Member Article

Electronic data capture: PDAs, tablets, or digital pens?

Imagine two different scenarios. One is an indoor risk assessment meeting with senior people. The other is an engineer carrying out a site inspection in the field. What’s the best data capture solution in each case?

Our risk assessor may well be tech savvy and comfortable using quite sophisticated technology while conducting her meeting. She can get to a power source to take over from batteries if she needs to. Direct sunlight and screen resolution are unlikely to be a problem. Reliable connectivity for transmitting the completed data may not be time critical. So in this case, a modern tablet such as an iPad could well be ideal.

Our engineer is under pressure to complete his inspection, report his findings, and get on to the next job quickly. The form he fills in will ideally be a series of tick boxes and a few fields of data. He needs to give his customer a paper record to sign and keep as evidence. Then he needs to be able to transmit the data back to head office quickly and easily without worrying about connectivity or network congestion, so the job can be invoiced the same day. In this case, a digital pen would be the perfect answer.

Two very different environments. Two totally different applications for electronic data capture. And while they may be at two ends of a huge spectrum of widely varying needs, they do go to show that no one solution ever fits all.

But let’s step back for a moment and look at the wider picture. Why is the move from paper-based reporting to electronic taking so long? Why do more than 80% of businesses still use paper systems for capturing business data – a figure that hasn’t moved much for twelve years? Why do the 400 billion business forms and 53 trillion printed documents produced globally every year still take on average between one and four time-wasting weeks to be processed?

The honest answer is that until quite recently, with the notable exception of digital pens, the alternatives haven’t been all that good or practical. There are countless examples of organisations trialling PDAs or ruggedised laptops, only to abandon them. Changes to working practices, lengthy integration and user resistance in the face of technical complexity are some of the biggest issues. IT support can be a nightmare with hundreds of users in the field dialling in over remote VP connections. Batteries dying halfway through a process can result in the loss of critical data. End customers often don’t like putting unrecognisable signatures on small glass screens or not having a paper copy. It’s all too easy to create an unwelcome barrier if the person you’re talking to feels that you’re more interested in looking at a screen they can’t see. And with the relatively high cost of PDAs and laptops, all this means that upfront investment is often unacceptably high, and ROI slow or non-existent.

The recent arrival of smartphones and tablets has of course changed the picture. Growing familiarity with friendly touchscreens and apps in the consumer world is making it easier for non-technical mobile workers to accept their use at work. Yet some of the inherent issues still remain. Screen size and visibility, network coverage and congestion, security issues, loss of power, and even the risk of distraction by social networking rather than actual working are all combining to make organisations think twice about rushing into an investment in relatively high capital cost items.

Digital pens by contrast take advantage of the fact that pen and paper still represent the largest form of IT capture, transfer and processing in the world. They give the ease and simplicity of writing with a pen, while digitising the process just like TV and radio. Once data has been captured it can typically be transmitted, converted and integrated into a central system within three minutes – using GPRS to transfer small files without the need for 3G or big broadband. With little or no need for training, change to working practices or IT support, and very low risks with security, power or data loss, digital pens show an average monthly saving per user of £180 and an ROI that can often be measured in months or even weeks.

The directors of specialist building and maintenance company FME, for example, wanted to improve on the traditional model of operatives coming into the office once every week or two with piles of paperwork for costing and processing. They opted for a Destiny digital pen system for completing job sheets. Now they can invoice work as soon as it’s signed off by the client, address any queries straightaway, and increase the productivity of their operatives.

In the end of course, its results like this that count. All that matters is finding the most effective device and process to suit the environment, the application and the job. As technology moves on we should be open to new choices, while still asking hard questions about the realities they involve.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by Edward Belgeonne .

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