Companies are experimenting with low-cost, stripped-down E-mail that all employees--from bank tellers to factory workers--can access
Ken Mitchell, a shift manager at Mannington Mills Inc.'s commercial flooring plant, relies on E-mail to keep in touch with his crew leaders. They use PCs around the factory floor to share updates on machinery problems and handle scheduling, and Mitchell checks messages at home using his own computer each morning so he knows what to expect when he gets into work. "It keeps me from shooting from the hip," he says.
Five members of Mitchell's 17-person crew have Outlook Web Access accounts, which they use to receive information on everything from sales updates to job openings within the company. Mitchell would like to get the whole team on E-mail, so he could do things such as distribute notes from crew meetings, reinforcing the discussion for those in attendance and catching up those on other shifts who couldn't make a meeting. "I think it will slowly evolve into everyone having it," he says.
Giving Mannington's hourly workers E-mail hasn't been a distraction, says Leonowich (left), with Mitchell.
Mitchell and his bosses at Mannington are part of the slow movement to bring factory-floor workers into the Internet age. A huge chunk of the American workforce--retail employees, bank tellers, and, yes, factory workers--have been largely left out of the IT revolution. People who operate some of the world's most sophisticated computer-aided manufacturing tools still often depend on paper handouts, bulletin boards, staff meetings, and even the good old U.S. mail to get their own benefits information.
By not embracing E-mail more broadly, employers may be missing out on cost savings from cutting the amount of information they have to print and distribute, and productivity gains resulting from a better-informed workforce with closer ties to its employer. But a combination of factors, from tight IT budgets to fears of E-mail being more distraction than benefit on the factory floor, have kept it from happening more.
Getting money for any IT project is tough these days. But companies such as Mannington that employ many deskless workers are experimenting with lower-cost alternatives to the Microsoft Exchange and IBM Lotus Notes E-mail systems that support most knowledge workers. To cost-effectively deliver this stripped-down E-mail to workers who've never had it before, companies are installing shared PCs and kiosks in stores and on factory floors or asking people to dial in from home. The rewards can be dramatic, but so can the challenges, including getting employees to buy in to a new way of communicating.
Illinois Tool Works should save money by distributing company memos electronically, IT director Palano says.
Illinois Tool Works Inc., a maker of industrial equipment and components with $9.5 billion in annual revenue, is trying to get as many of its 50,000 employees as possible on its newly deployed Mirapoint Inc. Web-based E-mail system. The company started six months ago with its mobile white-collar staff, including the field sales force. IT director Marc Palano hopes to roll out Mirapoint to factory personnel by year's end.
Palano hasn't estimated the savings from a widespread Mirapoint deployment, but he expects that distributing company memos will cost much less electronically. "It's one of those soft-dollar things we've never really thought about, but I know it's significant," he says.
At printing company R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., rolling out E-mail to the last 20% of its employees is part of a larger plan for better communication. Gary Sutula, who retired from the CIO post in December after engineering an effort to slash IT spending by $17 million over three years, saw an E-mail rollout as a complement to the self-service human-resources portal the company deployed last fall. The goals: reduce the cost of disseminating information to employees, simplify communication between employees and customers, and give employees current information that will yield better and faster decision making.
When Sutula came on the job five years ago, one of his first tasks was condensing six E-mail systems--the result of acquisitions and rampant decentralization--into one. He standardized on Lotus Notes, and by the end of last year, 24,000 of the company's 30,000 employees were on the system; eventually, all employees will have Notes accounts.
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