Electronic Field Data Collection

July 2010

By John Meibers

In this first installment of a three-part series, John Meibers, president of ComputerEase Construction Software, discusses the problems associated with paper-based field data collection and how the economy is driving the need for paperless field-to-office communication technology.

In a paper-based construction world, gathering data in the field and sharing it with the accounting office takes time. Employee timesheets, production quantities, and equipment hours are typically tracked on paper and submitted to the home office in batches at the end of each week. As a result, job costs are never up-to-date, getting payroll out the door is usually a scramble, and the accuracy of the data is at risk since information received from the field is re-entered by the accounting staff.

If that’s not bad enough, change requests are often initiated during casual conversations or jobsite walk-throughs—while cursory notes are written on paper. If the information isn’t lost or misplaced, it is submitted to accounting days—or even weeks—later. Meanwhile, construction continues. Sometimes, project changes are completed before an official change order is generated and approved, which complicates billing and collection. Yet the cycle continues because that’s the way things are done.

But now, the competitive construction marketplace is challenging the paper-based status quo. It’s no longer acceptable to tolerate inefficient communications between the field and the office or to leave change order money on the table due to poor documentation or lack of approval. The pressure is on to maintain viability by cutting costs, improving productivity, and maintaining a profitable balance sheet. Achieving these objectives, however, becomes more difficult when a company is drowning in paper.

PERILS OF PAPER

Technology that automates field data collection, eliminates paperwork bottlenecks, and increases efficiency across an entire organization is steadily becoming an important line of defense against profit fade. But before the benefits of streamlining field-to-office communications are discussed, let’s take a more detailed look at some of the perils associated with paper.

Duplicate data entry. In construction, duplicate data entry is rampant. Information is frequently tracked on paper before being logged in spreadsheets and re-entered into the accounting program. Not only is this inefficient, but the possibility of human error increases each time a dataset is re-entered in another log or program. Inadvertently dropping a zero from a change order estimate, for example, can be costly, and fixing mistakes takes time away from other tasks.

Timesheet errors. With paper timesheets, errors are common, especially if timesheets aren’t completed on a daily basis. If a member of a field crew waits until Friday to complete his timesheet, he might forget that he left early on Tuesday or log overtime that was never worked. A busy project superintendent that reviews timesheets before they are sent to accounting may not catch these discrepancies. Even occasional timesheet errors can add up. And if a contractor has a large field force, errors can lead to thousands of dollars a year in payroll over-payments.

Inaccurate job costs. The lag time associated with paper-based field data collection delays job cost updates. And having inaccurate job costs makes project management tasks more difficult—and accurate projections particularly challenging. Diligent project managers often keep their own job cost logs in spreadsheets to aid their decision-making. While admirable, one might argue whether this is really the best use of a project manager’s time.

ELECTRONIC DATA CAPTURE VALUE

Today, nobody questions the need for construction accounting software to manage payables, receivables and payroll, track job costs, and generate documents such as financial statements and Certified Payroll reports. Even slower technology adopters wouldn’t consider performing these tasks using paper ledgers and a pencil, opting instead for a generic accounting program and supplemental spreadsheets.

It is interesting that the same contractors who recognize the value of construction accounting software don’t always recognize the need for similar tools on the jobsite. Since the actual work happens in the field, doesn’t it make sense to give a project team a way to capture data electronically—and automatically share that data with the accounting software?

Imagine entering employee time, equipment hours, and production quantities from the field each day and having that information seamlessly synchronize with a job cost system. Suddenly, memory-related timesheet errors are eliminated, and labor and equipment costs get updated in near real-time. Remember that project change discussed yesterday over coffee with the owner? Picture how efficient it would be to enter details about the change order into a mobile device, get the owner’s approval signature on-the-spot, and instantly transfer the signed document back to the home office for billing—without touching a single piece of paper.

INTEGRATE FOR EFFICIENCY

The benefits of electronic data field capture are enormous. Yet not all solutions are created equal. Capturing information in a spreadsheet, word processing program, or standalone project management system from the jobsite eliminates paper, and is certainly a step in the right direction. But these options don’t eliminate the steps required to transfer information to a company’s accounting program.

To gain the most benefit from an electronic field data capture solution, it must integrate with a company’s accounting system. In this case, duplicate data entry is eliminated, job costs are updated in real-time, and important project details don’t fall through the cracks.

Next month, the benefits of field-to-office communication technology will be discussed in detail by describing how integrating an electronic field data capture solution with an accounting program delivers workflow efficiencies in the field and in the office—and puts a company in a better position to weather the current economic storm.

About the Author:

John Meibers is the president of ComputerEase Construction Software, a leading developer of accounting, project management, and mobile field solutions for contractors. John’s 20+ years of industry experience, including a decade of hands-on management at a 300-employee mechanical contracting firm, have helped ComputerEase establish a solid reputation for delivering cutting edge solutions that are also easy to use. To learn more about ComputerEase, call 800.544.2530 or visit www.computerease.com.