Great EHS products are integrated products

Jonathan Brun

Integration determines the difference between good and great. If you pick up a physical product, you can detect if it is high quality or a cheap item that risks falling apart. The quality of the materials can be felt and touched with the hand, the joints and connectors can be quickly tested, the flex, the rigidity and the balance of the product lets you know very easily if the producer thought through the use of their device from start to finish or if design was sacrificed to save time.

The quality of software is often harder to judge, mostly because people are not as familiar with what differentiates software. The average consumer or business executive still thinks of software as a list of features on a piece of a paper. We think that if a software can do x, y and z, it meets our requirements. Imagine purchasing a car without test driving it first or comparing a Porsche to a beaten up 1984 Toyota Corolla based on the fact both can go from A to B. In fact, integration and design are just as important as in a physical product.

The environmental, health and safety (EHS) compliance field began in a paper and document centric world and is slowly moving towards a digital, information based environment. At Nimonik, we come at the EHS world from the point of view of technologists. After five years of working in the field, we understand how the intersection of technology and content will apply to the environmental, health and safety compliance sector.

The battle in the computer industry

DELL computer revolutionized the personal computer industry in the 1990s by selling directly to the consumers. They also innovated by using parts from a variety of suppliers and letting customers customize their computer. You could pick a video card from one company, a hard drive from another. Though this customization allowed for choice and flexibility, it sacrificed quality. Ultimately the lower quality was unable to compete with the superior products offered by integrated companies. Dell became the Wal-Mart of the computer industry.

At the other extreme, Apple has always believed in an extremely integrated product. They tightly control everything from the hardware to the software to the retail experience to the customer support. No matter where you go, you know what you are getting, and it is high quality. Their vertical integration has proven to be a commercial success, with high growth and large profit margins. Their devotion to fully integrated and well designed products allowed them to more fully satisfy their customers.

Microsoft has traditionally offered software that runs on other companies hardware. This model helped them beat Apple in the 1980s and 1990s. For a variety of reasons, selling software separate from computers proved successful. Partially, this was due to the flexibility of computers – with a mouse and keyboard, you have many inputs to control and manipulate a computer. With the advent of touch based devices, the potential inputs dramatically decreased. You now only have your fingers. As the potential inputs into the system decreased, the design and integration of the product required much more thought. Microsoft has come to realize this and now offers both hardware and software for its line of mobile phones and tablet based devices. Similar challenges of integration or piece meal approach exist in the health, safety and environmental software industry.

Two approaches to EHS compliance

In environmental, health and safety software and compliance business, most solutions come in one of two flavours: content providers or systems providers. Some companies offer well written newsletters and updates while others pitch empty software that helps manage your EHS system. Few companies try to offer both. At Nimonik, we believe that the end user wants a single integrated solution with important regulatory information married to easy to use technology.

On the one side, companies who are born as content providers, often try to bolt on technological solutions – they had CD-ROMS, Windows software, basic online database websites and now some email alerts. On the other side, companies who began as software solutions try to source content from a series of suppliers (often the first group) and integrate it without significantly altering the software or the content. This usually results in a very clunky experience as software designed for inputting data is rarely conducive to reading text, and vice versa. Both approaches can work in the short term, but will eventually lose out to an integrated solution that has been thought through with the understanding that the user’s interaction between the content and the technology are inseparable.

Newspapers going online

The newspaper industry has been devastated by the flight of ad revenue from their pages. Newspapers used to have a near monopoly on information and classifieds ads but came under tremendous pressure by blogs, Craigslist and their poor attempts to convert to the digital era. Newspapers value was perceived as their content – they brought people important news, analysis and commentary. But they also brought that information to people in a great format – the disposable newspaper with large eye-catching headlines. With the shift to online content delivery, most newspapers have taken the approach of publishing their content via a database that has aesthetic layer placed on top, facilitating navigation of the content and of advertisement delivery. The approach has not bore the fruits most newspapers hoped. They have then had to cut costs in the newsroom, further reducing the quality of the product and reinforcing the flight of readers. The few successful papers who have transitioned to the digital era did so by rebuilding their products from the ground up.

With more and more papers going under, it is clear their method for delivering news and commentary online is not sufficient. A 21st century content publisher must completely rethink the way people consume news on digital platforms and particularly, on iPads. Instead of throwing content in a cookie cutter template, we must build interactive apps that leveraged the technology and the content in a new and unique manner.

La Presse, Québec’s largest paper, rethought the way their newsroom manages and publishes information. To successfully transform a paper process into a digital one, you need to go well beyond the typical practice of simply converting your forms and reports to a digital format. This detailed breakdown of the La Presse+ Newspaper article clearly articulates the thought process (free app here). The other publication that really stands out on the iPad is the Al Jazeera English Magazine application (Update: the NYT is relaunching with a much better design too). Both of these examples can take a bit of time to digest, but the key element is that digitally published content is fundamentally different than words on paper and this is doubly true on a touch based device. Therefore, the complete integrated design of content production, management and consumption becomes absolutely essential to satisfying the user’s expectations online and on the iPad.

Rethinking the content – technology relationship

The main benefit of technology is to remove steps in a process. Printing presses replaced hand copied books, steam engines replaced horses and men, spreadsheets replaced complex paper calculations, etc. Even the most cutting edge entrepreneurs agree that technology if fundamentally about making a process simpler and faster (Wired article). But once we have simplified a process, we need to think about how we can further leverage it to do things in entirely new and better ways, ways that were not possible using the previous medium.

An example we see in the safety and environmental audit sector are certain audit tools where you can sign off on a report. This is a paper mentality transferred to a digital era. If we think about authenticating an audit report and its completion, a signature seems archaic. Instead, on an iPad we can easily log the auditor, date, time and location of every audit finding, corrective action and report sent. This information can then be captured in the report and provided to the appropriate people for validation. In fact, this digital stamp is far more secure than any hand scribbled signature. In this example, we are both removing a step (the hand signature) and improving the security of the audit report using GPS, tagging and automatic date stamps.

To ensure truly successful and efficient EHS compliance, your organisation needs to think how information, tasks, corrective actions, and other information is managed, communicated and acted upon. The purpose of a management system or your compliance efforts should not be to fill out forms, but rather to collect and act upon data in the most efficient manner possible. To do that, ask yourself what steps could be removed from the process and how could information be more effectively communicated in a digital tool – web or iPad.