Federal mediators using handhelds

Dashing to help settle contract disputes, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service mediators spend more time going through airport security than working at their office computers. Now, with the increased use of wireless handheld devices, field managers are abandoning their laptops and slipping their offices into their pockets.

Field managers, who mediate between employers and employee unions and provide management and problem-solving training, travel to the sites of labor disputes. A little more than a year ago, the service, an independent agency, purchased 40 personal digital assistants with a plan to eventually equip all 200 mediators with the devices, allowing them to pass more quickly through airport security and set up presentations faster.

"The only way we can improve our service is to increase the quality and quantity of work we do," said Michael Wolf, director of mediation technology services for the agency.

Wolf said the handheld devices ease the stresses and delays in travel. Mediators don't have to turn on the devices at security checkpoints as they did with laptops. "It's getting more and more difficult to travel with laptops," he said. "We find that not having to clear laptops at airports is a tremendous benefit in and of itself."

Handheld devices have proved easier to operate than laptop computers and allow mediators to launch into presentations without much setup time. Mediators can cut a 30-minute presentation to 15 without the "rigmarole" of setting up, said Phil Underwood, vice president of sales and marketing for Margi Systems Inc., a provider of presentation software for handheld devices.

This allows less tech-savvy managers to focus on the task at hand, rather than fumble with the technology. "In an organization with people who are not technology people, you want to minimize training, minimize frustration and keep people productive out in the field," Wolf said.

The first 40 field managers attended a two-day training session in Kansas City, Mo., where they learned basic presentation skills, wireless communication functions and how to use Margi's Presenter-to-Go. They have been using the devices in the field for about 10 months, and as with any new technology, the managers have experienced some initial growing pains. They were learning to operate the devices at the same time that the IT staff was developing a new infrastructure to support the technology, Wolf said.

When the service bought the handhelds, each device cost about $1,200, Wolf said. The price has dropped to about $800 and will continue to drop, saving the service more money when it equips the remaining 160 mediators. The service requested and received from Congress money to buy more devices. Officials at the service are now trying to decide the best way to use the funds.

James Kobielus, a senior analyst for the Burton Group, said that when agency officials are considering switching handheld devices, they should choose a device capable of doing it all — for example, retrieving voice mail and connecting to a network. The device should also have several safeguards in place to secure sensitive data. Kobielus said if mediators intend to take the devices everywhere and the benefits go beyond just saving a few minutes at the airport, it's worth it.

"If it makes them a more responsive agent in the field and allows them to be more adaptable and manage their time more effectively, then it's probably more worthwhile," he said.

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Presentations to go

To increase efficiency as mediators respond to labor disputes, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is equipping mediators with handheld devices and software that allow them to easily travel with and make presentations.

With Margi Systems Inc.'s Presenter-to-Go software, mediators can create presentations on their desktop computers and then transfer them to handheld devices by simply clicking on a screen icon. They can also do some last-minute tweaking on the handheld, such as hiding and reordering slides.

The presentations have the same screen quality, speed and performance as those run on notebook computers, and the software was designed to be easy to use, said Phil Underwood, Margi's vice president of sales and marketing.

"It makes it easy. If I've got two or three meetings, I can do it with a handheld device. I don't need a notebook [computer]," he said. "I'm up and running in a matter of seconds."

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