Blue-Collar Workers

Rugged equipment is crucial in the field, yet IT must balance durability with cost.

New York City police officers have a new crime-busting tool: Panasonic handhelds.

If you think they're not as effective as the more traditional handgun or billy club, just consider this account: Officers questioning a shooting victim learned that the man was a registered sex offender who was violating parole -- information that officers got solely because they had instant access to a photograph sent to their wireless Panasonic handhelds, says Joseph D'Amico, deputy chief of the New York City Police Department.

Joseph D'Amico, deputy chief of the New York City Police Department

Joseph D'Amico, deputy chief of the New York City Police Department

Image Credit: Steven Vote

"This is a major change in how detectives access information," says Jim Onalfo, the department's CIO and a deputy police commissioner.

Although few wireless deployments for field workers offer such dramatic results, technology executives from various industries find that mobile devices significantly improve the productivity and efficiency of their blue-collar and field service employees.

But successful deployments to these workers require special considerations that don't apply to their executive and white-collar counterparts. IT managers should ask, for example, whether field workers need ruggedized hardware, how IT will service equipment that's out on the road and whether employees will even get connectivity in remote work areas.

If those issues are properly handled, researchers say, mobile devices can have significant returns on investment for this class of workers.

"We're seeing the barrier to entry getting lower and lower as the cost of the devices comes down and the robustness of the handheld computing devices goes up. So we're seeing tremendous opportunities for field service workers in multiple industries," says Mark Vigoroso, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston.

Onalfo agrees, but at the same time, budget and staff constraints remain challenges to use and adoption at large operations such as the NYPD, he says.

The NYPD has about 53,000 employees; about 37,000 of them are officers, and the rest are civilians. The department also has 16 million master file records. Equipping a staff that size with secure wireless devices that can access high volumes of records comes at a high price -- especially because officials say officers need the more expensive ruggedized handhelds for what is at times a very physical job.

Onalfo, who oversees an IT department of 315 that he says is already understaffed, would also incur costs from hiring additional employees to support the wireless initiative.

Despite cost and staffing concerns, Onalfo says the NYPD is moving ahead with its plans to increase the number of laptops and handhelds officers use in the field.

"We have a dire need for wireless technology in the field," he says, noting that mobile technology can offer significant payback in the public safety sector. "Any technology where we can put information in the hands of someone dealing with crime can be instrumental."

Onalfo doesn't have traditional ROI figures for existing or planned initiatives, but Vigoroso cites some impressive findings. In a November 2005 study from Aberdeen Group, the companies surveyed that had mobile field-service systems reported an average improvement in worker productivity of 27%, a 19% improvement in customer satisfaction and retention, a 17% improvement in overall profitability and a 13% improvement in service revenue.

Durable Device

As you might expect, just passing out handhelds won't guarantee such returns. IT executives must not only consider the typical questions that go with any deployment -- What training is needed? How do I get worker buy-in? -- but they must also ask questions particular to blue-collar jobs and field work. Consider

the environment in which the devices will be used, for example. IT department heads must find a device that has the right technology for the job, is sturdy enough to handle tough conditions and comes at the right price.

"That has been a balancing effort.It's been a collaborative effort here to get the right machine for the job," says Andrew Kasznay, a software engineer who oversees mobile and wireless applications at Northeast Utilities in Berlin, Conn.

Workers need easy-to-use applications and screens that are big enough to see but compact enough to qualify as mobile, Kasznay says. They also need screens that are visible both day and night. And the devices must be able to withstand bumpy rides and extreme temperatures.

"If you take one ride in a line truck, it clarifies to you what the need is for field-hardened machines," Kasznay says.

Meanwhile, the IT staff wants devices that won't break down in the field, and the corporate folks want handheld applications that are compatible with existing back-office systems, he adds.

At Northeast Utilities, each division uses different hardware, depending on its needs, Kasznay says. Moreover, officials have adapted as the company and its workers have become more comfortable with the technology.

Take its environmental division. Environmental coordinators had been using Panasonic Toughbooks, says Rick Pizzella, manager of environmental operations at Northeast Utilities. But the company recently switched from those ruggedized laptops, which cost about $6,500 to $7,000 each fully equipped, to nonruggedized Hewlett-Packard laptops that cost about $2,000 apiece, in part to capitalize on some technological advantages.

"It means [workers] have to be very careful with them. They can't leave them out in their cars overnight during the wintertime. But at less than a third of the cost, I can afford some mistakes and end up spending less than I would have with the Toughbooks," Pizzella says.

Even figuring in the cost of replacement equipment, he says it's clear that the wireless laptops have created efficiencies for his department. For example, environmental coordinators dispatched to sites for cleanups of oil-filled transformers can access information critical to determining what mitigation is needed at each particular site.

Pizzella says he keeps an extra laptop or two handy in case IT needs to test new software or a worker's unit goes down in the field. He also says he has learned that the success of mobile deployments relies on a good rapport with IT.

"We're much more closely aligned with our IT department than we were," he says, adding that an IT person is on call at all times to respond to his department's needs.

Multitude of Requirements

But even with such alignment, challenges with mobile deployment remain. Just ask Ron Fijalkowski, executive vice president of technology and central services at Strategic Distribution Inc., a Bristol, Pa.-based company that works with businesses to manage their maintenance, repair and operations supply chains.

SDI started equipping its blue-collar workers with mobile devices in 2003 as its customers pushed for greater efficiencies. In addition to equipping the company's own employees, who work on-site at customer locations, SDI also works with its customers to get their employees to use mobile technology, Fijalkowski says.

"When you get into wireless, you need very thin, light applications. These people aren't going to go through pull-downs to be functional. They want to do what they want to do very rapidly," he says. "And we needed an environment that would be programmable; that was a critical element for us."

On the device side, SDI wanted something "that would have staying power, would grow and would be easy to support and develop under the programmable requirement," Fijalkowski says.

SDI went with ruggedized handhelds from Hand Held Products Inc. and Symbol Technologies Inc. and chose iPaq pocket PCs from Hewlett-Packard Co. for those who wanted nonruggedized hardware. SDI uses middleware from Dexterra Inc. and developed the end-user applications internally using Microsoft Corp.'s .Net technology.

As Fijalkowski has rolled out wireless to more workers and more employees of SDI's customers, he has drawn some important conclusions. One is that for an implementation to be successful, blue-collar workers need devices that can survive tough working conditions; they're less likely to use the new hardware if it breaks easily.

The systems also have to be tailored to the workers. "My experience with the workers is if the application does something for them and it's not an ERP system imported to a PDA, they'll adapt to it fast," Fijalkowski says.

He also warns IT departments to remember details that, if ignored, can trip them up. For example, he points out that since mobile devices have limited battery life, someone needs to manage batteries. IT also needs to emphasize accountability among workers, making it clear that they're getting expensive tools that need to be treated with care.

Fijalkowski also recommends choosing someone to be an on-site superuser so the help desk doesn't get flooded with calls over minor technical snafus.

"There has to be some ownership at the site level," he says. "You need ownership at the location, because you're going to be doing this remotely."

See the complete Faces of Mobile IT special report.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at

Special Report

The Faces of Mobile IT

Different types of mobile workers, such as road warriors, telecommuters and blue-collar workers, need different forms of IT support.

Stories in this report:

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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