Leaping the chasm to a plugged-in construction site

In the past I’ve had chances to help clients market to the construction trades. These include carpentry, plumbing, masonry and others that send their practitioners home with stiff joints and calloused hands. These occupations account for a surprising amount of spending. So the prospect of segmenting the groups and reaching them online is tantalizing. There’s just one problem. You won’t find them there. Probably not after work, and certainly not while they’re plying their craft. No way.

I was talking about this with my cousin, who at one time made his living as a high-end carpenter and continues to keep his hand in it. My theory is it’s the user interface keeping these craftspeople off-line, and that made sense to him.

Computers and network connections have become easier and faster, but when you’re on a construction site trying to decide how to negotiate an oddly angled room, so you can cut and install crown molding, a keyboard and mouse are not among the tools you reach for. Which is a pity. Although there is little content out there now to assist the construction trades, there could be.

Think of the digital craftspeople. If you develop software, you can find a galaxy of computer expertise online, through user forums and help sites.

The complexity of building in the real world cries out for similar networked knowledge, but for the most part, all this knowledge remains trapped at individual building sites because it’s not easy to contribute, or access the tips when you need them. The rest can be solved by the need for knowledge-sharing. The real chasm to traverse is the last 10 feet leading to the construction site.

What sort of tips can be shared? I mentioned earlier the challenge of cutting crown molding that negotiates tough corners. This requires a skill that most carpenters choose not to master. My cousin explained, “Most carpenters know that to make the angled cuts properly, they need a way to calculate the angle perfectly or they need to guess.”

Most job sites won’t tolerate the waste of guesswork, so the guys who have these angles down cold make a lot of extra money. My cousin is one of those wizards. “I’ve literally earned thousands of dollars more from this one skill,” he said. He learned it online.

He told me that the absence of online carpentry resources struck him every time he went online, which for him was often (he’s an extraordinary person, in this and many other ways). But he did luck out with this skill. His Net search returned a set of calculations that a professor somewhere made available. The formulas allowed my cousin to do the math on-site with a science calculator. It was that easy to become the crown molding go-to guy.

That was proof enough to me that valuable knowledge can be shared digitally. But how to cross the chasm? I told my cousin, probably sounding more confident than I should, that it’s the next generations of cell phones.

I base this on the phenomenon we’re seeing today of large portions of the world that are skipping PCs completely and doing business in fields and other outdoor settings using cell phones. Text messaging to central databases is allowing for the trade of crops and livestock in a virtual auction, all financed with microcredit loans. But this doesn’t eliminate a keyboard. It just shrinks it to the 10 keys of a cell phone. That’s nowhere near an interface a builder can live with on the job.

Calling For Help

I’m imagining a time when the next generations of cell phones will allow for voice-to-text conversions, so online forums of knowledge and advice can be accessed remotely. Insights can be traded like wares in a marketplace similar to today’s developing world swap meets. All by talking into a cell phone.

(The skilled trade that would lead the way in the use of this new user interface would also be the most meticulous. I’m thinking of surgeons. Today surgeons and other physicians are sharing a tremendous amount of data as they consult across geographic and time boundaries. But an interface that allows for accessing this knowledge through speech instead of keystrokes could be a tremendous boon for someone whose hands are otherwise occupied.)

Advances in a cell phone’s camera and display capabilities would also accelerate this type of mobile consulting. When you’re facing a tough construction problem, often a picture really is worth a thousand words.

These are all my own speculations, based on watching the technology evolve and the demands of users. I look forward to seeing how things progress, and invite any reader insights on the matter. One thing I know for sure. It will take a some major changes in technology before we see the most unlikely of working stiffs: The plugged-in plumber and the digital drywaller.