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Information at your fingertips

As the internet becomes the information source of choice for many contractors, online technologies continue to evolve and add greater value. Richard Appleton, Product Manager of AMTECH Group’s new LUCKINSlive.com online information centre.

The way the internet has become such an integral part of most of our working lives has really been quite remarkable. In our experience, over the last 10 years or so, over 80% of electrical contractors have switched from paper-based to electronic information sources for price data while the internet is usually the first port of call when looking for manufacturers' product catalogues.

This phenomenon has had a profound effect on what the majority of us now expect from our information providers. In particular, we now expect virtually immediate access to the information we need.

In parallel, the ‘information superhighway’ has now become integral to the ways in which many businesses operate. Electrical contractors, for example, need quick, easy access to product information for compiling specification documents, designs and tenders; helping them to optimise resources and meet the demands of customers requiring a faster turnaround. Online information sources are often also the first port of call for people updating themselves with the latest developments in legislation and best practice.

Thankfully, the online technologies that make all this possible have also kept pace and continue to add value. One very obvious example is the switch from paper catalogues to online databases. In parallel, pricing databases have become more sophisticated and immediate and have made a major contribution to the productivity and the accuracy of estimating and procurement by contractors. However, there are times when you need more detailed information about products than just the price.

However, until earlier this year, access to online information was still very fragmented. Very often such an exercise would require visits to many different websites, with additional time spent in pulling information together from various sources. This has been a particular problem for those contractors involved in electrical, mechanical and plumbing work, who have a wide range of products to deal with.

A far more practical and time-effective approach is to have a single portal for all relevant information. And while there have certainly been attempts to achieve this, such portals have been limited in their scope – and usefulness. So it’s worth considering what criteria determine a portal that will address everyone’s needs.

Clearly, having key information in one place is vital, and that information should be comprehensive.  In addition to basic data to identify each product, such as part number and description, the information should add value by incorporating a wide range of other information. This could include catalogue pages, technical specifications, installation or maintenance manuals, pictures of products, lists of complementary products (including spares and accessories), clauses describing the product for inclusion in specification documents and possibly even demonstration videos. To that end, it must include a wide range of manufacturers from all sectors so the scope of products is equally comprehensive.

At the same time, the information should be easily and freely accessible without the need to go through lengthy log in procedures. It’s also a great help if that information can be accessed directly from links within everyday desktop software applications such as estimating, procurement, design and specification programs. When estimating, for example, a great deal of time can be saved by linking directly from an item in the estimate to a web page containing full technical details, pictures or lists of accessories. So this is a greatly streamlined approach when compared with the old way of needing to search individual manufacturers’ catalogues or web sites.

Similarly, being able to find information indirectly, using sophisticated search routines from within the site – or direct from a toolbar in your web browser - is a must.

Keeping up to speed with the requirements of the modern world also means recognising that many more people are accessing information on the move using mobile ‘phones, PDAs, netbooks etc. Again, the time savings can be significant. For instance, there may be occasions on site where it would be useful to view or download a product’s specification to assist with installation or maintenance work.

Nor should an information portal restrict itself to product data if it is to fulfil its role as a single source of information. For example, it should also deliver regular updates and alerts about key issues such as major price changes, industry news, new legislation etc. Thus it becomes an area where a wide range of highly relevant, work-related information can be accessed in one place.

While information has always been vital to every business, it certainly seems that people want more of it - faster. Therefore, taking advantage of the online technologies that now exist to work smarter and more productively makes perfect sense.

More information can be found at www.luckinslive.com