Does he call the office hoping to arrange a fax at the corner Kinko's? Do the people at the office know where the information is? Is the person who does know in today? Maybe we should just forget the whole thing.
Stone AgeWhen it comes to data exchange, the typical company is still in the technological dark ages, says a recent report by the Yankee Group, a leading computer and telecommunications analyst and Mobile Computing magazine. "The revolution that has connected every computer in our office over the past 10 years covers only the wired world. The next step is to connect wirelessly," the report says.
So now it's data's turn to travel just as easily through the air. Keep in mind that pundits have been predicting that wireless data transmission is just "around the corner" so often that they've gone around the block a few times looking for it to show up. Wireless networks already blanket 90 percent of the country, but it's a threadbare quilt at times. However, after any number of false starts, that picture may change as the business world demands instant and untethered access to all types of information.
The other big difference this time is the increase of people clamoring for wireless access to the Internet - the biggest data network around that can serve as a universal link to employees and customers without additional networking costs.
Any quick glance at the general business media shows that computer and telecommunications companies are investing hundreds of millions to build beachheads within the wireless sector. Old analog cellular systems are being replaced by digital networks, which can handle more voice and data transmissions. To back all this up and meet the ever-growing demand for speed, all the digital networks in the
United States promise to deliver wireless transmissions at a rate two to three times faster than the speediest telephone modem. Rather than singular signals, "packet data" standards are being developed today that will work on any cellular or PCS voice network at very little burden to the carrier. Bottom line - a considerably cheaper way to move bits through the air.
While much of this magic won't happen overnight, it will definitely take place much sooner than the 100 years it took to build old Ma Bell's copper line kingdom.
Business NomadsThis trend makes perfect sense for our industry. A contractor's traditional office has never been the center of business activity anyway. All your profitable work is done everywhere else, on someone else's turf. Your challenge has always been how to keep track of techs and keep them working on the road as efficiently as possible.
Who knows how much productive time techs lose every day due to communication inefficiencies and required administrative tasks.
Meanwhile, billing may take weeks to complete because of paperwork delays from the tech, duplicate data entry at dispatch and discrepancies between the tech and accounting. On top of this, customers may be doing a slow burn due to inaccurate service, incorrect billing and no real-time answers.
Up until now only large, national firms have witnessed firsthand the benefits of instantly capturing information digitally at the point of service and accessing information from a centralized database.
PM columnist Maurice Maio related in a feature ("The Next Generation In Automation - For Us," June 1999) how MCI developed its own field service automation system. By equipping 1,000 techs with laptops and automating dispatch, MCI increase the productivity of each tech by two hours per day. The expensive system paid for itself in just six weeks. Faster response time and more accurate status updates increase MCI customer satisfaction immediately.
Proprietary systems such as MCI's, however, can cost millions to develop and maintain. But some of the technological barriers to this type of automation are, if not coming down, at least a little easier to leap over.
Wireless, hardware and software advances helped contractor Tracy Singh develop a new twist on field service automation. As the president of a field service company that grew from $370,000 in sales to more than $25 million over the past 12 years, Singh always tried to stay atop the technological curve. But despite a large investment in cell phones, pagers and dispatch software, he became increasingly frustrated by the inadequacy of information flowing to and from the field
"I'd have to print out a half dozen reports and try to match all those up with everyone's time sheets just to know if we did what we said we would and whether we showed up on time," Singh says. "We needed to figure a way to tie it all together since there's so much slop in field service."
As a result, Singh teamed up a few years ago with a software developer. After beta testing the new software system at one Singh's branches last year, FieldCentrix was launched.
The software for techs includes automatic time sheets, electronic work order, equipment inventory by job site, signature capture and local street maps and wireless messages. The software is designed to run on handheld PCs (HPCs), rugged computers relatively new to the market that are smaller, lighter and less expensive than laptops. Just last year Microsoft developed Windows CE, an operating system just for the HPCs.
Singh's techs can now communicate in real time with the office, operations management, sales team and other techs in the field. The capability allows the tech instant access to a complete history of the job, and to instantly and electronically record actions and observations for the benefits of others.
"The great thing about this is that all the information moves wirelessly in the background," Singh explains. "The tech doesn't have to stop what he's doing. While he goes through his service flow, the information is sent back and forth to our dispatcher."
The software also works seamlessly with the Internet, and early next year, Singh will allow customers to initiate their work orders. In addition, customer can access their own service history as well.
"Once you allow the customer to 'look at the man behind the curtain,'" Singh adds, "I think you've raised the bar for yourself as far as it will rise to meet customer expectations."
While it doesn't carry the price tag of a proprietary system, it isn't suitable for every contractor. An entry-level system - designed for a minimum of 25 techs - costs approximately $115,000 for the software and installation services. On top of this, a company would need to outfit its crew with HPCs and figure on a charge for wireless transmission.
The system does integrate with existing dispatch software as well. And a quick check of other dispatch software vendors indicates plans are in the works for many to offer their own wireless capabilities.
FieldCentrix is only part of the picture for conducting business wirelessly. In other developments, the line between phones and computers is already starting to blur and will continue. Since wireless voice networks are adding data capabilities, wireless phone makers are adding data features to their cell phones at no extra cost to users. Two major cellular networks announced data services that will link mobile subscribers to the Internet. The phone will function either as stand-alone devices or as modems for laptops or HPCs.
These hybrids will perform all these duties at extremely high speeds. These "3G," or third-generation, models may initially come on the market looking like the brick-size cell phones of the 1980s. But most industry watchers say they will only get smaller and cheaper, but pack so much more power and functions that a land-line phone might end up displayed in a museum.
"Clearly the era of the simple business cell phone is over," says the Yankee/Mobile Computing study. "It will be replaced with a multifunction communication device that can - for most users - double as an organizer, pager, or in many case, a handheld computer.
The Yankee Group predicts that about 28 million Americans will be using wireless phones for data in less than two more years. About three-quarters of them will do so to check e-mail and the rest for browsing the Web.
Wireless technology is not without its quirks. Wireless signals need a good line of sight to transmit properly; it's humbling to know high tech sometimes can't beat trees, buildings and snowstorms. Wireless technology still has to prove itself to customers, but it certainly has a lot of promise.