With improvements in mobile technology and connectivity, “always-on” employees have access to people, systems, data and business processes whenever and wherever they want to work. And businesses rely on data coming in from workers in the field. This year businesses and governments will spend $13 billion globally on iPads, according to Forrester Research.

What happens when work not only is far from an office, but it’s also out of cell tower range? That’s a challenge for GE Oil & Gas field service techs, who spend their working hours on oil rigs and wind turbines.

“If there’s no connectivity, even the best remote diagnostics are not going to provide you with the data that you need,” Sara Cerruti, field service IT manager for GE Oil & Gas drilling and surface division, said in a Field Technologies and ServiceMax webinar, “Deliver Flawless Field Service: Tips for Keeping Your Mobile Workers Connected.” Cerruti shared how GE uses technology to connect its field service techs with data, machines and processes in far-flung locations.

Rethink processes

Before GE Oil & Gas sends service technicians into the field equipped with iPads and laptops, it considers the use cases for those workers, Cerruti says. How helpful is an iPad when they’re wearing thick gloves and sunglasses, for instance?

Much of the technicians’ work is still paper-based. They fill out time cards and write service tickets to bill customers manually, but this creates lag time. “This is frustrating both to us and to the customer, because we’re not able to follow the paper trail and turn around billing the way we want to with customers,” Cerruti said.

Instead of just digitizing these paper processes, GE must consider the conditions under which technicians enter data. “Field service technicians are valuable when they’re out there working with customers,” Cerruti said. It doesn’t add value to the customer when techs are entering tons of data either using mobile devices or paper-based processes. Instead they should use technology to simplify the amount of data they’re entering so they can spend more time with customers in the field. Then GE’s techs sync the data using air cards in the field or hardwiring and using Wi-Fi back at headquarters, Cerruti said.

Evaluation recommendations

Cerruti recommended that field service organizations ask companies two important questions when evaluating mobility options. First, what is the purpose of the information that companies are asking technicians to fill in? “You want to make sure you’re minimizing how much information you’re asking them to enter into mobile device,” she said.

Second, what are the conditions under which technicians are going to be entering data? If they’re using an air card in the field, they’ll be able to send far less information than if they’re syncing in an office, for example.

You really want to take this opportunity to figure out the right information to collect in the field and the right information for people to interact with on the mobile device, Cerruti said.