I recently asked a builder friend of mine this question: “If I took away one tool that would have the biggest impact on your business, what would it be?”
His answer surprised me. “My cell phone,” he said without hesitating. I figured he’d go with something more easily associated with his line of work, like a nail gun. Or a tower crane.
“Nah,” he said. “We can’t survive without our cells. I’m on it all day, every day.” Maybe he was exaggerating, but he raises an interesting point: When it comes to staying competitive in construction, it’s all about communication.
Think about it. Fifteen years ago-perhaps even 10-cell phones were just starting to enter the scene. They seemed like interesting gadgets, but they didn’t impact our ability to prevent redos or to finish a job on time. Today, it’s hard to imagine running a construction business without one. The more I thought about it, the more my friend’s answer made sense. Most construction companies couldn’t survive for a week without their cell phones. They bridge the gap between business owners and customers, project managers and suppliers, suppliers and office managers.
ADVANCES IN COMMUNICATIONCommunication will play an even bigger role in construction in the not-too-distant future. Within the next 12-18 months, I believe that two emerging technologies will become indispensable tools for contractors: Broadband for cell phones and Global Positioning System (GPS). Both of these advances will support the growing trend of remote project management-the ability to manage one or more jobsites from a central location.
Let’s start with broadband. Imagine being connected to each of your jobsites via live streaming video. Your foreman points his cell phone at a flaw in a foundation and transmits that image to you live over the Internet. Imagine being able to evaluate the problem and formulate a solution-all without leaving your desk.
And we’re just talking video. Consider all the other types of valuable information that can also be sent to and from broadband-enhanced cell phones and PDAs: blueprints, schematics, and even attendance records, to name just a few.
Then there’s GPS. Advances in technologies that employ GPS will enable you to accurately track your workers and your assets. Already, GPS is an integral tool in fleet management. And soon, it will play an equally important role in tracking labor.
Still using handwritten timecards to track time and attendance? Soon, they’ll go the way of the typewriter, replaced by portable electronic timekeeping systems integrated with GPS. These systems will tell you not only when your workers clocked in and out, but also where. Your foreman can transmit those attendance and location records over the Internet from his phone or PDA to the office. There, you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of all your employee and jobsite information-either in the form of easy-to-read reports or overlaid on a regional map.
You’ll even be able to set a perimeter-called a geofence-around each jobsite and remotely monitor whether your employees were within that perimeter when they clocked in and out.
These technologies will advance the growing trend of Remote Project Management. From a central location, you’ll have a handle on all your jobsites. You’ll be able to:
• Receive real-time updates from each jobsite
• Address problems as they occur
• Know who’s at each site any time of the day
• Reallocate labor
Pretty exciting, huh? But there’s a potential downside: Too much information. The size of the pipe through which information flows is going to get a lot bigger in the near future. Don’t get caught in the ensuing flood. Avoid information overload, commonly known as “twitter.”
TROUBLE WITH TWITTERTwitter is the nonstop barrage of useless information that’s often the result of advances in communication. Just because detailed information can be received in seconds doesn’t mean that information is ultimately valuable in decision-making. For instance, how useful is this message: “8:18 a.m. Hammering a nail, come take a look.”?
Twitter distracts us; it renders us ineffective. And in making important business decisions, it’s critical to be informed and effective. Wouldn’t you rather see this in your inbox: “9:29 a.m. Finished laying the foundation. Here, take a look.”?
When it comes to new technology, it’s important to avoid twitter. Make sure systems are in place that filter out the information you don’t need.
Before you buy
So there’s all this amazing technology available right around the corner, and you want in. Here are a few more things to consider before taking the plunge:
Will it solve more problems than it creates?
Before cell phones, no one had to worry about carriers or coverage or dropped calls. No one had to deal with the embarrassment of their phone going off in the middle of a meeting or a movie. Now we face these annoyances everyday, but it’s worth it because of the benefit of using cell phones. They enable us to run our businesses more effectively. They connect us to friends and coworkers. They help us feel secure. When considering any new technology, identify both the problems it can solve and the ones it could create. If the latter trumps the former, walk away.
What’s the ROI?
As a savvy business owner, it’s your job to calculate the benefits of the new technology before you buy it. And by calculate, I mean quantify. Ask yourself, “When will I see a return on my investment? In a month? A year?” Don’t be spooked by a hefty initial outlay if the ROI makes sense. And don’t make a modest one if the ROI is slow or non-existent.
How much do I get?
A lot is not always a good thing. Some people call this a “diseconomy of scale.” I like to call it “too many workers at the corner hot dog stand.” See, there’s this hot dog stand in my neighborhood that does great business. There’s always a line out front and, more often than I care to admit, I’m in it. Whenever I queue up, I think, they need to hire more workers. But how many? One would certainly make a difference. And three would no doubt shrink the line. But what about five or, for that matter, 10? At some point, too many workers would not only cost a fortune, they actually hurt production.
It’s like this with new technology. You want just enough to shrink the line out front. Any more than that and you risk overspending and gumming up the works. Apply new technology a bit at a time. Check to see if the benefits of the technology satisfy your business needs, then add a bit more and see if the benefits continue to increase. As a decision maker, it will be your responsibility to determine how much of the new technology is enough.
When do I get it?
Let’s face it: New products can be buggy. Sometimes it makes sense to wait. What’s the point of equipping your workforce with version 1.0 of the newest gadget if it’s fatally flawed? Or giving them technology that is just too complicated?
Not to name names, but remember how everyone was scrambling to upgrade their PCs to that “revolutionary” new operating system last summer? Within weeks, many of those same people were scrambling to reinstall the old one.
Don’t be an unwitting beta tester. Make sure the new technology you’re considering has been around long enough to work out its bugs.
So there you have it; my two cents on what’s new and exciting for contractors on the technology horizon-mobile broadband and GPS. These emerging technologies will support your ability to manage your workers and jobsites remotely, from a central location.