Using PDAs to Change Business Processes

Technology Should Be Used as a Tool, Not a Solution
Published 8-20-2002
  • PDA Options

    Organizations that decide to move forward with PDA technology have several options to ponder. The most common brands are the Palm, Pocket PC, and Blackberry, each of which has its own special features. Applications where screen layouts are standard warrant the use of a Palm PDA. The Pocket PC integrates well with applications, such as computer-aided facilities management and CMMS, and can be tied into other programs through Internet access. The Blackberry is more noted for its wireless capabilities and is generally considered a better communications tool, especially for data acquisition. Photo courtesy of Greg Swanberg.

    Photo courtesy of Greg Swanberg.

Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) are rapidly gaining attention as a tool to help facilities management organizations streamline the way they do business.

"PDA technology can become the catalyst for changing the way people work. When a company changes a business process, it's often a nightmare to get the employees accustomed to the change," says Greg Swanberg, owner of GJ Swan Ltd., a facilities management consulting firm based in Naperville, Ill. "Companies can spend a significant amount of money documenting the new changes in three-ring binders. With PDA technology, the processes and the necessary steps are displayed as quickly as the next time they synchronize."

Swanberg stresses that PDAs should be used as a tool to effect change and should never be viewed merely as a solution to a problem. He says the real solution is the improvement in business operations that can be achieved by using PDAs.

"A lot of people try to solve fundamental process issues with a technology like PDAs and that's a recipe for disaster," he says. "If PDAs are considered the solution, the expectations of the employees, clients, or customers were set wrong."

Swanberg cites several companies including a small manufacturing plant and a large pharmaceutical company that implemented PDA technology but failed to deploy fundamental process changes. The PDAs were used solely as a data-gathering tool as opposed to a work-improvement tool and both projects failed. A strategy based on changing processes could have produced successful results.

Enhancing the Way Business is Done

Research shows that the number one reason facilities management organizations use PDAs is for auditing and inspections. The technology is especially helpful as a tool for quality control, space control, and grounds audit.

PDAs can also be used for collecting data that can help companies make informed decisions. For example, a large medical college in the Midwest used PDAs to help determine whether it should proceed with a capital improvement project.

"The college administrators did not believe the data in the Computerized Maintenance Management System (CMMS) was accurate enough to help them make a decision on the capital program and operational issues," says Swanberg. "They were approaching a new budget cycle and needed to determine if they should construct a new building or preserve the capital to pay for equipment repairs that might be needed in the near future."

Using a PDA-based application, two individuals were able to gather data about the condition of the college's equipment and other assets in a mere 10 days. The college administrators gained a renewed faith in the available information and were able to make the right decision.

FM organizations that have a global positioning system in place and that rely on trucks to transport their products can also benefit from using PDAs. Dynamic routing of information through PDAs can be used to keep track of the trucks and their destinations.

"With dynamic routing, a company can see which truck is closest to a certain destination and use the information to minimize travel time and maximize a client's expectations," says Swanberg.

PDAs can also be used to make improvements in the areas of:

Space Management and CAD Auditing—The quality of some PDA screens is good enough to permit space management supervisors to update CAD drawings in real-time, verifying the condition and occupancy of a building.

Building Management Systems—PDAs allow maintenance service providers to control building automation systems remotely. The electronic equipment enables technicians to monitor the automation systems on a regular basis, receive timely alerts about potential problems, and respond more quickly to perform necessary maintenance tasks.

Data Management—Facilities management employees can continuously update system databases using a PDA. Credible data is the key to data management, according to Swanberg.

Inventory Control and Bar Code Integration—PDAs can be used to minimize the amount of input required for inventory control and building maintenance. Bar coding can be used to track inventory and tasks completed by employees.

Refining Task Elements—With PDAs, employees have all the necessary information at their fingertips to perform maintenance tasks, instead of resorting to instructions in a manual. The amount of time spent completing a project can also be logged into the PDA.

Time Card Entry—PDAs let employees carry their time card with them and make accurate, timely entries about the work they perform. Managers can analyze the information to determine if an employee's schedule should be rearranged or if additional training is needed where workers are taking too long to complete a task.

Pattern Recognition Software—Managers can use pattern recognition software to analyze the data collected in PDAs regarding various aspects of the business. The software can determine valuable information, such as where the company may need to change its processes or provide additional training for employees.

Seeing the Impact

"PDAs can have a significant impact on the FM organization of a company depending on what the goals are for that particular organization," says Swanberg.

It is important to bring employees on board with the new system by explaining the reasons for using PDA technology. PDAs can provide more autonomy to employees and make them more responsible for their work. However, the technology can also be viewed as a tool for management to look over employees' shoulders.

"Employees can spend a lot of energy trying to bypass the system and that behavior can be damaging to an organization," says Swanberg.

From a technology standpoint, it is important to involve the IT group and the help desk employees when first discussing PDA implementation. Involvement by the appropriate parties can ensure successful integration of the new technology with existing systems.

"From a financial impact, if you don't change your processes and use PDAs as a tool to collect better data to analyze, then nothing else will change. The financial impact comes from using the data you get out of the system and changing the processes of how employees do their jobs," says Swanberg.

Case Study Results

A major telecommunications company in the Midwest that relied on fixed-site and truck-based maintenance support recently realized significant benefits after converting to PDA technology. PDAs were introduced in 1999 to replace laptops used by maintenance workers who were responsible for 8,000 buildings located in five states.

"The company was going through a merger/acquisition and the budget was impacted. We conducted a cost analysis to determine if we should refresh the 300 laptops or go to the PDAs," recalls Swanberg. "We converted to PDAs and the company realized an immediate cost savings by changing the way preventative maintenance was performed."

The maintenance workers were already computer savvy and had used their laptops to access the automation systems that were in place at several thousand buildings. Using the laptop's dial-up connection, they could obtain information about the condition of the buildings and activate backup systems. The technicians generally relied on their memory to perform the necessary maintenance tasks instead of carrying bulky laptops.

"With the PDAs, we were able to refine the maintenance processes and give them step-by-step instructions," he says. "The company's targets were achieved and the return on investment was realized with a seven percent labor reduction and $400,000 in equipment savings."

Weighing the Options

Converting to PDAs can help FM organizations increase their return on investment and enhance operating efficiency. Organizations considering the use of PDAs should ask the following questions to determine whether the technology is right for them:

• What will the gap be between acceptance of the technology by our employees and the necessary training requirements?

• What will the total cost be for change management, training, IT upgrades, and system administration?

• Why are we implementing the new technology and what do we hope to achieve?

If an organization decides to move forward with the PDA technology, there are several options from which to choose. The most common are the Palm, Pocket PC, and Blackberry brands, each of which has its own special features.

"Applications where screen layouts are standard would warrant the use of the Palm PDA. The application would be the type that uses radial buttons, and drop-down menus, and minimizes the amount of keypad entry that's required," says Swanberg. "These are ideal for environments that are tied closely to a specific application, such as a CMMS or out-of-box-type applications."

The biggest advantage of the Pocket PC is that it integrates well with applications, such as computer-aided facilities management and CMMS, while also being able to tie into building management systems and inventory programs through Internet access.

Although the Pocket PC is more flexible than the Palm PDA, the Pocket PC typically requires more training and is more expensive.

The Blackberry is more noted for its wireless capabilities and is generally considered a better communications tool, especially for data acquisition. It is commonly used to dispatch maintenance employees to perform a certain task and to report on work that is completed. The Blackberry has a low introductory price, but the true cost of ownership depends on the amount of data a company is transmitting.

By Tracy Carbasho