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The iPad as a field service device? Someone’s got their head in the cloud

December 3, 2010 1 comment

Last week saw what was claimed to be the first announcement of a cloud computing field service application to run on an iPad – the massively hyped tablet computer from Apple.

In fact the announcement represents a convergence of hype as cloud computing has almost as many advocates as there are software companies. Cloud is a generic term for computing applications and data that are accessed over the internet and which aimed to change the rules of the IT game. The iPad was to be its trusty foot soldier and missionary.

I am not a great fan of Apple but then neither am I a fan of PC brands either – to me they are just tools to do a job. But could the popularity of the iPad help the cloud get a better foothold in business spaces like field service? The question really revolves around whether the iPad is a suitable field service device. ServiceMax is a partner of salesforce.com, the cumulonimbus of the concept, and it reckons the iPad is a natural choice “with its touch screen capabilities, portability and easy app installation”.

Other observers are less convinced: “Considering the price point, fragility, and limited ability to upgrade hardware to conform to new software demands, the iPad would not be sufficient to serve as a primary device for field applications,” said one expert. Another was more direct: “An iPad wouldn’t stand a chance in most field service scenarios.”

Of course there are different degrees of field service device stress. Some environments are like working in an office where the biggest risk is have coffee dropped in it. In others the device will need to deal with the rough and tumble suffered by all the other kit in the back of an engineer’s van travelling from site to site while other environments are significantly more hostile – oil rigs, transmission antennas or frankly anything outdoors in the current climate. The iPad may be made to be portable but it is not truly ruggedised.

So, if the iPad is a horses for courses device, what of the cloud in general – does it have a future in field service? One of its appealing qualities is that it liberates an organisation of many of the difficulties and restrictions of running its own IT infrastructure; effectively allowing the corporate department to be bypassed by not having to seek their approval or dip into CapEx.

This can appear very attractive. There is a long running grumble about the service department being at the rump end of any corporate IT investment or innovation. Other attractions are the lower operational costs because the software and servers are run by the expert provider (although you’ll still need your iPad or other terminals), the solution should be easily scalable (up or down) and the applications and data will be available over any internet connection.

A word of warning though – look closely to see if any solution you assess does what it says on the tin. Computing companies love to jump on any passing bandwagon and if there’s any hint of an internet or remote application in the company’s system and suddenly the marketing department declare “it’s cloud”.  As a sage opined: “The cloud can look very attractive in the sky but when it comes down to earth it’s just fog.”

Blog first appeared on ServiceManagement365.com

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Why customer service engineers benefit from the human touch

November 17, 2010 Leave a comment

I have had two conflicting conversations recently about the installation of new mobility technology in field service applications.  On the one hand a vendor of tracking solutions said the age of the difficult engineer refusing to accept this sort of ‘spy in the cab’ technology was over.  On the other a service manager said things may be better than they once were but management certainly does not have carte blanche when it comes to putting technology in the hands of engineers. 

Obviously these two people have differing perspectives and I am sure many readers will have had their own interesting experiences here when driving change.  It does seem to be one of the ironies of life that is the human’s ability to adapt to its environment that has made it one of the planet’s most successful species but we can all still get uppity when we are given a new tool at work. 

So one of the big challenges on any new mobility programme (by which I mean communicating with field engineers or their vehicles either directly or indirectly) is to get the engineers on board. Issuing orders or diktats isn’t effective – you might get it installed but you won’t get it working to the best of its capability.  “Engineers have that passive aggressive thing which means equipment has a strange habit of malfunctioning if they don’t like it,” said my friend.

So how do you get them to not only accept but also embrace this change? Appeal to their self interest was the conclusion of my straw poll.  Here are some favoured ways I’ve heard.

  1. Tell them it’s for their own safety particularly when working alone.  This won’t necessarily win their hearts but for their minds it is difficult to argue against
  2. Sell them the more interesting, personal benefits such as how much easier it will make their working day by reducing paperwork, better diagnostic tools, access to colleagues to discuss tricky problems.  Perhaps it might even give them access to the internet while they are travelling or an app which can tell them the location of the nearest donut shop
  3. Get them flashy kit they’ll like to show off to their mates down the pub – engineers are gadget lovers so appeal to that one-upmanship
  4. Bribe them – give them cash at the installation and a reward once it starts producing savings
  5. Appoint a peer group leader – someone who has the team’s respect, will champion the cause and lessen the them and us attitude 
  6. Run a competition for the best engineers and the winners get the new system – make it a badge of honour and having it aspirational
  7. Engage with them on the kit or system you are buying.  Let them test it and feel they have had a hand in the purchase and that it’s not foisted on them

In summary, although it may be hard to believe for some managers, engineers are only human and so may have a better nature to appeal to.   If you have ever done that successfully some other way please share it with others at the Service Management LinkedIn Group

This article first appeared on Service Management 365.