A growing number of wireless technologies -- such as GPS and RFID – let businesses to track workers, deliveries of time-sensitive information, and even company vehicles. But does this help or hurt business?
Golden Valley, Minn.-based Wessin Transport Inc. not only tracks packages, it tracks its truckers. And business is booming.
“We do so to measure route efficiency,” explains Alan Schostag, director of information systems for the 100-plus employee company, which handles some regional shipping for companies like Amway Corp. and Avon Products Inc. Using a GPS-enabled cell phone carried by each driver, the company and its clients can track drivers and their cargo in real time. If it routinely takes drivers too long to make certain runs, the company can make changes. And their clients can chart their progress, too.
Wessin uses a solution offered by AirClic, a Newtown, Pa.-based provider of mobility solutions. AirClic offers a hosted solution that allows companies to track assets and employees using barcode, radio frequency identification (RFID) or global positioning system (GPS) capabilities, and the ability to transmit data in real-time to the organization or their clients, wherever they are.
“It’s an A-1, fantastic product,” says Schostag. “There were no problems rolling it out, and it’s cheaper than using PDAs” because it can be linked to cell phones, he notes.
And other companies are following suit. AirClic’s sales are brisk, tapping into a growing interest in harnessing GPS and related technologies. Fifty-eight percent of the 1,140 IT professionals surveyed in Sept. 2006 by San Mateo, Calif.-based Ventana Research said that GPS-related technologies had “a very important role” in the future of their business.
Not just for FedEx anymore
AirClic’s MP solution is unique, says AirClic CEO Tim Bradley, because it allows even the smallest company to use it at a cost of $1-$2/day per user. ‘We think it’s a unique product,” he says, because it integrates so many technologies and puts them right in the client’s hand.
Small and mid-sized businesses "that don’t have the luxury of IT support struggle to know what’s happening in the field with sales, support, or contractors,” he explains. “You don’t have to be FedEx anymore to have access to this kind of network,” he says.
In addition to its use by shipping companies, AirClic is finding a market for its solution among companies needing to track custodial employees at theme parks, those tracking health care personnel, or firms needing to capture time data for payroll purposes.
Privacy might be a concern
But how might employees feel about being tracked in this fashion?
In union shops, it is of some concern. “The Teamsters Union is making sure that protective language is included in any contracts that we negotiate. Our members must be protected from the misuse of information gathered from a technology like GPS in disciplinary actions,” notes Teamsters spokeswoman Leigh Strope. The 1.4-million member union represents many transportation employees.
But in general, experts note that the U.S. courts generally side with employers when it comes to personal privacy in the workplace. “Companies can already install software that tracks what you look at on the Internet during the day and who you email,” notes Mark Roberti, editor of RFID Journal, a website and magazine that covers the RFID industry. “If someone is required to clean a bathroom, what difference does it make if the inspection is done manually or electronically?”
Wessin’s Schostag says that the introduction of GPS technology some time ago created “rumblings” in the industry, but that they have not met with any opposition among their workers. Wessin’s employees are not union members.
AirClic’s Bradley says the best way to address the privacy issue is to “be proactive.” “Working directly with the unions” and explaining the technology to workers gets the best results, he says.
Roberti adds that, with any technology, employers need to be just. “If you use the technology in an invasive way, you will have unhappy employees and many will leave.”