Building Services IT: Boon or bane? Getting to grips with new technology

Fast changing technology offers contractors considerable opportunities to improve performance but ‘keeping up’ can also be a drain on resources. David Bell, right, of Estimation Group argues it is the job of the software developer to make access to these technologies as easy as possible
Building Services IT: Boon or bane? Getting to grips with new technology
THERE is no doubt that modern technologies have the potential to transform the ways we work and to make our businesses more profitable. From a contractor's point of view, this isn't so much in terms of installation techniques but more in being able to manage the business more efficiently.

However, in order to take advantage of these technologies it is necessary to invest some time in exploring the opportunities and keeping abreast of the latest developments. Ideally, any such decisions should also take account of your company's future strategy and growth, so the selected solutions can adapt and grow with you rather than requiring you to start all over again.

Indeed, many contractors fall behind in their use of technology simply because they can't find the time to get to grips with all of these considerations.

I would argue that the solution is for software developers and other IT companies to make these technologies easily accessible, with built-in ease of use so that understanding, introducing and implementing new systems requires the minimum time input from the user. And, once up and running, those technologies should save time, so that any time-input up front more than pays for itself further down the line.

There are a couple of everyday examples that illustrate this principle perfectly.

Live updates for pricing data

Working with materials pricing data supplied by a third party is now the norm for contractors and has been for many years. The nature of the pricing information and the mechanisms for updating it, however, have changed enormously in recent years. Contractors working with old-style data and old-style update mechanisms are not doing themselves any favours.

Starting with the update mechanisms, the first step forward from paper-based pricing was to distribute via the post on a floppy disk. Then along came e-mail as an alternative to receiving a disk in the post - a minor step forward perhaps, but certainly more convenient.

The biggest breakthrough yet in this area has been introduced in the last few months, with pricing data being updated every time you connect to the internet. This works in a similar way to updating virus information via the internet but the underlying technology is considerably more complex because pricing data is more complex than virus definitions.

The important point here is that, although the live update technology that was developed especially for these building services pricing updates is very sophisticated, it is remarkably easy to use.

Everything happens automatically whenever a pricing update is available - whether it be daily, weekly or on demand, depending on your individual needs and preferences - so that your pricing data is more up to date than it used to be and there's no hassle whatsoever in keeping it there.

Similarly, technical advances have made it possible to make the data itself more intelligent, so it contains more information and eliminates lengthy set-up procedures. At the same time, the in-built intelligence means that data no longer has to be purchased as a pre-defined package - if you want you can just pick and mix the data you use regularly, so you're only paying for what you need and you have less data to manage.

Again these are examples of technology being accessible and easy to use, with the potential to bring about huge time savings that pay for themselves in next to no time.

Estimation's SMP mobile

Working on the move

Mobile technologies are hot news at the moment, with more and more ways of communicating without the use of wires. For contractors involved in service and maintenance they offer the opportunity to improve communications with technicians in the field and manage them more efficiently,

Nevertheless, many contractors have shied away from introducing mobile technologies because, historically, it has taken a lot of time to research the best solution and required a significant investment in new hand-held hardware. Very often, such hardware would have to be dedicated to the service and maintenance operations and would not be suitable for other uses.

However, mobile solutions that have only recently come to market have changed all that. These have been developed using technologies such as Java and Microsoft's .NET, which are found on just about every mobile device in use today. As a result, service and maintenance software can be used on existing mobile 'phones, PDAs, XDAs, tablet PCs and even specialist devices such as Blackberry.

This means there is no need to buy in new hardware to run a mobile-based service and maintenance operation, and the software itself can be used on a pay-as-you-go basis rather than shelling out for lots of separate licences.

Planning for the future

Given the pace of change, it's advisable to build in some future-proofing to any investment in technology, so that as your needs change, your technology can change with you. It's impossible to predict the future, of course, but opting for technology providers that offer clearly defined upgrade paths will ensure that you can increase your functionality as and when you need it - again with the minimum disruption and the maximum benefit to your business.

1 April 2006


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