Mechanics will validate that all the power tools loaded in their bags make their jobs easier by allowing them to work faster and smarter. Why else would they make such significant investments?
However, if they are honest, they will admit a caveat: Those fancy tools with all the bells and whistles are only better than old-school manual techniques if — and when — they actually power them on and know how to use them correctly. Otherwise they just sit in the bag taking up space and collecting dust, a waste of the extra money spent. If asked, many field service workers would likely say the same about the mobile technology they are issued today, especially utility workers accustomed to using manual tools in the field.
If the rugged tablets given to inspection teams, for example, prove even slightly more difficult to use than picking up a pen and paper to note findings, then that "power tool" will be deemed useless. Those tablets will never leave a single worker’s office desk or vehicle as intended. Field technicians will revert to pen and paper record-keeping methods incapable of sustaining the expanding mobility demands of business processes. This will result in immediate investment losses, continued data inaccuracies, slower job completion rates and long-term service challenges.
In short, dealer and water treatment companies’ IT teams will spin their wheels to make personnel more productive, but mobile employees will never give that device a chance to hit the road again. The adoption of any solution in the mobile environment is the goal and also the biggest challenge.
Device selection is just the beginning
Utilities of all sizes often rely on their IT departments to scout, test and rank the ruggedness and reliability of mobile devices designed specifically for extreme workflows in even more punishing operating environments. They clearly define device criteria; question vendors in-depth about each candidate’s size, weight, cost and software capabilities; and make calculated decisions during every step of the deployment.
The following devices will ultimately render technology useless for the average water and wastewater field technician:
- A smartphone with a screen too small to easily check off inspection lists
- A notebook that is too heavy to carry to the site of a rural water leak
- A laptop that — despite its keyboard — is too awkward to use for logging work order progress
- A tablet that does not have the battery life required to keep the workflows accessible during long shifts
- A device that has a display that cannot be seen outdoors
- Any device that shutters after a few water splashes
Yet many utilities focus too much on the device instead of considering the entire workflow that the utility worker faces. Technology meant for use in the office, in the vehicle and while performing specific job functions can vary in their displays, input and connectivity requirements. For this reason, the IT department’s definition of the most ideal rugged device may not resonate with end users.
Water treatment service technicians are the only ones who know best whether a device actually works in the vehicle and in the field. They should be questioned about a device’s capabilities and usability during testing periods and after deployment.
While some veteran employees are just plain opposed to change because they have been in the industry for decades and have mastered their trade using manual processes without issue, most cases of slow adoption or no adoption are the result of worker discord about the device or new mobile workflow challenges. After all, most mobile workflows are simply an extension of current non-mobile workflows.
Frequently, employees may not understand how easy the device is to add to their normal routines. The unfamiliar spawns unnecessary fear, which, in turn, stops potential efficiency gains in their tracks.
Training takes precedence
The good news is that talking with — and training — every mobile user can rectify misunderstandings. However, many organizations skip these two simple steps because they assume that mobile devices’ prolific roles in today’s society will equate to an easy plug-and-play experience for job-specific mobile tablets as well.
Assuming that personnel, even the young and tech-savvy, will quickly embrace change and understand the benefits of mobile technology only does businesses a disservice. Technology providers that offer free training to customers want to demonstrate the tablet’s advantages when compared with any other tool in their "go bags" and help field technicians grasp basic workflow functions, as well as the software and peripheral tools available to simplify planned and unplanned daily tasks. Training is the essential foundation for the adoption of any mobile workforce tool and should be required of every end user on day one.
Faster adoption with adaptation
Mobile technology adoption is a process, and long-term adaptation among end users and decision-makers — of software, workflows, accessories and the device itself — is the true indicator of a successful mobile deployment.
The best way to encourage adoption is to solicit frequent feedback from the field. Consult service technicians during the trial period and determine whether the mobile technology is rugged enough for their working environments, easy enough to use for every critical workflow extended to the device and superior to any other mobile tool they have used in the past — including laptops, notebooks and traditional pen and paper.
Find out if the familiarity of the tablet’s operating system, the active digitizer pen for writing in data, and the similar screen appearance of workflow applications to traditional desktop views will be enough to motivate mobile personnel’s daily use. If the tablet is left behind at the office, ask why — every time. Business owners should not dismiss their workers’ opinions, or the device itself, if the cons of using tend to outweigh the pros.
Changes based on every insight gathered should be considered. If workers use the tablet for more computational purposes, invest in the addition of a Bluetooth keyboard. If they need both hands to lay a new pipeline, give them a shoulder carrying case to keep the tablet on hand for easy schematic reference. If constant connectivity to data is a must-have, introduce cloud-based applications.
Additionally, worker safety should be as much of a priority as expedited field operations and improved efficiency goals. Employ technology when tablets are mounted in company vehicles to minimize the temptation to check emails or complete a work order while driving. Some technologies are available that allow the tablet to deliver GPS guidance to job sites but protect employees, assets and people in the community from accidents that could cause physical harm or disrupt the daily flow.
With the International Data Corporation expecting mobile workers to make up nearly three-quarters of the total U.S. workforce by 2020, any mobile technology investment made today must deliver a lasting benefit to workers and overall operations. While eventual worker adoption of mobile technology is inevitable, water utilities and water treatment dealers should focus on creating solutions that foster immediate acceptance.
The right rugged mobility platform will remain resilient through rain, snow, sun and dust — something that paper documents cannot claim. Equivalent to the desktop PC experience, it can comfortably serve as the central computing tool no matter where it may travel, capable of supporting any data capture or sharing peripherals the technician requires. It will be connected at all times and ready to go when and where personnel need it while eliminating the need for constant return trips, delayed diagnostic and repair timelines and longer downtimes. The bottom line is that the technology will keep the workforce connected, informed and proactive in its jobs 24/7/365.
Instead of setting a single mobility goal, establish a foundation on which workflow requirements can evolve and data demands can grow. Business owners should rely on their workers’ instincts and actions to design the mobile infrastructure that is best for their business models, and they will see faster results and greater ROI than with any other portable solution.
Scott Ball, sales director, Canada, for Xplore Technologies, has more than 20 years in the pen computing/tablet industry. He is well-associated with the development and implementation of mobile technology in many industries. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 416-287-1100.