Still fond of the days of clipboards and pencil stubs? Home building's subdivision culture can find mobile communications and its host of buzzwords, acronyms, and mutating “form factors” more than a little geeky scary. Nostalgia can't compete, however, with the strategic imperatives that wireless communication promises.
As dramatically slower absorptions and weakening pricing threaten to compress margins, home builders are relying on reduced cycle time and increased efficiency, accuracy, and productivity to make up some of the gross profits they're losing on the volume and pricing side of the equation. Hoping to achieve those imperatives, big builders are embracing wireless technology and tools.
The embrace can be hesitant, with good reason. Wireless technology suffers from drawbacks that seem almost intentionally designed to chafe builders. Connectivity, also known as coverage or service, is unreliable or nonexistent in many remote spaces where builders operate. Even where connectivity exists, the wireless “pipeline” may be so narrow that data transfer becomes problematic. Software that makes personal digital assistants (PDA) and tablets compatible with a company's enterprise system and applications may not exist or may require customization or business process changes.
Despite the obstacles, big builders have achieved notable successes in putting mobile technology to work. They've either addressed the obstacles or found ways to work around them. What's the consensus? Things can only get better.
SYNCH OR SEND Connectivity is essential to mobile communications. Without it, you can't even have a cell phone conversation. For most builders, it's their biggest issue with the technology. “It's still a challenge to get the communications industry to provide the infrastructure needed, not just for the homes, but so you can outfit your trailers and field people,” says Rob Kelle, vice president and chief information officer (CIO) of Standard Pacific Corp.
Real-time or live connectivity lets users have that cell phone chat or remotely access a corporate server or a Web site. Some builders see live connections as a must, whereas others are satisfied with “synching” data devices with company computers when field personnel return to the office or find a wireless hotspot.
Sean Ryan, CIO of Capital Pacific Holdings, views live connections as vital. “Our goal is to have real-time connectivity when field personnel are in the house working,” he says. For example, if a vendor asks a superintendent what color to paint a room, an instant connection would let the superintendent log into the company server with his PDA or tablet and get the answer immediately.
“Right now, a superintendent must go to his or her truck for paperwork or to the site trailer to access our corporate extranet,” Ryan says. “Anytime our people aren't in the house, it hurts us by using time that could be spent on the job. It adds cycle time, and reducing cycle time is one of our big goals.”
For Ryan, synching is a workaround, but for Pulte Homes' CIO, Jerry Batt, it's perfectly acceptable.
Batt doesn't consider real-time connectivity critical, especially in situations such as warranty service. For face-to-face meetings with buyers, Pulte's customer service managers take their wireless tools to the meeting, open up the applications, and input the required warranty tasks. A message can stay in the manager's tablet until a synch up with an office computer, or if there's a live connection, it can be sent right away. In either case, once the message is sent, the warranty service request goes straight to the relevant vendor. “By having that device out there, we have an immediate record of need and an audit trail,” Batt says. “There can be no miscommunication from the customer to the service manager to the vendor, and it saves an hour a day for our customer service folks.”