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Tracking Assets

12 April 2011

A complete inventory of assets is the first step

Keeping track of the whereabouts of every item in an organisation can be laborious, but as Phil Helsey explains, technology is making it so much easier and cost-effective to audit, track and manage company assets

DURING A RECENT DISCUSSION ABOUT SECURITY with a client responsible for managing furniture stock across multiple office locations, he made a comment that sums up the challenge of effective asset management: ‘How can I say what’s gone missing if I don’t know what I’ve got and where it is?’ Asset management isn’t just a security issue, though that’s often the way problems come to light. Knowing what you’ve got is the first step towards making informed decisions about future purchases, managing your return on investment, understanding the value provided by suppliers and taking control of the lifecycle of your furniture, desk top IT, server equipment and network peripherals.
There’s a huge amount of capital tied up in company assets. A facilities manager responsible for running a cost-conscious operation will need to know the value of the assets under management, and will want to have an up-to-date asset register and the ability to redeploy, reuse or dispose of furniture and equipment.
The asset management process has two parts. First, asset discovery and answering that vital question, ‘How do I know what I’ve got and what its value is?’ Secondly, an effective computerbased asset management system.
The processes and systems described are those that Harrow Green has introduced into a number of organisations of various sizes, or developed for outsourced service providers.
Asset discovery
Once you’ve reached a certain level of complexity, with multiple workstations, desktops, laptops allocated for flexible working, chairs for offices, chairs for reception, new furniture for new branches, furniture to be matched, furniture to be repaired – it soon becomes a big, but not an unusual challenge: What have I got, how do I keep track, where do I start?
The logical place to begin is with the company’s own data. We collate information about each type of furniture or equipment under management and group these into categories: desks, seating, storage etc. to create a comprehensive database. Individual data fields are customised for the client. Typically we will end up with a descriptive catalogue that includes a photograph, product description, dimensions, manufacturer, supplier, item value, unique item reference.
But to create the asset inventory we need to visit each site, uniquely identify every item, assign each item to its category, add any missing information (including the condition) with the aim of creating an accurate database of the total number of pieces at every location.
Depending on the size of the project we will assign one or more project managers, an overall operational project manager and a technical project manager, managing the onsite audit teams and the collection and transfer of data. Onsite operatives work with mini-netbook computers, pre-populated with the client’s information. It’s a touch screen system. You look at the item of furniture in front of you, pick the category group (seating, for example), identify the individual item (e.g. operator chair) and then progress step by step to complete all the data fields. The operator doesn’t need any technical knowledge, but just follows the onscreen prompts, which ensure all the required fields are filled and prevent you from entering an incomplete entry into the database.
A unique barcode, made of durable polyester, is added to each item of furniture and unobtrusively located. The next barcode in sequence automatically comes up on screen and we just add the matching barcode from the top of a pre-printed reel. You don’t need to scan the barcode during the audit process. It’s very quick, easy and accurate. Of course, you may discover that the information provided by the client is incomplete, but you can add to the range and correct data as you go along. Photos can also be uploaded from a digital camera from any location.
Internet access
Data for each location is uploaded to a MySQL database and held in the ‘cloud’ for internet access by the client. Management reports can be output to Excel spreadsheets, so at any time the client has an overview of assets by location, by type or by product. Additionally, system features include the instant production of print-ready catalogues by product category which can include high level product information such as the total quantity owned.
Apart from the value of knowing what you’ve got and where everything is, the benefit of an accurate and easily accessible asset register comes with the ability to track and manage the movement of assets in and out of multiple locations or departments and storage facilities.
Keeping the inventory up-to-date is a simple process. Warehouse staff or security staff responsible for the movement of items – shipping furniture to another location or into store, booking in deliveries or allocating new furniture – can update the live inventory in real time with hand-held scanners that connect to the database through the local network.
Adding new items is a mirror image of the original inventory compilation process. The operative barcodes the item to be added, scans the barcode with the hand-held device, then goes through the touch screen process to complete the inventory entry and then upload it.No typing, no data entry.
Not only individual items of furniture have a barcode – buildings themselves can be barcoded. In businesses with multiple sites, each building can be given a building code, held at the reception desk, or operatives can be provided with a laminated catalogue of building locations. This facilitates both the receipt of new items and the transfer of items between building locations.
The system has the advantage of being able to tie together delivery notes and the asset management inventory. It means a better and more robust audit trail and a history of receipts, movements, deliveries and, ultimately, disposals. It creates a more secure asset environment and introduces control and authorisation protocols into what otherwise can become a loose array of local arrangements and informal telephone transactions. And it facilitates the reuse and relocation of furniture and equipment, allowing the client to make the most of a substantial investment, make better decisions about under-used assets and match new furniture or equipment to existing office suites in each location.
Being in control of the entire inventory and its value, with the ability to keep it current on a daily basis, makes the ongoing or annual audit process much easier. We provide clients with all the necessary hardware, software and training to collect barcode data in a simple scanning procedure for continuous real-time asset audit.
Uploaded into the database, the audit findings can be output as an exceptions report by location, so you can not only maintain an accurate inventory, but identify any patterns to discrepancies and asset movement that might need further investigation.
The whole system, including the data fields, is customised to meet the needs of each client. Of course we need to recognise that the information requirements of any client may change over time and with experience. With flexibility to configure the system in consultation with individual clients, and to add blank or free fields to anticipate later development, the online
inventory management system offers a secure, adaptable and efficient methodology for businesses large and small.
Certainly, for any company acting as an intermediary or third party service provider on behalf of several clients, having an accurate asset management system is an asset in itself. For companies and organisations trying to keep costs under control and sweat their assets, it’s indispensable.
Phil Helsey is Director of Technology Services at Harrow Greenwhich provides business relocation, warehousing and storage, records management, inventory and asset management services

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