Are you running a sprint or a marathon on the technology track? Do you feel like a hamster on a wheel, trying to evaluate new gadgets and systems? Even electrical contractors aren’t immune to technology headaches, especially when you’re spending all of your time just serving your customers.

Whatever race you’re running, the key issue is pacing to your ability, and deciding whether you want to lead the pack or run with it.

You’re known to those in the tech industry as a “Bleeding Edger” if you bought your fax machine before there was anyone to receive your faxes, and you always have the latest gadget. You embrace the paperless office, and you use wireless everything.

You’re a “Pacer” if you wait at least two years before you buy a new product, and you only deal with established vendors who will be there to service what they sell to you. You wait until new products and systems are debugged and the prices come down.

If you only upgrade your systems or buy new gadgets when your customers absolutely insist, or when your employees revolt, then you’re probably a “Dinosaur.” You stay with what works, even if it’s a bit chipped and frayed, and you aren’t convinced that computers save that much time. You like doing business in person, and you probably have an old typewriter sitting on your desk. You’re so far behind on the track, your customers will have gone home by the time you cross the finish line.

Reducing your overhead and improving reporting efficiency starts with analyzing every process and task in your system. Why do you produce each report, who is required to read it, and what do you do with the information? Are you building historical knowledge, protecting your company from future claims and liability or enhancing customer relationships? Can you condense and summarize the data into one page instead of multiple spreadsheets?

Track trends, not individual points of data, and look for patterns in profitability by customer and job type. When you require an employee to report something, explain why you need it and return the results to those who provide the source data. When people see the value of what they report, they will be more accurate and prompt in providing it.

What does it cost you to process each document, such as change orders, daily field reports, punch lists, schedule updates, shop drawings and payroll? Would it surprise you to know that you’re spending $45 to $85 to process each invoice? A study by the Gartner Group found that office workers spend 40 to 60 percent of their time shuffling paper. The average document is copied five times, costs $7.50 to handle and $20 to manage over its lifetime. About 3 to 5 percent of documents are lost or misfiled, and executives spend about 7.4 percent of their time looking for them. It costs about $120 to find a misfiled document, and $250 to replace a lost one.

During the next five years, even the “Pacers” will be converting to document imaging technology. The simplest systems available cost as little as $2,500, and for about $20,000, you can implement a system that makes your company nearly paperless. Each source document is scanned, stored and retrievable within a few seconds. The filing system uses half a dozen coding indicators, so that each item has its own “fingerprint” to identify and retrieve it.

One 9.2 gigabyte optical disk holds 2 million pages of information (equal to 32 file drawers, or 1,500 CDs). Optical disk records hold up in court, can be read without special compatible programming, and don’t get lost on someone’s desk. Add on wireless retrieval and you no longer need a copier, large expensive storage areas or overnight delivery.

Here are some of the advantages of going paperless:

• Simplified search of contract requirements

• Reduced physical storage

• Easy retrieval and simultaneous access by multiple users

• Improved reporting accuracy (no rekeying of source data)

• Reduced overhead

• Immediate information exchange between customers, vendors, job sites and office

• Improved cash flow

• Enhanced information security

Implementing an imaging system is easier than it seems. Once coded, scanning and shredding goes fairly fast. Dependable vendors are now well established, maintenance and training readily available, and the prices are dropping steadily. Even the Dinosaurs can appreciate the potential savings from eliminating 85 percent of the costs related to traditional, printed paperwork.

It won’t be long now. The “Bleeding Edgers” have already sold their warehouses, and the “Pacers” are celebrating their last crawl through the plan storage archives. In the brave new high-tech world, electrical contractors are making more money, their employees are relaxed and efficient, and feng shui consultants are cheering the elimination of clutter. The marathon has become a sprint, and the track is flat. EC

NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at bigpeng@sbcglobal.net.