Is information overload damaging our industry?

Paul Wenden of Trox UK questions whether ineffective use of IT is undermining the HVAC sector.

Technology is at the heart of our industry. It helps us deliver what our customers or employers desire from us. It achieves profitability and secures employment. It is even the key to saving the planet. But are some aspects of the information age actually working against our aims? Are we letting information overload over-ride common sense and the wisdom of experience in the HVAC industry?

In the current climate particularly, we need to work smarter and any business practice that introduces wasted time into a commercial process, or adds to the levels of risk, must be tackled and solved. In one important respect, however, our industry has disappeared down a technology driven cul-de-sac. Day after day, we are allowing sloppy use of information technology to change the ways we have traditionally done business. The results are wasted time and effort, added cost, and the risk of derailing projects entirely through easily avoidable mistakes.

I refer to the now common practice of supplying an electronic file (containing every document relating to a project) in response to each enquiry, instead of sending the relevant (often single A4 sheet) that is required. This can mean (in the case of a large project) every company in a supply chain being sent hundreds of electronic documents that are irrelevant. These need to be sifted through before the appropriate data can be worked on.

On the surface, it might appear to the provider of the information that this is saving time. There is also perhaps a lingering trace of our industry’s combative past in the trend of placing the onus on the supplier. In reality though, I believe that each time we overload another business with irrelevant information in this way, we reduce our industry’s ability to operate efficiently and competitively.

Direct communication

Before the arrival of large file transfers across the internet, the process of communication was more direct. A consultant, or other technically trained expert, would identify the relevant material and send it. At the receiving end, another engineer would receive the data and could begin to work immediately on providing the information required.

The process which has replaced this is largely de-skilled – at both the sending and receiving end. The sending usually warrants very little technical input. Anyone can press ‘Send’. At the receiving end, the time and costs involved in searching through hundreds of electronic documents are such that few firms can justify having qualified engineers to carry out this task. So instead of two technical experts communicating directly with one another, we are introducing a rather messy, often deskilled, intermediary step.

Sifting through these hundreds of documents is not, in itself, without cost, and that financial impact does not simply disappear. It must be absorbed or passed on, with either alternative affecting competitiveness of the sector overall. In addition, working in this way extends the project time, as the information has to be sifted out. It doesn’t ‘hit the ground running’ as it did before.

Most importantly, however, the communication link between engineer and engineer has been broken, increasing levels of risk which impact on both the sending and receiving businesses. It is far easier to miss relevant information when it is buried within many different electronic documents. The likelihood of mistakes increases exponentially, as does the threat of delays, wasted money and misunderstandings. The very effectiveness of the project, and its precious profit margin, are jeopardised, simply because we are allowing technology to drive us, rather than the other way round.

So why has our industry given up a workable business process in favour of one that stands to make the lives of both the sender and the receiver more difficult in the long run?

The economic climate is no doubt the culprit. The majority of businesses are working with fewer personnel than they would choose, and time is more pressured. Anything which appears, on the surface, to be labour saving is welcomed with open arms.

So what else can we do?

Perhaps technology is the solution as well as the problem. There are time saving technologies under our noses, that are currently under-utilised, which have untapped potential to make life easier and reduce project timescales. A number of equipment manufacturers (Trox included) offer product selection technology which can identify suitable system components in a fraction of the time.

There is also more opportunity than ever before to work with equipment which is pre-designed and configurable to suit the specific application. This can prove far quicker and easier than designing every element of the system from scratch. Adopting the European approach and designing around standard rather than customised components can cut significant time and cost out of projects without affecting performance.

Technology should be made to work for us – not against. Most importantly, technology should not be allowed to undermine communication in our industry. A business process as important as the handover of information between two companies in a supply chain deserves far more careful consideration than we are currently giving it.

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