For some time now, organizations large and small have used paper forms for in-the-field data collection. But technologies available to us today are bringing quick and dramatic changes that are significantly improving the quality of data and significantly reducing the labor burden associated with obtaining and analyzing that data.
Digital data collection is a perfect fit for organizations that gather a lot of quantitative data in the form of numbers, multiple choice, dates, and images, and many in-field employees, from utility workers to refinery workers, are now using phones or tablets instead of paper.
While there may still be reasons to use paper for in-field data collection, the arguments for going digital are strong.
These are the 4 main advantages of digital data collection:
There are many aspects to the “cost” of something — it’s not just the hardware. Electronic devices of course cost more than reams of paper, even if you buy them in bulk at huge discounts. That said, when you factor in the requirement of hiring, training and employing data entry staff for the paper processes, in addition to buying and setting up the data entry machines, it ends up being costlier.
2. Speed and Efficiency
This may be the most obvious advantage of digital in-field data collection over paper. Digital data collection reduces both data collection time and also the time required to analyze and distribute the data collection results.
One of the main issues with paper is its administrative burden. Paper can be unwieldy, not only for field workers but for the staff that needs to manage the paper forms. And if changes arise, it can be a nightmare to update and distribute them, while digital forms can be updated and pushed to all field workers quickly and automatically at the press of a button.
3. Data Quality
Digital data collection not only reduces the possibility of error at the point of in-field data collection, but it can also automate data auditing. By both processing and auditing data much faster, errors get caught and corrected much quicker.
Also — paper can be lost, destroyed, or mishandled in a number of ways, which can create problems later if the data needs to be re-accessed. Digital data, on the other hand, can be easily and inexpensively stored, copied, backed up, and — if needed — encrypted for secure future access.This also improves the transparency and visibility of the data, allowing for things like governance and access to enhance risk-mitigation and reduce the risk of data leaks.
4. Visibility and Tracking
The fourth very important advantage of digital over paper in-field data collection is tracking. Paper processes don’t tell you anything about what’s going on in real time, but with a digital platform, as soon as a field tech or operator completes and submits a form in the field, the data is accessible to all stakeholders. The visibility provides you with immediate answers to questions such as, “Have all the safety requirements been met?” or “Have all the equipment and maintenance records been observed?” or “Is any team’s overall productivity improving or worsening?” You can’t manage what you don’t track. Analytics empowers organization to effectively manage both assets and people.
The real-life examples of the power of digital data collection are varied and numerous.
- For utilities, in-field technicians can use digital data collection to dispatch customer, location, job, and part information, and route work-order results for immediate processing.
- In transportation, plant asset inspection and equipment maintenance used to take up to 5 days with paper processes; now — forms are dispatched to all of management via a centralized, cloud-based platform and the whole process takes less than an hour.
- In energy, refinery employees at Valero, for example, have switched from using index cards to record information on safety, equipment and cleanliness, to using iPads, leading to significantly improved safety, accountability and transparency.
Many if not most organizations stand to benefit substantially by switching from paper to digital data collection for in-field work. It’s really not a matter of if but when. When you will take the leap?