A field-based data capture system has been bringing big cost savings to North American electrical contractors. Now it has arrived in the UK

Electrical and mechanical contractors know the value that IT can deliver, and are making greater investments in technology that will help increase the efficiency and capabilities of their organisations, while improving the level of service they can offer their customers. But the typical strategy behind rolling out new IT systems in contracting could be fundamentally flawed.

What should come first when building your IT strategy, the field or the office? Given the evidence, for most contractors the answer to date has been the office. But why should this be the case? If a contractor’s business is predominantly conducted in the field, why is the IT infrastructure that supports the business built from the back office out?

Consider a typical roll-out of a new software system. Invariably, the IT plan starts with the creation of a new financial system in the back office, which is then eventually rolled out to the field. Often, the company’s management in the field has little or no idea about the existence of the new system until it has already been implemented.

Perhaps the reason for this is that it is easier to train the office staff during implementation, or maybe companies would rather ignore all the complex processes presented by the field in favour of forcing acceptance of a new way of doing things from the office outwards.

Either way, the result is that these field processes are often left as manual steps to be completed in the same way they have always been. Field staff end up frustrated because the new system fails to address the administrative headaches they deal with on a daily basis.

Company executives may be pleased with the final outputs generated from the new system, but they may not realise that the whole process is far from optimised, and that their final data is still the product of a series of time-consuming and error-strewn manual processes.

For a new IT system to truly succeed, contractor firms must see that starting in the field, where most of their significant inefficiencies lie, will result in a far more productive result, with both happier field staff and an IT infrastructure that supports and drives their business.

Case study: NorCan Electric

One company that has benefited from putting the field first when it comes to IT is Canadian firm NorCan Electric, an electrical contractor heavily involved in the oil sector. With much of its work coming from capital projects in excess of $20m, NorCan faced a critical challenge managing such substantial projects.

Prior to looking at a technology solution, NorCan’s time-and-billing process was a complex exercise. Company foremen would collect timesheets from field personnel, go back to the office and hand the timesheets to payroll staff, who would enter the information into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, summarise it, then enter it again into NorCan’s payroll software.

With different NorCan customers having different information-reporting needs, this process created a lot of work, particularly for large projects. The level of complexity meant that the management team had to work 12 to 14 hours a day to keep on top of things. Job costing was made difficult due to delays while payroll data was updated and analysed, and the process was highly susceptible to human error as data was written down, entered and re-entered.

NorCan used spreadsheets heavily but found they did not adequately support the task in hand.

“We squeezed as much as we could out of Excel,” says Cameron Cassels, NorCan president. “We would touch data so many times, it was absolutely killing us.”

As a result, significant pressure was placed on NorCan staff, creating workplace stress that impacted performance and morale. Something had to change.

Real-time input

Given the challenges it was facing, NorCan was all too ready to listen when approached by data-management software vendor Singletouch Corporation, provider of a data-capture platform for electrical contractors that enables real-time input of information in the field. This allows data to be entered just once across an entire organisation. NorCan rolled out the Singletouch solution in July 2008, and before the end of August, the company was already seeing business benefits.

With Singletouch in place, NorCan’s foremen now use a barcode scanner to clock employees in and out. At the end of the shift, the foremen simply synchronise the device with the server, and all data is accurately transmitted to the back office.

In January, a separate Singletouch implementation was rolled out, allowing foremen to create purchase orders. This brings together all the information needed for invoices, which saves more time for office staff, and also improves job-costing and forecasting since purchase-order information as well as timesheet data are now both available as soon as a shift is over.

As a result of rolling out the new system, one NorCan field supervisor was able to reduce his daily report-writing burden from a couple of hours to 10 to 15 minutes.

Back-office benefits

Back at the NorCan head office, administration staff can now print daily and weekly timesheets and bundle them with the invoices. The timesheets can also be exported to the company’s accounting system. The most immediate benefit of adopting Singletouch has been making life easier for office staff, since having all the timesheet data in the same place has made it much easier for NorCan to meet customers’ reporting requirements.

NorCan is now able to keep its clients informed on project data by generating up-to-date budget-status reports in just one day, an exercise that previously took up to 10 business days. Also, with these changes, NorCan no longer needs to make heavy use of spreadsheets, allowing management to focus on building business and engaging with prospective clients, rather than crunching numbers.

“It took away a tremendous amount of frustration,” says Cassels. “We can now react far more quickly when our clients request a current view of the cost of a project. Our general and administrative costs have been slashed, and fewer office staff are required to support our workers in the field.”

And now that the oil sands sector is facing a construction slump, NorCan is confident that adopting these kinds of business-process improvements has left the company in an excellent position to weather a downturn, thanks to the leanness of its operations.

“I won’t have to lay off people as I would have had to, and we can take on a lot more work before people start to sweat in the office,” says Cassels. “In a downturn, I don’t have to lay off Singletouch.”

Singletouch brings field-based input to the UK

Officially launching in the UK this month, Singletouch Corporation offers a comprehensive data-capture platform for electrical contractors working in industrial construction that enables real-time input of information in the field.

Built from the field to the office, rather than the other way round, Singletouch integrates and shares field data with traditional accounting, payroll and other reporting software. Project managers and office administrators can access field data for invoicing and reporting before the team has returned from the site.

In an industry where cashflow is critical, and timely and accurate billing essential, this back-office integration helps to eliminate paperwork bottlenecks. Accurate details are entered in the system only once, at the time and place where the transaction occurs, and delivered to all stakeholders, reducing the risk of logjams and errors associated with filing paperwork and re-entering details to create invoices and reports.

Built-in reports provide an up-to-the-second view of project status, with all work and materials accurately accounted for, and actual performance against budgets and schedules reported to the customer. The recently added Labour Monitor report captures which items have been installed and determines the percentage complete for that item, while also forecasting the labour hours required to complete and provide accurate productivity data on each item.

For more information, visit: www.singletouch.com