Infomill recently worked closely with ROCC, a long-standing specialist in the UK housing sector, to fully integrate PartsArena Pro into its Uniclass software to develop an end-to-end system which can enable greater productivity from gas service teams.
It is clear that the main frustration for housing associations is disparate data sources – and they are far from alone! Infomill CEO, Jonathan Ralphs took this opportunity to discuss why trying to manage your business with disparate will lose you money and what you can do to resolve the all-too-common problem in field service operations.
Housing associations are not alone in experiencing immense frustration when it comes to the access, organisation and effective distribution of data. In fact, that data is quite often important “knowledge” that is required for various employees to achieve their job more effectively, wherever they are located.
Disparate systems, duplication of work, cumbersome processes and lengthy phone calls to establish the facts all cost housing authorities time and therefore money. They reduce productivity and hamper the ability to meet increasingly challenging budgets and targets.
If this sounds all-too-familiar, take a few minutes to consider the principle of “knowledge management” – a rising trend that is positively impacting on industries worldwide and is of particular benefit when a field service team is in daily operation.
Understanding Where the Knowledge Is
A quick definition of knowledge helps to identify the challenges and frustrations to address. Tacit knowledge primarily relates to information and data that resides in the minds of employees. When a field service operation exists such as a housing maintenance team, this is a common situation to experience. The older members of the team might have built this knowledge up over years of experience – but the big risk is that they then retire and take the knowledge with them. The “Silver Tsunami” is now a challenge for many organisations, who are seeing their field service teams become more populated with Millennials that have not built up that knowledge in their heads and need to access it in another way.
Explicit knowledge on the other hand, is generally written down or stored in a format such as a pdf, spreadsheet, PC document, technical manual, image library, parts lists or database. The frustration here is that all of these various sources – which provide information to help employees do their jobs better – can be stored in entirely different places. In fact, it can be impossible for the right people to be able to access the right information at the right time. And so, the cycle of lengthy phone calls, duplication of work and hampered productivity continues.
Based on a 2017 survey of field service technicians, The Service Council developed a “Technicians’ Mobile Wish List”. 36% of respondents said access to service manuals was very important, whilst another 27% said that knowledge base access would increase efficiency and reduce time on site. That adds up to 63% of respondents saying they need better access to knowledge!
Addressing the Knowledge Gap
At Infomill, we call this situation the “knowledge gap” – it’s out there, but how do you consistently get it into the hands of the right employees in the right format, even when they are out in the field?
Taking the example of PartsArena, the UK heating industry’s leading source of data, there’s more than 180,000 different boiler parts, no less than 16,000 different appliances, in excess of 110 global brands and over 5,000 different servicing and installation manuals! This is all explicit knowledge that in the right hands, can have an incredibly positive impact on productivity every day. But the vast majority of housing associations experience the daily frustrations of this knowledge residing in many different locations, in many different formats – certainly not on the mobile devices of their field service team. And this is a critical knowledge gap.
How to Improve Your System of Knowledge Management
The first step to making a difference is to appreciate the issue and to assign a cross-functional team to look at what can be done in your organisation. That might include IT specialists and key decision makers, but it should also include members of your operational and field service teams – these are generally the people that need the knowledge to perform better.
Now you can establish where your organisation’s knowledge actually is! You’re likely to draw up a disparate list of data and information that will exist in many formats. Some might only be accessible via suppliers. You will appreciate that tacit knowledge is much hard to access and share widely, so your focus will probably be on explicit sources.
The next stage generally involves some specialist outside help, such as a knowledge management solutions provider. You need to determine what you wish to achieve and consider how the various data sources could be converted to create one powerful “knowledge base”. Furthermore, you need to consider how you will make this both effective and accessible to those parties that require it. You cannot simply create a file that holds a list of lengthy pdfs or a huge spreadsheet – this is simply not usable and will do little for your productivity.
Where field service is concerned, a knowledge base needs to be mobile, easily searchable and developed using a specifically created platform to handle technical data. Your employees also need to be able to feed back on areas that could be developed to help them further. And the entire thing must remain current in its content, as dated information will lose trust very quickly.
Thankfully, specialists such as ROCC have the expertise to walk you through this process so that you don’t have to do it on your own.
The Benefits of Better Knowledge Management
Maybe I should have highlighted the benefits at the start of this article, but I feel that they are more pertinent when you understand the significance of poor knowledge management.
Imagine a situation where your employees, both office and field-based, are equipped with the knowledge that they need to carry out their jobs properly. Field service engineers can access information via a mobile device to understand what the fault is and what parts are required to fix it. They can log this information using a job management application within their field management solution, passing it straight to the office (no lengthy phone call) for action. The overriding benefit here is that the engineer spends less time on a particular job and the administration required to support it is also less. That means less cost overhead apportioned to that job.
But taking the example further, with access to the right knowledge in the first place, the engineer has more than likely ordered the right parts, resulting in a faster fix. This immediately cuts down on additional site visits to further try and remedy the problem. Not only does this save money (in turn, increasing profitability), it can boost the morale of your team who are motivated from delivering faster results.
Let’s then look at the benefits from the tenant’s point of view. The service that you deliver to him is greatly enhanced. Your first visit is more productive and probably shorter. Should a second visit be required with a part replacement, it’s more than likely the right part and solves the problem. No further visits are required, meaning less inconvenience to the tenant and a much happier tenant relationship.
Focusing exclusively on cutting costs around the field service experience is now a strategy from a bygone era. In this time of empowered customers and stiff competition, field service must exceed expectations and deliver value in every interaction. To meet those heightened expectations, organisations must ensure that the entire team has access to the knowledge required to make strategic decisions and deliver value to the customer.
From whichever angle you choose to look at it, proactively deciding to do something about your disparate data and information will reap rewards to your organisation. In a technology-rich world, the tools exist to achieve these objectives and make a huge difference to your operations across all levels – all to the benefit of cost management, profitability, staff and tenant morale. Perhaps addressing your knowledge gap should be on your to-do list for 2018?