Electronic Field Data Collection Part 3

September 2010

By John Meibers

In this final installment of a three-part series, John Meibers, president of ComputerEase Construction Software, offers tips for performing a needs analysis, choosing a hardware platform, and evaluating paperless field-to-office communication solutions.

As the previous installments of this article series illustrate, electronic field data collection technology delivers significant benefits to contractors of all sizes and specialties, especially when that technology integrates with the company’s accounting system.

In addition to improving the accuracy of job costs, the ability to enter data in the field and electronically transmit it to the accounting software increases efficiency by eliminating duplicate data entry and ending the paper shuffle.

THREE-STEP NEEDS ANALYSIS

Before a company purchases this type of technology, however, it is important to pin-point the internal processes that would most benefit from electronic field data collection. One way to accomplish this is to perform the three-step needs analysis outlined below.

1. Follow the paper trail. Documenting how long it takes for paper to travel from the field to the office (and vice versa) is an excellent way to spot processes that would benefit from this technology. Paper timesheets, which are typically returned to the office in weekly batches, provide a stark example of the potential lag time associated with paper-based construction management.

2. Identify areas of double and triple data entry. Many construction company owners and managers are surprised to learn how much information is being entered two and three times. It’s not uncommon for a single dataset to be hand written on paper, entered into a spreadsheet or stand-alone software program, and re-entered in the accounting system.

3. Calculate the cost impact. The cost of using paper to manage a construction firm can be calculated in many ways. The wasted labor associated with inefficient processes, the revenue lost from a single undocumented change order, and the end-of-job profit fade that occurs when invoices are misplaced are just a few examples. When these three exercises are complete, a clear understanding should emerge of how paper is negatively affecting operations—and which paperless applications have the most potential to improve profitability.

CHOOSING A HARDWARE PLATFORM

After performing a needs analysis, and before evaluating solutions, it is a good idea to decide whether laptop computers or tablet PCs will be used to deploy the technology in the field. The reason for this is that different applications are designed to run on different hardware platforms.

While laptops have long been used by busy project managers who need a fully-functioning mobile workstation, the use of tablet PCs on the jobsite is gaining momentum, particularly for the type of field data collection discussed here. In the field, tablet PCs offer several distinct advantages over laptops, including:

Size and weight. Tablet PCs are usually smaller and lighter than laptops, which make them a more portable option for superintendents and other field staff.

Data entry options. Tablet PCs typically give users two options for entering data: a standard keyboard or a stylist. With a stylist, data is hand written on the tablet touchscreen, which makes it quick and easy to fill out forms, jot down notes, or capture approval signatures on documents like change orders.

Convenience. Tablet PCs are touted for their long battery life, excellent wireless Internet connectivity, and easy-to-read displays. And, since a tablet PC can be utilized while laying flat, logging meeting minutes in a crowded job trailer with minimal work surface is more convenient than using a laptop that requires a keyboard and a vertically-oriented screen.

Once the needs analysis is complete and the preferred hardware platform is chosen, the contractor is ready to begin evaluating electronic field data collection solutions.

KEY CRITERIA FOR EVALUATING TECHNOLOGY

The following evaluation criteria can help narrow the choices until a shortlist is created—or the ideal solution becomes apparent. Does the solution: Operate on the chosen hardware platform: laptop, tablet PC, or both? For optimal flexibility, an application that supports both platforms is ideal.

Integrate with the company’s accounting software, either as an integrated component or a third-party application? This is an important distinction since many of the efficiencies gained through paperless field-to-office technology depend on the field solution sharing data with the accounting program.

Solve the company’s business problem(s)? Many contractors fall into the trap of buying technology based on trends, rather than the solution’s ability to address specific problems. The next group of questions will narrow the choices further. Is the solution:

Modular? A modular structure allows a contractor to create a customized field-to-office communication solution that fits their specific business needs, without purchasing modules that they don’t need or won’t use.

Scalable? A scalable solution allows a company to start small and grow their system over time. It also allows the technology to be deployed on a limited, or pilot, basis. This is useful when implementing a significant change to current operations, such as moving from a paper-based to a paperless work order system.

Easy to implement and use? The best technology in the world won’t solve the company’s business problems if they can’t get the program to work. Furthermore, software with a high learning curve will be met with resistance in the field. For these reasons, it is important to look for a solution that is both easy to implement and easy to use.

Cost effective? In other words, how quickly will the company achieve a return-on-investment (ROI)? The answer to this question will vary depending on the contractor’s original needs, but it is often more cost effective to implement a solution that is an integrated component of an existing accounting package rather than creating an integration link with a third-party product. When evaluating the cost-effectiveness of specific modules or applications, consider the business problem being addressed. For instance, if paper timesheet errors are common, implementing an electronic timesheet application should deliver a fast and high ROI.

BETTER COMMUNICATION AND A BETTER BOTTOM LINE

From an economic standpoint, electronic field data collection technology is a good investment that has the potential to deliver a rapid ROI. A successful implementation will not only improve field-to-office communication, it should also improve a contractor’s bottom line.

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.