What can IT do for you?

Information technology (IT) is being used throughout business and industry to improve organizational productivity and efficiency. The steady rise in U.S. worker productivity over the past decade has been credited to the investment in and use of IT by business. Electrical contractor (EC) firms also have adopted IT to streamline their business and construction processes as well as improve communication between the field and office along with other project participants.

However, many EC firms have had mixed results with IT, and changes resulting from the use of IT have not always been what was expected. For example, many electrical contractors may think that the use of cell phones in the field has resulted in less planning by field supervisors who believe that needed material and equipment are just a phone call away. To successfully implement IT, the EC needs to understand how and when to adopt IT, know how IT will affect operations and have a plan for effective and efficient IT implementation. Having policies and procedures in place for the use of IT by personnel is critical to successful IT implementation.

The capabilities and availability of IT are constantly increasing for the electrical contractor. Every day, the EC is faced with new IT products and services that promise to improve the efficiency of its operations and increase its profits. These technologies include full-featured cell phones, Web-based collaboration tools, high-speed Internet service at project sites and global positioning systems (GPS) for site layout and equipment, among many others. The only certainty is that the dizzying pace of IT change and innovation will continue well into the future.

Adopting IT is not always an option for the electrical contracting firm either. Customers—including owners, general contractors, designers, distributors, code enforcement agencies and others that it interacts with daily—also are driving the use of IT. These other entities require that the EC firm be fully compatible with their systems and know how to efficiently interface and exchange information with them electronically. This includes everything from simple e-mail to the use of sophisticated project scheduling systems and Web-based collaboration tools. In many places, the traditional paper-based plan rooms are disappearing, and the EC must connect with an electronic plan room and download the needed bid documents. Once downloaded, the electrical contractor must have the needed software to work with the documents electronically or print the documents at its expense.

Manage your ‘electronic tools’

IT resources represent the electrical contracting firm’s “electronic tools” and need to be maintained just like any other tool or piece of equipment. This means developing a complete inventory of hardware and software. Inventory information should include a description of the IT asset, who is responsible for it, where it is located, its acquisition date, its acquisition cost and other relevant data. All software licenses should be kept on file in a central location accessible only to authorized personnel. Software licenses and other information are needed not only to prove ownership, but also for upgrades, technical support and the recovery of lost or damaged software. In addition, the electrical contracting firm should have a zero-tolerance policy for the use of unlicensed or pirated software by employees, because the firm could be held accountable for the violation even if it was the result of an individual employee’s actions and the firm had no knowledge that it had occurred.

No matter how big or small the electrical contracting firm is, there is the possibility that employees will misuse or abuse the firm’s IT resources. This can be anything from responding to a personal e-mail during business hours to downloading or passing offensive material using the company’s network. Written IT policies and procedures provide guidelines regarding the appropriate use of resources and what is expected of them. IT policies should cover the use of cell phones, e-mail, instant messaging, Internet and the electrical contracting firm’s access to company-owned computers, cell phones and other communications devices for the purposes of investigating policy violations or complaints.

Additionally, established IT policies and procedures will help protect the electrical contractor from legal actions brought against it due to employee actions when using the firm’s IT resources. These policies and procedures need to reflect the electrical contractor’s culture, be consistent with other policies and procedures such as company truck use, and be developed with the help of the firm’s attorney. Once these policies and procedures are in place they must be distributed to all affected employees and enforced uniformly.                 EC

This article is the result of a research project investigating the streamlining of the EC firm’s home office operations sponsored by ELECTRI International Inc. The author would like to thank EI for its support.

GLAVINICH is an associate professor of the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at The University of Kansas. He can be reached at 785. 864.3435 or tglavinich@ku.edu.