Clark Wilson Homes Inc.
The problem: With 18 builders, 75 subcontractors, and up to 240 construction projects to oversee, managers at Clark Wilson Homes found that using a paper system to track the myriad details and schedules for each project was time consuming and error prone.
The solution: The company purchased handheld computers with Punch List software from Strata Systems. In the field, builders use simple pull-down menus that document needed repairs and schedule work for subcontractors. The information from the job site is sent to the company’s main computer, where it is sorted and sent off to subcontractors via e-mail.
The IT infrastructure: SClark Wilson Homes uses PalmPilots from the Palm Computing division of 3Com Corp., with Punch List software. The company also uses Palm HotSync server software to connect to its main database.
The future: The company hopes to add a scheduling software package to the handhelds so employees can download all the details of a project into the devices.
A cartoon in a recent issue of The New Yorker shows two pilots in the cockpit of an airplane. One says, “This is so cool! I’m flying this thing completely on my PalmPilot!”
While flying airplanes is not yet within the capability of handheld devices, the cartoon illustrates how ubiquitous the diminutive personal digital assistant (PDA) has become since the PalmPilot’s debut four years ago.
PDAs, originally used primarily as personal information managers, have become essential equipment in business today–doing much more than simply tracking appointments. Salespeople, builders, doctors, and students are all stretching the power of their handheld devices to keep notes on clients, send e-mail, store essential information, and, more generally, just help them get through their daily routines.
In fact, an estimated 35% of the 3.7 million handhelds sold in 2000 will be purchased by individuals who will be fully or partially reimbursed by their company, according to Diana Hwang, program manager, mobile research at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. That figure is up from 21% in 1999.
Another measure of the growing demand for PDAs in the workplace is the explosion of new applications being written specifically for business use. Third-party applications for Palm OS and Windows CE devices include databases, communications software, inventory control, project management, and business productivity tools. “You see a lot more commercial vendors developing applications to support the handhelds,” says Hwang. Major database players such as Oracle Corp. and Sybase Inc. have developed versions of their popular applications for the handheld market, giving users real-time remote access to corporate data.
Banishing the building blues
Darrin Roush turned to PDAs several years ago to relieve two of his company’s biggest headaches: communication and organization. When Roush, quality assurance manager at Clark Wilson Homes Inc., a construction company in Austin, Texas, saw builders jotting notes about their projects on scraps of paper, he knew there had to be a better way.
First, he gave laptops to the builders so they could update their schedules in real time and keep all their notes in one place. However, the builders found the laptops too cumbersome to carry and too difficult to use–so that idea was dropped.But Roush didn’t give up. He knew that technology could help the company with the complicated management challenges of coordinating the work of 18 builders and 75 subcontractors on as many as 240 houses at one time.
Two years ago, Roush bought Palm handheld devices from the Palm Computing division of 3Com Corp., in Santa Clara, Calif., for all Clark Wilson’s builders. He also bought Punch List–software developed specifically for builders–to load on the Palms. The software, from Strata Systems LC, of Austin, Texas, uses pull-down menus to let builders keep notes on every detail of the work, from repairs to supplies to subcontractors’ schedules.
Before they used handhelds, the builders compiled their paper notes and called each subcontractor–plumbers, electricians, painters, and others–at the end of the day, spending up to 15 minutes discussing issues that arose during the day. “Then, later, they would often need to call the very same subcontractor because of something they forgot to mention or something new they discovered that the subcontractor needed to be aware of,” Roush says.
Now, builders spend a fraction of the time entering the data, and they don’t have to get on the telephone at all. At the end of the day, they synchronize their Palm devices with a desktop computer located in the building site trailer. Once downloaded, the information is sorted, and orders and instructions are e-mailed directly to the subcontractors. Sending the subcontractors their orders through e-mail saves the company time, and the subcontractors are happier because they receive their directions in writing, not over the telephone, which cuts down on miscommunication.
Soaking up survey suds
Anheuser-Busch also turned to handhelds to save time and reduce the number of clerical errors in its reports. The St. Louis-based brewer keeps tabs on the performance of its products and retailers; to survey one city, the company sends as many as 30 surveyors there for one week.
Before automating the process, Anheuser-Busch reps went into each retailer with a paper survey about five or six pages long, which they filled out by hand, according to Richard Sleight, senior developer in the sales and marketing department. The survey looks at everything from the price of the beer to the condition and placement of the company’s neon signs.
In June 1999, Anheuser-Busch bought 75 Jornada PDAs from Hewlett-Packard Co. and fully automated the survey process. Now surveyors use pull-down menus to enter all the data, according to Sleight. “The surveyors love it because there is no writing involved,” he says.
Before the handhelds, surveyors returned to a hotel room used as headquarters, where a data entry person worked from 6 p.m. until 4 a.m. inputting the data into the company’s main computer. Now at the end of the day, the surveyors return to the hotel room, connect with a cell-phone line, and download the data to the company’s computer in St. Louis. “They’re done in minutes,” Sleight says. The handhelds have helped the company save thousands of hours of data entry and reams of paper.
Anheuser-Busch uses Casio Soft Inc.’s MobileLink software to conduct its nationwide retailer surveys and to process the collected information. The software, which lets the company create its own questionnaires, stores the information in a database. All the data is later synchronized to the company’s main computer. And while the company’s distributors used to have to wait two or three months before receiving the results of the survey, now they have the reports in their hand at the end of the week, according to Sleight.
Anheuser-Busch officials hope to extend the handheld fleet to all its field salespeople nationwide in order to keep track of clients.
Practicing for practice
PDAs have made such a splash in the corporate realm for just these reasons–they save time, they cut the errors inherent in doing things by hand, and they are a breeze to use, even for nontechnical people.
Handheld devices make a lot of sense, according to Jack Gold, senior program director at the META Group Inc., in Stamford, Conn. They are lightweight and easy to carry, as most are pocket-sized. They are also inexpensive, easy to access, and convenient. “Most of the time, you don’t need a whole lot of information,” says Gold. “You don’t want to lug around a laptop to get someone’s telephone number.”
For third-year students at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, “lugging around a laptop becomes a challenge,” says Johannes Boehme, associate dean of Academic Computing at the school. That’s because students start their rounds of clinical work in their third year.
The American Association of Medical Colleges requires that students keep track of all the interactions they have with patients–data that has to be reviewed by their professors. Until this year, Wake Forest students kept track of their patients using pen and paper; they later compiled their notes into one report to share with their professors. Now they are relying on handheld IBM 3C WorkPads.
Programmers at the school developed a patient tracking system for the WorkPads, so students can enter the data on their handhelds and download it into one central computer using the Scout server from Riverbed Technologies Inc., in Vienna, Va. (Riverbed recently agreed to integrate its Scout IT network synchronization technology with Unicenter TNG from Computer Associates International Inc., of Islandia, N.Y.) ScoutSync software lets students synchronize their patient information with the school’s Access database. Once the data is in the main computer, professors get reports on each student’s patient load. Eventually, Wake Forest would like to expand the use of the PDAs to list medications, beeper numbers, and other medical reference material. “The potential is unlimited,” says Boehme.
In the coming years, META’s Gold predicts that companies will use PDAs in a variety of capacities, and a growing number of companies will develop applications to serve the market. PDAs are especially promising for people in the field, including repair people, census takers, and salespeople.
While it will probably be a long time before handheld devices are flying planes, or even replacing laptops, corporations have embraced them for their potential to make field data collection and transmission easier, faster, and error-free. Which means the once exclusively personal nature of PDAs is definitely history. //
Valle Dwight, based in Northampton, Mass., is a contributing editor to FamilyPC magazine.