Mobile Technology and Heavy Construction:
The Expectations Have Changed
By: Greg Norris – B2W Software
As a software supplier focused on heavy construction estimating and operations, we have seen a common trend among clients over the past five years. Those that have embraced mobile technology with a sound strategy and appropriate support have almost universally have been surprised by how fast and effectively their teams have accepted and succeeded with the technology. Most can’t imagine going back to life without it.
The norm that construction workers will struggle to adopt software – particularly in the field – is dissolving quickly. Part of this is due to improvements in the capabilities and the user friendly interfaces of mobile technology for the construction environment. Changing expectations fueled by the proliferation of mobile technology in our everyday lives also plays a role.
Expectations in the Field
What some have labeled the “millennial effect” is impacting the heavy construction sector. Employees raised with or exposed to computers, and to an increasing extent mobile devices, as part of almost everything they do, expect the benefits of those technologies to follow them to work.
Many equipment operators today have a hard time understanding why a foreman hands them a clipboard and a paper form to complete weekly inspections. They’re used to filling out forms faster on a mobile phone or a tablet. They also know an electronic process would allow them to include more and better information, such as photos or video, and to share the completed form instantly.
Leaders in the field express similar frustrations about the inefficiencies and redundant data entry associated with paper field logs and time cards. Something along the lines of “I need to be in the field with my team doing real work, not in the trailer doing paper work”, is a response we hear all the time when we interview foremen and field supervisors to find out why they think software is beneficial.
Expectations in the field are also changing about access to information. Employees obviously work to earn a paycheck, but most also derive job satisfaction from being able to use the best tools available to achieve the highest levels of quality, safety and efficiency. Increasingly, on any heavy construction site, information is among the most important of these tools.
Foremen, supervisors and managers need access to plans and project documentation, including the latest changes. Timely reports and dashboards comparing actual performance to expectations allow them to make critical adjustments. Mechanics in the field are more effective when they can pull up the work order, maintenance history, warranty information or repair manual for an asset on a tablet without making trips back and forth to the shop.
Across these and other field-centric workflows, the growing feeling among employees is that if they have these mobile capabilities in their everyday lives, why don’t they have them on the job site?
Expectations in the Office
For construction executives monitoring and managing work in the field, a report from an accounting system at the end of the month indicating where projects stand versus budget is not good enough anymore. Even weekly reporting – still a standard at many companies – is becoming outdated and a competitive liability.
Mobile technology and on-line tools have not only created the capability for executives to know how labor, material and equipment variables are impacting project performance in real time or certainly on a daily basis. They have also created the expectation that this should be the new norm for monitoring projects across town or across the country.
As margins get tighter and jobs get more complex, that immediacy becomes more vital. Executives expect and need to know how a project is performing in real time to make data-driven decisions about adjusting field operations to stay on schedule and on budget. Finding out about labor-cost overruns, production delays or material shortages at the end of the month or even a week later makes it impossible, in most cases, to recover and protect profitability.
Capturing data in the field electronically through mobile applications also eliminates redundant data entry that is a drain on efficiency, accuracy, timeliness and morale in the office. Contractors don’t even need to eliminate employment positions to impact profitability. What we hear more typically is that they can free up employees from purely clerical or administrative duties and enable them do more valuable – and satisfying – work.
Resistance to software technology, especially in the field, can remain a challenge within many construction companies. Software suppliers have responded by making user interfaces easier and more intuitive, by improving the performance of and support for their products, and by making it easier to unify applications and data across workflows. Real-world experience over the past decade has also created a wealth of proven best practices for deploying mobile technology successfully.
As a result, convincing and preparing “old-school” companies and employees to cast aside paper-based processes is becoming yesterday’s battle. Moving forward, the more critical challenge for many contractors will be providing an advanced mobile technology strategy and platform to retain, empower and meet the expectations of an increasingly tech-savvy work force.
The recent comment of one of our clients sums it up. “If they were to threaten to take away all of our mobile abilities here, I would not stay. I couldn’t. You can’t come this far and then go back.”
Greg Norris is director of marketing communications at B2W Software. The company’s ONE Platform includes unified applications for heavy civil construction estimating and bidding, field tracking and analysis, resource planning and scheduling, equipment maintenance and repair and data capture and analysis.