iPad at Work on Dirty Jobs: 5 Lessons Learned

A small consulting firm in the construction business deploys iPads in the field, and learns plenty about the pros and cons of Apple's consumer device in the enterprise. Check out the lessons learned on cases, heat, set-up, and more.

Nearly a dozen iPads have been put to work on rooftops and in basements at dirty construction sites, from San Francisco to Las Vegas. Joseph Daniels, president of D7 Consulting, a quality-assurance consulting firm, deployed them only a couple of weeks ago—and has already learned a lot.

D7 Consulting wanted to change the way its field employees made out reports, discarding pen and paper for electronic data entry that taps into a cloud service. And so D7 Consulting entered and won a promotional contest put on by Box.net, a hosted content management services provider, for free 3G iPads and service.

Earlier this summer, D7 Consulting employees tore the wrappings from the shiny iPads, signaling the beginning of a two-phase rollout. D7 Consulting is now in the middle of the process, with half of the 20 iPads in the field today and the other half set to go there soon.

Here's what D7 Consulting has learned so far:

D7 Consulting wants to replace this ...
... with this.

1. iPad Greases the Change Management Wheels

Many of D7 Consulting's field employees, called quality assurance observers, are veterans of the trade. Suddenly, they were being told to change the way they create reports, using a new-fangled cloud service, Box.net. Hoping to stem resistance, the straight-talking Daniels delivered a hard line to his 20 or so field employees: "Get on board or get out."

Clearly, D7 Consulting's size gives it the flexibility to adopt cutting-edge technology and mandate employees use it. On the upside, the company's employees are pretty high on the tech-savvy scale.

Nevertheless, CIOs at small and large companies face similar problems in major technology rollouts. There's even a benign name for it: change management. Truth is, change management can be the biggest factor in the success or failure of an implementation at any size company.

The iPad can help grease the change-management wheels, Daniels says. The iPad is one of the most sought-after consumer electronic devices on the market today. When iPads arrived at D7 Consulting's southern California headquarters, people didn't look at the devices with fear or skepticism, rather they eagerly looked forward to using them.

"Almost everyone has used an iPhone or touch device, so getting them up to speed on that device was really a non-issue," says Terrell Woods, design and reprographics lead at D7 Consulting, as well as the in-house tech guru charged with iPad and Box.net training. (As a small firm, D7 Consulting outsources much of its IT needs).

Woods says it takes about three hours for an employee to learn how to organize and transfer files, take notes and input voice recordings on drawings and documents, find resource material, and collaborate on reports in real-time with reviewers miles away.

One best practice: Rolling out iPads is quite an undertaking (more about that later) so you'll have to do it in phases, Woods says. D7 Consulting's tech-savvy bunch made adoption easier, but if your staff is not known for having many early adopters, Woods advises you start with your most excited employees who will have the best chance of success, thus setting a precedent for the next group.

2. iPad Cuts Customer Response Times

For years, quality assurance observers came to a construction site armed with a couple of pens, paper pads, a camera, a cell phone, a voice recorder, and a binder chock full of reference materials, forms, pictures and drawings. They'd make observations at a site and then find a computer to type out a report and email it to a reviewer back at headquarters in Southern California.

After a series of follow-up work—that is, back and forth banter between the observer, reviewer and client—a final report would be e-mailed out to the client. The entire process took four or five days, says Woods.

D7 Consulting looked into alternatives to speed up this process. Field employees couldn't lug around a laptop because they're constantly moving around, taking notes and shooting pictures. iPhones? "Two words: stubby fingers," says Daniels. "There just is not enough [screen] space. Use of the phone while you're working on it also became problematic."

When the iPad hit Apple stores in April, Daniels bought one to test it out—and liked what he saw. Woods wrote up the entry for Box.net's promotional contest and won. "With the iPad, you can make changes on the fly, provide a summary to the client right then and there," Woods says, "and now we've gone from onsite to uploading [the report] to the client in 24 hours."

3. iPads Can Take The Dirt But Can Overheat

Dirty construction sites are a far cry from comfortable cubicles. How did the iPad hold up amidst the grime? Not bad, as it turns out.

Granted, it's only been a couple of weeks, but D7 Consulting says it hasn't had any problems with breakage (although iPads are sheathed in protective cases). An iPad did overheat on a job near Las Vegas in the blistering desert heat. After cooling down for 25 minutes, the iPad began working again without any further problems, says Daniels.

Some QAOs requested carrying bags that make it easy to whip out the iPad. One person even considered a neck strap just for the iPad, turning the iPad into a hanging clip board always at the ready. Daniels looked at many carrying bags and finally settled on one that fits comfortably with a shoulder strap and has a zipper pocket that hides the iPad from view when stowed.

Daniels is a big fan of anything that keeps the iPad within hand's reach of a QAO. "My largest concern was that one of our guys would put the iPad down somewhere and someone would swipe it," he says. (It's a real concern given reports of thieves robbing people of iPhones at gunpoint.)

Interestingly, D7 Consulting hasn't run into the kinds of problems often cited about the iPad, at least not yet. Clients aren't concerned about the iPad's enterprise data security shortcomings even though D7 Consulting has non-disclosure agreements with them. Well-reported lackluster AT&T coverage in the San Francisco Bay Area where D7 Consulting has a big client also hasn't been an issue, Daniels says.

4. No iPad Enterprise Management Tools Yet

The biggest problems come from Apple itself, says Daniels. Apple has notoriously shunned the enterprise in favor of the consumer for years, and this hasn't changed with the iPad. D7 Consulting deployed only a handful of iPads, yet this was still a major undertaking, he says.

Simply put, there are no good enterprise management tools for deployment, Woods says. Every iPad has to be set up individually, as opposed to putting iPads into a group and pushing a button for the same configuration. "The operating system on the iPad does not allow you to configure your iPad as an enterprise device," Woods says. "That's where it's a little tricky."

Another area where Apple falls flat: supplying enough product. When consumers have to wait in line, they get giddy; when companies have to wait, they lose money.

For instance, QAOs take a lot of photos with their digital cameras while on the job and need to download them to the iPad in order to send them to reviewers. Apple does offer an iPad camera connection kit that fits the bill. The only problem is the kit is often out of stock.

"Nobody can get them anywhere," says Daniels. "Once we get over that hump, we'll be in really good shape."

5. Customers Like The iPad Coolness Factor

On the other hand, Apple delivers a really cool side benefit.

Consider this scenario: A client will sometimes ask a QAO a difficult question, putting the QAO on the spot. Instead of saying, "Can I get back to you with the answer tomorrow?" the QAO can fire up the iPad, shoots out an email (with accompanying files) to a reviewer, and the reviewer can respond with the answer.

In essence, the iPad makes D7 Consulting look like a smart firm that taps technology for efficiency, accuracy and classy presentation of reports—all in front of the client at the site. Meanwhile, D7 Consulting's competitors still carry binders full of paper.

"We want to show people what we're doing and how we're doing it," Daniels says. "Hopefully, that will lead to more work and more interest in our company."

That might already be happening. Impressed with D7 Consulting's iPad-toting QAOs, a new client recently inquired about D7 Consulting's services for "more work across the country," Daniels says.

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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